POLITICS ACROSS THE POND — Member of the British Parliament, Andrew Bridgen, calls for a judge-led inquiry into the Post Office Horizon software scandal.

In 2010 as a newly elected Member of Parliament, nothing prepared me for a constituent surgery appointment with a married couple who gave me their account of how they were treated by the Post Office. The Post Office is a state-owned private company limited by shares with the shares held by UK Government Investments (UKGI), which is as the name suggests is wholly owned by the Government. The Government through UKGI subsidizes the Post Office’s activities, mainly in rural areas where often it is the last shop in the village. Because of this, the Post Office is widely regarded as a much loved British institution.

Susan Vineyard - stock.adobe.com

The experiences of my constituents and their claims were truly shocking and almost unbelievable. They involved corporate misconduct, false prosecution, victimization, sequestration of assets, and a long-running cover-up. The claims were extraordinary enough, without adding to the fact that they were allegedly being perpetrated effectively by an arm of the Government itself. It would have been easy to dismiss this couple as merely being cranks or delusional and MPs meet their fair share of those people, but there was something about this couple who presented themselves to me with their problem. 

I considered what these individuals had to gain by recounting their story to me and reliving the trauma they had been through.

They were intelligent, articulate, and appeared very genuine, despite clearly being broken and traumatized by the whole affair. They had both been Sub-postmasters for many years and without their recent issues with the Post Office, would have been considered pillars of the community. I also considered what these individuals, if really guilty and they had been found guilty in a court, had to gain by recounting their story to me and reliving the trauma they had obviously been through. I decided to pick up their case and speak to other MP’s asking if any of their constituents had reported similar experiences, which to my surprise they had.

In 2011 we formed the MP Review Group made up of 3 Conservative and 2 Labour MP’s, and proceeded to meet with senior representatives of the Sub-postmasters and also the senior management of the Post Office to discover what had gone wrong, and why so many people were claiming that had been falsely convicted of false accounting and theft after running a local Post Office both honestly and successfully in many cases for decades.

The Post Office was always accompanied by very expensive lawyers and appeared extremely defensive, aloof and evasive.

The meetings were surreal and polar opposites. Our meetings with representatives of the Sub-postmasters were open and frank, they were hugely grateful for a hearing and for anyone willing to listen to their grievances. They came across as honest and convincing, which was in complete contrast to our meetings with the top management of the Post Office, who was always accompanied by very expensive lawyers and appeared extremely defensive, aloof and evasive.

http://adobestock.com/ The crux of the issue was that the sub-postmasters claimed that the software system (Horizon) which they were forced to use by the Post Office to transact all of their business was faulty whilst the Post Office maintained that it was a “watertight Rolls Royce system” which did not have any bugs. Under huge pressure from the MP Review Group, we eventually forced the Post Office senior directors to agree (since they maintained they had nothing to hide and no issues with their IT system) to allow a team of independent forensic accountants to look at the Horizon system and its functionality. 

Unfortunately, my colleagues overruled me, something we, 2ndSight, and the sub-postmasters would all ultimately come to regret.

Through my former contacts in business and the Institute of Directors, I suggested a firm called Second Sight, a team of very experienced fraud investigators were used. The question of who should pay for the forensic accountants was raised, and the Post Office offered to pay as they were so confident of their system and protocols. I suggested that the Government, as the ultimate owner, should pay to ensure that the investigation was truly independent of the Post Office, and avoid the risk that if faults were discovered in the Horizon system, the Post Office would exert pressure on Second Sight. Unfortunately, my colleagues overruled me, something we,  Second Sight, and the sub-postmasters would all ultimately come to regret.
The forensic investigation started and very soon I was taking clandestine calls from the lead investigator reporting that he had never seen an organization like the Post Office before and that he was coming up against huge resistance to disclosure of information and a lack of cooperation, surprising from an organization which claimed its IT system was bombproof. The investigation ground on for years and the relationship between Second Sight and the Post Office continued to deteriorate, with the Board of the Post Office demanding reports from Second Sight were redacted before being released to the MP Review Group and the sub-postmasters representatives and even threats of legal action being made by the Post Office against Second Sight themselves and their directors, these were not in my view the actions of an innocent party.

The contract which dictated the relationship between the two parties was not one of partnership.

Despite the protestations of the Post Office board of directors and largely due to the huge moral fortitude of the lead forensic investigator the investigation ground on and the truth started to drip out. In a nutshell, the contract an aspiring Sub-postmaster had to sign to take up their position as part of the Post Office “franchise” was heavily stacked in the Post Office’s favor. The agreement which dictated the relationship between the two parties was not one of partnership, it forced the Sub-Postmasters to use the Horizon system and become personally liable for any shortfall of funds in their Post Office branch. The relationship between Sub-Postmasters and the Post Office was clearly an archaic one of master and servant which I described as “feudal” in a debate in Parliament in 2014.

The Post Office also held prosecution powers, which meant that it did not have to consult the Police or the criminal prosecution service to put a Sub-Postmaster in court to recover alleged shortfalls in takings. They had all the resources of the state, expensive lawyers and in Court, the case would always be “The Crown vs …………”.

Tupungato - stock.adobe.comDuring the Court proceedings, the Post Office always maintained their case that the Horizon IT system was perfect and so any shortfall must be down to theft or error in the Sub-Postmasters premises. They also maintained that it was not possible for anyone to remotely alter the data in a Sub-Postmasters computer without leaving a record that could be seen. History shows that the judges in these cases believed the Post Office, and why wouldn’t they, given the compelling evidence? Many cases did not go to court and Sub-Postmasters were forced to “repay” sums they always maintained they did not owe, under the threat of being charged with false accounting.

The real bombshell for the “bombproof” Horizon system came in 2014 when a Fujitsu whistleblower disclosed to the forensic accountants that he had worked on sorting bugs and problems in the Horizon system along-side many others and that they had secretly and remotely altered data in individual Sub-postmasters computers.

With regards to the Horizon system itself, many problems and glitches were uncovered by Second Sight, particularly when the system was modified to deliver extra services such as foreign currency exchange and cash point machines in the branches. The real bombshell for the “bombproof” Horizon system came in 2014 when a Fujitsu whistle-blower disclosed to the forensic accountants that he had worked on sorting bugs and problems in the Horizon system alongside many others and that they had secretly and remotely altered data in individual Sub-Postmasters computers.

Apparently, the Post Office had Fujitsu on a penalty clause for errors in their contract to support the Horizon system and because Fujitsu did not want to pay the penalties they were sorting them out themselves. This revelation that remote data manipulation in individual Post Office branches was possible and happening without leaving a digital fingerprint blew a hole in the Post Office’s prosecution cases and at the same time made potentially thousands of criminal convictions of Sub-Postmasters (many of whom were imprisoned) unsafe.

At this point, a group of Sub-Postmasters launched a prolonged and much-publicized legal action against the Post Office and this precluded any further direct intervention in the case by elected Members Of Parliament. The legal case went on for years and probably cost over £100m in total. The litigation was dragged out due to the Post Office using huge amounts of taxpayers’ money, delaying, objecting to the judge’s impartiality, and appealing decisions repeatedly. Ultimately the High Court found in favor of the Sub-Postmasters and against the Post Office in December 2019. The judge concluded that “ the Post Office IT system was not remotely robust” and there was a “material risk” that shortfalls in Post Office branches were caused by Horizon.

On reflection, what have I learnt from this long running saga? 

So is this a happy, if overdue, ending? Not really, the whole scandal probably represents the biggest miscarriage of justice, by the number of false convictions, in our country’s history, easily running to over 1000 and undoubtedly many more people who were coerced into repaying money due to failings of the IT system they did not owe.

I recently met again with the constituents who brought the case to me in 2010, and they are of course pleased that they have been vindicated,  but the 11-year ordeal has understandably weighed heavily on them both.

I alongside Kevan Jones Labour MP for North Durham, the only other original member of the MP Review Group who still holds elected office, are now asking colleagues in the House of Commons, many of whom were not even elected when this issue first came to our attention, to join with us in lobbying Government to get proper compensation for the victims, the unsafe criminal prosecutions overturned and also to ensure that there is a full judge-led inquiry into how this was allowed to happen in the first place to equally ensure it can never happen again.

 On reflection, what have I learned from this long-running saga? 

 Just because you are powerful does not mean that you are right and just because you appear powerless does not mean that you cant get justice in the end.

 Thinking back to that first meeting with those broken constituents all those years ago and what at first appeared unbelievable claims, reminds me that fiction has to be believable the truth, unfortunately, does not.

Read morePolitics Across The Pond, a weekly exclusive column by Andrew Bridgen, Member of the UK Parliament. 

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Andrew Bridgen is a Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire.

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