The problems with the Post Office Horizon software is an issue that John has been aware of since becoming an MP when a constituent who had been involved in the situation briefed him. Since then he has joined colleagues to try to get to the bottom of the issue.
The Horizon system was installed in post offices across the country in 1999. The first concerns were raised in 2000. There is no doubt that there have been miscarriages of justice and over the years the extent of the problem has become more and more apparent. Last year a civil court case finally came to an end and following subsequent mediation a group of 550 sub-postmasters were awarded a £58million settlement of which around 80% was expected to be taken up by their legal and related costs.
Now that the civil case is completed the Government has announced an Independent Review of the situation The terms of this were set out by the Small Business and Postal Affairs Minister in a Written Statement to the House on 10th June.
In the discussion following this Urgent Question John raised his concerns at the fact that little of the money was going to compensate those who have suffered as a result of the problems.
John asked “Does the Minister not accept that this is as big a scandal as that of the Guildford Four? Although the settlement was reached by mediation, which I approve of, much of that settlement was taken away in cash for lawyers. Can we not do something to ensure that the settlement justifies the indignities that many of these people have had to suffer?”
The Minister said that the review would build on the extensive work of Mr Justice Fraser in the court proceedings whilst avoiding re-examining his work. Neither should the review encroach on the work of the Criminal Case Review Commission or the Court of Appeal which is looking at those sub-postmasters who were prosecuted as a result of the problems.
The debate now is whether an Independent Review is the right mechanism or whether there should be a judge-led public inquiry. In essence there is little difference between the terms of the review as set out by the Minister and what would be examined at a public inquiry. The fundamental difference is the time that it would take and further costs for lawyers.
As the Minister, Paul Scully MP, said “If we have a public inquiry, we tend to get a lot of expense, with both sides lawyering up, to use the vernacular. That is why £600 million has been spent in the last 30 years on public inquiries. We can either spend a lot of time in working on such a case, or we can get through a review, build on the work of the independent judge who has already looked at this case and has already built up the foundations, and make sure that we add to that by listening to the voices of those people who have gone through absolute hell”.
John added “What I want to see is a robust review that will ensure that we fully understand what went wrong, learn from the situation and have in place measures to ensure that such a situation cannot happen again. I cannot see the merit in repeating work that has already been done and I want to see this review carried out in the most efficient and cost-effective way.”
You can read the full discussion the Urgent Question in Hansard