MPs call for Post Office removal from Horizon IT scandal compensation schemes

MPs have called for the Post Office to be removed from compensation schemes linked to the Horizon IT scandal.

The Business and Trade Committee issued a report on Thursday that said the company is “not fit for purpose to administer any of the schemes of redress required to make amends for one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history”.

The committee has now demanded an independent body be established to help victims “through every stage of their compensation claims” – describing the current redress process as an “abject failure”.

The Post Office said it would have no objection in relinquishing its role in delivering redress to victims.

Chief executive Nick Read has also been accused of supplying “misleading evidence” to MPs relating to the company’s use of non-disclosure agreements and PR firms.

The report also calls for legally binding timeframes for when redress should be delivered to affected subpostmasters in order to stop “unacceptable delays” – an idea suggested by lead campaigner Alan Bates during his evidence to MPs last week.

Chairman of the committee Liam Byrne labelled it a “national disgrace” that “only £1 in £5 of the budget for compensation has been issued” to subpostmasters.

The report also recommends removing a cap on victims’ legal expenses and the introduction of a standardised set of tariffs to help estimate what they are entitled to.

Mr Byrne said: “Justice delayed is justice denied. And bluntly justice has been denied to our innocent subpostmasters for far too long.

“It’s high time for the circus of recent weeks to end and for cheques to start landing on the doormats of innocent victims.

“We now know the Post Office knew of problems 20 years ago.

“Yet at best, only £1 in £5 of the budget for compensation has been issued. That is a national disgrace.”

Mr Byrne said Post Office bosses were in “utter disarray” following bullying allegations made by the company’s former chairman Henry Staunton against Mr Read.

He continued: “The spectacle of the battle between the Post Office chief executive and its former chairman light up a simple truth; that the top of the Post Office is in utter disarray and not fit for purpose to run the payouts to former sub-postmasters.

“Its involvement in running Post Office redress schemes has to end and ministers must create a new, independent body set up that will genuinely help victims through their every stage of their compensation claims.”

Post Office Horizon IT scandal
Alan Bates, former subpostmaster, suggested that the Post Office be removed from compensation schemes, an idea now being called for by MPs (Lucy North/PA)

Addressing how the committee believed delays in delivering compensation should be tackled, Mr Byrne said: “To guarantee this scandal drags on no longer, we have to enshrine into law an idea proposed by Mr Bates, of legally binding timetables for payouts.

“Any new bill that the Government presents to parliament, must now pass the ‘Mr Bates Test’ of legally binding timeframes for settling justice.

“Finally, we have to make sure that fast compensation is fair compensation.

“Otherwise, we risk innocent subpostmasters (facing) a new prison of poverty. We cannot and must not let that happen.”

The Post Office has come under fire following the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, which put the Horizon IT scandal under the spotlight.

More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

Hundreds of subpostmasters are still awaiting compensation despite the Government announcing those who have had convictions quashed are eligible for £600,000 payouts.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Post Office said: “Post Office welcomes the direction of this report into speeding redress for one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history, and we will study its recommendations carefully.

“While £179 million has been delivered in redress to victims of this scandal, and settlements reached with 2,700 postmasters, more needs to be done.

“Post Office would have no objection to relinquishing our role in administering redress.

“Whatever is decided, we will continue to work with Government, Parliament and the independent Advisory Board to do everything possible to speed up justice and redress for victims of this terrible scandal.”