Ministers under pressure to move swiftly to address Horizon Post Office scandal

Ministers are under pressure to address the miscarriage of justice suffered by hundreds of subpostmasters, as public anger over the Horizon IT scandal saw former Post Office boss Paula Vennells hand back her CBE.

It comes as the spotlight also turns on IT giant Fujitsu, after its faulty accounting software Horizon helped lead to the conviction of more than 700 Post Office branch managers.

Since 2012, the company has been awarded almost 200 contracts worth billions, with growing questions about why the Government has not severed ties with the firm in the wake of the scandal.

Bosses at Fujitsu have been called to answer questions from MPs on the Business and Trade Committee next week, after an ITV drama on the scandal fuelled public attention on the issue.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “In general, we consider companies’ conduct as part of the formal procurement process.

“So, once the full facts have been established by the inquiry, we will make further judgments, but it’s important we allow that process to take place.”

Post Office Horizon IT scandal
Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells is to hand back her CBE following the fallout of the Horizon IT scandal (Jeremy Durkin/PA)

Attention in recent days had turned to Ms Vennells, who ran the Post Office while it routinely denied there was a problem with its Horizon IT system and was appointed a CBE in December 2018.

Victims and campaigners welcomed her decision to hand back the honour, which came after 1.2 million people have signed a petition calling for her to be stripped of the CBE.

The independent Horizon Compensation Advisory Board will also meet later, after Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk on Tuesday said “active consideration” was being given to bringing forward legislation aimed at clearing the name of those caught up in the scandal.

The advisory board, whose members include long-time campaigners on the issue Labour MP Kevan Jones and Tory peer Lord Arbuthnot, last month wrote to Mr Chalk to call for Post Office convictions to be “overturned”.

Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake could join the meeting, with attendees likely expecting an update on any plans to quash convictions and efforts to accelerate compensation payments.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission would normally look at the individual convictions and potentially send them to the Court of Appeal. But the unprecedented scale of the Horizon scandal could require the extraordinary step of blanket legislation to clear the names of those affected.

Mr Chalk promised “further announcements shortly”, with Rishi Sunak likely to face questions about the Government’s response to the situation when he appears in the Commons for the first prime minister’s questions of the year.

A public inquiry into the scandal is ongoing.

Meanwhile, one of the subpostmasters who was affected by the scandal told the BBC he believed racism affected how he and his family were treated during the process.

Balvinder Gill, 45, said he was wrongly accused of stealing over £100,000 while his mother, who worked at the same branch in Oxford, was also found guilty of stealing £57,000 in 2009, before it was overturned in 2021.

He said: “My parents were spoken to as if they were idiots because they’re not white. They were made to feel like they didn’t understand the system and that they were stupid.”

Mr Gill called his family’s experience an “indirect, oppressive kind of racism”.

The Post Office told the BBC in response to the allegations they are doing “all they can to put right the wrongs of the past, including providing full and fair compensation for those affected”.

A statement said: “We share fully the aims of the public inquiry to get to the truth of what went wrong in the past and establish accountability.

“It’s for the inquiry to reach its own independent conclusions after consideration of all the evidence on the issues that it is examining.”

Will Mellor, who starred in the ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office and portrayed one of the victims, said the returning of Ms Vennells’ CBE was the “first step”.

“People are angered by it and they want something to be done, and you’ve seen what’s happened now with the petition, and it just shows us how strong we are when we come together,” he told the PA news agency.

A Fujitsu spokesman said: “The current Post Office Horizon IT statutory inquiry is examining complex events stretching back over 20 years to understand who knew what, when, and what they did with that knowledge.

“The inquiry has reinforced the devastating impact on postmasters’ lives and that of their families, and Fujitsu has apologised for its role in their suffering.

“Fujitsu is fully committed to supporting the inquiry in order to understand what happened and to learn from it. Out of respect for the inquiry process, it would be inappropriate for Fujitsu to comment further at this time.”