UK Post Office Horizon scandal: How moves to clear victims unfolded at Westminster and why former Scotland MP says scandal is 'stain across the political divide'

Questions were raised over why the UK Government are only acting on the Post Office Horizon scandal now

This was a week dominated by the Post Office Horizon IT scandal, with new legislation clearing the convicted promised by both the UK and Scottish governments.

The announcement has been widely welcomed, and garnered positive headlines for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, but it cannot be forgotten this crisis took place under consecutive administrations. Rishi Sunak is not addressing an issue that arose during his tenure, but a historic injustice those in power have repeatedly failed to act on.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office prosecuted operators of sub-post offices across the UK, accusing them of theft, fraud and false accounting. More than 900 people were prosecuted by the Post Office, with 3,500 accused, despite clear issues with the software and protestations of innocence. In Scotland, around 100 sub-postmasters were convicted after they were wrongly accused of embezzling money, and First Minister Humza Yousaf this week pledged to get “justice” for those involved.

The Government has been slow to act on the Post Office scandal.The Government has been slow to act on the Post Office scandal.
The Government has been slow to act on the Post Office scandal.

To make matters worse, the Post Office knew the Horizon IT system was faulty from at least 2010.

It is vital, albeit depressing, to know we are here not because of extensive investigation and work by the UK or Scottish governments, but instead because of a TV show. An independent public inquiry was also established in September 2020 that produced further evidence, but it is ITV’s dramatisation of the scandal, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, which catapulted the issue into the discourse. It gave politicians an issue everyone could agree on, but nobody seems to be able to take the blame for.

Alan Bates, whose relentless campaigning was the focus of the show, fought for 20 years to secure justice for himself, along with others wrongfully convicted. This issue is not new. In 2019, a group of Post Office operators won a High Court case in which their convictions were ruled wrongful and the Horizon IT system was ruled to be at fault. In 2021, the ruling was upheld on appeal, quashing the convictions of some workers who were wrongly accused of committing crimes, paving the way for compensation. Nothing was done. But with the story now more widely told, Mr Sunak had to act.

While the announcement took place on Wednesday, it is understood ministers were locked in talks late on Tuesday trying to come up with a solution, with some MPs worried about Parliament interfering in a matter for the courts, fearing it could be difficult purely in terms of admin.

But intervene they did, with legislation promised immediately, raising the question, was it this easy to fix all along? There will now be an “upfront payment of £75,000” for 555 sub-postmasters in England and Wales pursued in civil cases by the Post Office.

Mr Sunak called the scandal “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history”, pledging to “rewrite the wrongs of the past”.

The problem for Mr Sunak, along with many other political parties, is they are all responsible for the wrongs.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Former Labour MP Dennis Canavan, who served as the MP for Falkirk West from 1974 to 2000 and was an independent MSP for eight years from 1999, explained the Post Office crisis was a stain across the political divide.

He said: “Successive government ministers have been asleep at the wheel. The politicians were late in the day in waking up to the gravity of this scandal, and if it hadn’t been for the courage and tenacity of Alan Bates in pursuing the case for over 20 years, he fought so hard for justice.

"The ITV programme was excellent, but there’s a fault in the political system when it takes a programme produced by ITV to bring pressure on the politicians. Before that, they were slow to recognise the gravity of the situation, and slow to respond.

“The Post Office is entirely publicly owned, and there’s a minister with responsibility for the Post Office, but successive ministers failed in their responsibilities. They should look at their positions. Similarly, I think people in senior management positions in the Post Office should do the same. Frankly heads should roll.”

Mr Canavan, who was chair of the Advisory Board of Yes Scotland, also took aim at ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells, who has said she will return her CBE.

He said: “Giving up an imperial gong costs nothing at all, she should be made to pay. She came across as very incompetent and very arrogant.

"As far as her and other members of management, particularly in the branch of investigations, what’s already come out is there is a huge degree of arrogance, incompetence and bullying went on from senior officials, several of them very highly paid officials. They should be made to pay a share of the compensation. There should also be an investigation into ‘where did the money go?’”.

Ms Vennells is not the only figure to be targeted. Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey is separately facing questions about his role in the scandal. The MP served as postal affairs minister between 2010 and 2012 in the coalition government, and was accused of having “fobbed off” sub-postmasters. Tory MPs, including the deputy party chair Lee Anderson, are demanding Sir Ed resign, while the SNP claim he must return his knighthood.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Sir Ed insists he was lied to by Post Office officials, but that has done little to calm the mood. Missing at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) to look after his disabled son, that didn’t stop Tory MPs mocking Sir Ed’s absence in the chamber.

Giving an interview on Friday, the Lib Dem leader repeatedly refused to apologise, instead insisting he “regrets” being lied to. Even on matters like this, optics are everything.

The issue is also set to be addressed in Scotland, with the First Minister offering to work with the UK Government to deliver UK-wide legislation, rather than taking a devolved approach.

It is also of note while SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn used his questions at PMQs to lay blame with Westminster, in England the cases were brought by the Post Office, whereas in Scotland it was brought by the Crown Office.

Mr Flynn said: “This isn’t just a plague on all their houses, this is a plague on this House itself. Because injustice goes far beyond just the sub-postmasters. The SNP Westminster leader listed other scandals including the infected blood inquiry, Grenfell and Hillsborough, among others.

However, Mr Canavan insisted there was still much to be done in Scotland, explaining the Scottish Government had its own questions to answer.

He said: “On this issue, Humza has taken the correct decision, he said he will consult the UK government. He seemed to be referring to the possibility of Westminster passing UK-wide legislation, rather than the Scottish Parliament passing a different Bill.

"In other words, this would be a good example of Westminster and Holyrood co-operating to ensure a speedy process of justice, rather than what we’ve seen in the past, political point scoring from both.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Having said that, there is a Scottish dimension to it, which should not be ignored, that the prosecutions in Scotland were not done by the Post Office, they were done by the Crown Office.

"And the Crown Office in Scotland is headed by the Lord Advocate. I am surprised that the Lord Advocate did not give a statement to the Scottish Parliament, and I think she should as soon as possible, and give MSPs the chance to ask questions as to how these prosecutions took place in the first instance, and how to ensure fair compensation.”

There was also anger from Labour’s shadow Scotland secretary, Ian Murray, who pointed the finger at the SNP. He said: “I have long pressed the government to get a grip, including questioning the postal minister in 2013 in Parliament.

“It’s shocking it’s taken a TV drama to get this sorted, but sorted it must be. In Scotland, postmasters were prosecuted by the Crown Office, while the Lord Advocate sits in the Scottish Cabinet.

“It is not good enough for Humza Yousaf to try to wash hands of this, and it’s taken far too long to get here. The SNP has been in charge for 16 years in Scotland and pursued the sub-postmasters through the Scottish justice system and they must do all they can, now, to sort this travesty of justice."

Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain is set to appear before MSPs to face questions on the Horizon scandal, the Crown Office has announced, as early as next week.

As of last month, 142 appeal case reviews had been completed out of 900 people convicted. A total of 93 convictions were overturned and 54 upheld, withdrawn or denied permission to appeal. While £24 million has been paid out in relation to overturned convictions, the Post Office has been accused of delaying its payments. Dozens of victims died before getting compensation.

As result, there is clearly still work to be done, both in terms of bringing the legislation and ensuring there is justice. Mr Canavan compared the case to the lessons that should have been learned from the 1984-85 miners’ strike, from his time on the panel that conducted a review of the policing of the strike in Scotland.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He said: “[With] the miners, it’s still unfinished business, they never got compensation. We need a change of Government.

"I hope if we do get a Labour Government later this year, they will back the sort of Bill that went through the Scottish Parliament to pardon them, but also give them compensation. If and when Labour gets into power in Westminster, they should bring forward legislation to extend the pardon to miners elsewhere in the UK, and give them compensation.”

At the Post Office inquiry this week, a legal representative for the group said he understands the “profound mistrust in many quarters” following a litany of disclosure failings. Westminster and Holyrood have finally acted, but the ongoing inquiry continues to highlight just how awful this miscarriage of justice is.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.