The government is leaving it up to the statutory public inquiry into the Post Office scandal to ascertain if and what ministers or senior civil servants knew of the Post Office attempt to have a judge kicked off a multi-million pound court battle against former subpostmasters.
In an answer to an urgent question requesting information about who in government knew about the Post Office’s plan to recuse that judge and when they knew it, the Department of Business and Trade said it was up to the ongoing statutory public inquiry to investigate.
Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who led the campaign for justice, said the government seems to be leaving everything until the end of the inquiry. “All they are doing is dragging it out,” he said.
In March 2019, while subpostmasters were in the High Court attempting to prove errors in the computer system caused unexplained shortfalls and not them, the Post Office questioned the impartiality of the judge overseeing the trial, Peter Fraser, and called for him to be removed from the case.
The recusal application was widely seen as a delaying tactic by the Post Office and an attempt to ramp up costs, after damning evidence had emerged over the course of the court battle, which began in November 2018.
Bates said: “It seemed like a delaying tactic designed to stretch the limited budget” of the subpostmasters, and one that would prevent damaging information getting out into public.
Fraser rejected the application, the Court of Appeal rejected the Post Office’s appeal and Lord Justice Coulson, in the Court of Appeal, said: “The recusal application never had any substance and was rightly rejected by the judge.” It led to a delay in proceedings and added significant costs for the subpostmasters and taxpayers who picked up the Post Office’s legal bill.
Last month, Labour peer Prem Nath Sikka asked the Department of Business and Trade an urgent question about what the government knew about the Post Office legal team’s plan.
Sikka asked: “…whether any minister or official at the former department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had any knowledge of, or involvement in, the attempt by lawyers for the Post Office to have Mr Justice Fraser removed from his role as judge in the case Bates and Others vs Post Office; and if so, when they first became aware of the Post Office’s attempts.”
The government, through peer Malcom Ian Offiord, used the ongoing public inquiry to avoid answering the question. “These are matters for the statutory Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry,” he said. “It would be wrong to prejudice its work.”
The Post Office scandal, often referred to as the widest miscarriage of justice in modern UK history, saw the Post Office blame thousands of subpostmasters for accounting shortfalls that were actually caused by the Post Office’s retail and accounting system, known as Horizon. Hundreds were prosecuted, with over 200 sent to prison. Thousands were forced to cover unexplained shortfalls, but the High Court case, a group litigation order (GLO), proved the Horizon system was error-prone and could cause accounting shortfalls.
Computer Weekly first exposed the scandal in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered as a result of the Horizon system.
The ongoing public inquiry has been running since May 2022, and is currently completing phase four of a planned seven phases. The next phase, which is expected later this year, will look at the conduct of the GLO.
The stakes have increased for the government now the scandal is part of the national discourse. Since the airing of a drama about the scandal on ITV, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, it has hit the headlines and dominated the news for the first couple of weeks of the year. Nothing new emerged in the drama over what was already known and reported on, but it shocked and angered the nation.
What the government knew about the actions of the government-owned Post Office and the problems with its core IT system is now of heightened interest. The government describes the Post Office as “an arm’s-length” public sector body, with the government not getting involved in its business decisions. A member of the government does, however, sit on the Post Office board.
With a general election around the corner, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all have questions to answer over the scandal that lasted nearly decades.
Separately, Bates has turned down an initial offer of compensation from the Post Office, which he described as “derisory”.
Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal.
Watch: ITV’s Post Office scandal documentary, Mr Bates vs the Post Office: The real story.