The Government is strengthening the investigation into the reasons why the post office managers have been falsely accused of crimes such as fraud, placing it on a statutory footing.
The decision, made by business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, means the investigation will have the power to compel witnesses to testify and demand documents. Anyone who does not comply with the new investigation or takes action to prevent them from facing a fine, jail time, or both.
It follows long-standing requests from MPs from the Northeast for a full statutory inquiry. Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah and North Durham MP Kevan Jones are among those who have criticized the original plans for a less powerful investigation.
A landmark Court of Appeal ruling cleared the names of 39 former deputy postmasters who were convicted and, in some cases, jailed for theft, fraud and false accounting. It is believed that there have been around 900 lawsuits against innocent people in what has been called the biggest miscarriage of justice in history.
Blaydon MP Liz Twist said: “I welcome the move to a statutory inquiry.” However, she asked for assurances that the investigation would follow the set timetable, which includes the publication of its findings next year.
North Durham MP Kevan Jones said: “Now is the time we get full disclosure and we get justice for those who have been wronged.” He stressed that while the post is a business, it is 100% government owned.
The Post has charged the postmasters with offenses over accounting errors caused by a faulty computer system called Horizon, developed by Fujitsu.
In March, the Court of Appeal learned that the Post knew that Horizon had “flaws and bugs from the first days of its operation.”
Among those falsely accused of wrongdoing is ex-policeman Peter Holmes, a postmaster from Jesmond who died in October 2015 at the age of 76, still fighting to clear his name.
When more than £ 46,000 disappeared from his books in 2008, Peter was forced to admit four counts of false accounting in order for prosecutors to drop charges of theft of the money, which could have seen him sent in prison.
In fact, Peter was one of many people wrongly pursued by the post.
The father of three had never committed the crimes that would prevent him from finding new paid work, or even volunteer positions, and left him feeling withdrawn and depressed.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We must stand with the postmasters to get to the bottom of what went wrong in the Post Office Horizon IT dispute. I have heard firsthand the irreparable impact that ‘it took over their lives.
“That is why, in light of the recent judgment of the Court of Appeal, we are intensifying our independent investigation by putting it on a statutory footing, so that we can get the answers they deserve.”
The change means the investigation will take longer, and there are now plans to release a final report in fall 2022, rather than next year. However, the chairman of the inquiry, Sir Wyn Williams, will issue a progress report this summer.
Postmaster General Paul Scully said: “The Horizon dispute has destroyed the lives of postmasters and their families – its impact cannot be overstated.
“We are determined to ensure that this does not happen again, which is why we launched this investigation last year to shed light on Horizon’s failings.
“Sir Wyn and I are both of the opinion that the context of the investigation has changed in light of the Court of Appeal decision and that now is the right time to convert the investigation into a legal basis.
“While the Inquiry has already made significant progress, these additional powers will ensure that the Inquiry has access to all the information it needs to establish the truth.”
The overarching objectives of the Inquiry – to ensure that the right lessons have been learned and to determine what needs to change – will remain in place. However, in light of the Court of Appeal ruling, its terms of reference will be updated to reflect this ruling and the need for a thorough analysis of the events that led to the Horizon scandal.