9 January 2024
Post Office Ltd Horizon Software Scandal

The mistreatment of sub-postmasters by the Post Office as a result of the Horizon software scandal was a massive miscarriage of justice, in which the legitimate complaints of innocent sub-postmasters were treated with appalling institutional contempt – even long after it had become clear that there was a serious failure in the software.

The resulting hounding of innocent sub-postmasters – treated as guilty until they could prove their innocence – made to pay huge amounts in respect of non-existent “losses” to the Post Office, resulting in unfair dismissals, bankruptcies and many cases of imprisonment and in several cases sub-postmasters taking their own lives is a national scandal.

I first became aware of the issue here in Mid Norfolk when several postmasters around the constituency contacted me during my time as a parliamentary candidate before 2010. After 2010 as the MP, when working to save our 3 rural Post Offices threatened by the Post Office with closure, during which several postmasters mentioned the software issues. At first I suspected it was part of a financial campaign by the Post Office to close rural post offices on the grounds of low financial viability.  But it soon became clear from my constituency inbox that the problem was widespread which is why, over the years, I have taken their cases extremely seriously and provided support – meeting with them at constituency surgeries, making representations to ministers, raising in the House and as a Minister. 

As so many of us know, local post offices play a crucial role in our local towns and villages. They are a hub in so many of our communities, bringing people together and providing vital services to households and businesses – services particularly depended upon by our most vulnerable and elderly.  That’s why over the years, I’ve been such a supporter of local post office branches across Mid Norfolk – from fighting for the SubPostmaster and continued services at Gressenhall Post Office (see here and here) to helping Watton secure a new home for its High Street branch at Edwards Newsagents (see and here and here), and from opening the community shop and post office in Rocklands (see here) to now working with Attleborough councillors as efforts to return a branch to the town High Street continue.

The importance of the service our local branches provide in a rural area like ours cannot be overstated  – and I will continue to do all I can to stand up for and support them.

The inquiry into the Horizon scandal – and now this TV and film exposé exposing the full story of the cover-up – has rightly shocked and appalled the nation. This should never have happened - and it should have been resolved properly years ago when it first became clear that there was a software problem.  The fact that it’s been dragged out for years with innocent SubPostmasters put through hell long after the point at which senior management and officials in the relevant Government departments knew that the software was faulty is a disgrace. 

The story has connected with the public because it seems to represent the seemingly deepening trend in our country of unaccountable management and officials in comfy jobs hiding behind software & bureaucratic technical excuses whilst the public increasingly suffer in frustrated silence, and a lack of political scrutiny and accountability of too many in senior positions.

I’m therefore delighted that the full scale of the scandal is finally getting the public scrutiny and attention it deserves and why I welcomed the opportunity to be present in the House on the first day of the new Parliamentary session for the urgent debate secured on the scandal and why I will continue to ensure my affected constituents, as well as my constituents who are more widely (and rightly) concerned, are heard.

I am delighted that following pressure from the Honours Committee and PM Paula Vennells CBE is being withdrawn. 

Alan Bates, the SubPostmaster who led the campaign, should have it instead in honour of all those who have been so appalling treated. 

But the size and scale of this miscarriage of justice demands more than just an apology and promises of “never again”. 

Public trust in the very fabric of our structure and culture of public administration, law, democratic accountability, Parliamentary scrutiny and justice demands Ministers act with the urgency and boldness that the scale of this saga demands.

That’s why I’m calling for:

  • an Act of Parliament to
  • absolve all of the sub-postmasters
  • expedite compensation for ALL those affected - including the invented “losses” that SubPostmasters were forced to pay to the Post Office
  • criminal convictions against the Post Office and other senior officials responsible for this injustice
  • full recommendation of the reforms proposed by Sir Wyn Williams’ Horizon IT Public Inquiry to ensure the right lessons are learned - about public accountability for HMG owned bodies, the contractual failings in the procurement of the software, the failings in the legal system and the inexcusable delays with compensation once it became clear that the Sub Postmasters had been wrongfully treated. 

This is a story of deep and systemic failure at the heart of our system of public administration which demands more than just an apology.

It is incumbent on all those who have been involved over the last 20yrs to make sure not just that justice is done - vital though that  is - but that the political establishment as a whole can show it is capable of confronting its palpaple failures and  learning the lessons and making the necessary reforms.  Because this is ultimately about public trust in our systems of government, Parliament, public administration, law and justice. 

Which is precisely why it’s connected so deeply with the public: it’s a story of establishment cover-up by the governing elites in public administration at the expense of the law abiding “little guy” who has all too little voice or power.

It’s this crisis of “unaccountable elites” which I - and others - have been writing and speaking and warning about for over 20yrs.  And which in the public’s view has actually worsened in recent years. As I have said often I believe the EU Referendum was as much about this - the failure of our own political economy - as it was about the EU.  It’s partly why the call to “Take Back Control” resonated so strongly.


That’s why on my only personal exposure to the case as a Minister on the one occasion when I was required by the Department to deputise in a House of Commons debate for the absent Minister for postal affairs I refused to simply read out the speech prepared by departmental officials and insisted on a half day of full briefing meetings from all the officials and Post Office management involved so that I could be confident of the facts before accounting to Parliament for the Department. I remember specifically asking to speak to Paula Vennells but her refusing to meet me without her lawyer present. 

Although it was not my Ministerial portfolio responsibility I flagged with the Secretary of State at the time that it felt like the Post Office and officials were actively doing everything possible to avoid any acceptance of any responsibility and support the PO managenent line that the responsibility was all on the Sub Postmasters. 

Credit is due to my Colleagues Paul Scully MP and Kevin Hollinrake MP who as Post Office Ministers *did* grip it and insist on culpability being accepted by the Post Office and compensation paid.

Later in 2021, then as Minister of State for Science, Research and Innovation, I was again required to deputise at a subsequent debate on this crucial issue (see the Hansard record here) I made a point of stressing the importance of righting the appalling injustice sub-postmasters had faced – emphasising the impact on a number here in Mid Norfolk and specifically mentioning Gressenhall where I had seen the profound impact and misery this scandal had inflicted upon the family that had run the post office there (see that specific point recorded on Hansard here).

video clip  here

This scandal is about so many things - but at its heart it’s about a systemic failure over many years of scrutiny, responsibility and accountability. 

That’s what makes this such a scandal.  And why it demands such a serious response. 

I’ve always believed very strongly that one of the key strengths of our Parliamentary democracy is that Ministers of the Crown are accountable to their peers in an elected Parliament and to their sovereign and their constituents over and above their collective responsibility to the particular Government of the day.  That’s how we ensure Government serves the people rather than the other way around. 

Having Ministers who owe a primary loyalty of sworn allegiance to the Crown, Law, and Parliament before becoming Ministers of the Crown is one of the key pillars of our constitutional system of democratic defence against tyranny.

When the instinct of the Whitehall or bureaucratic or corporate machine is to defend itself at all costs and admit no possibility of culpability or responsibility, as sometimes happens,  the primary duty of Ministers not to mislead Parliament means they MUST test and cross-examine all official Departmental briefings and be sure that they are personally comfortable to put their career on the line defending the Government position at the Despatch Box.  That is the responsibility that goes with the privilege of holding Office. 

In my 13 years in Parliament as a Minister across several Departments, I’ve seen the standards and conventions of Parliamentary accountability and sovereignty eroded in a number of ways.

It urgently needs repairing and restoring.

Both to avoid miscarriages of justice and lack of transparency in Whitehall in cases like the Post Office Horizon scandal and to repair public trust in our Parliamentary democracy.