Nearly 100 MPs have signed a letter from Labour MP Kate Osbourne to the business secretary, calling for the government to give a group of 555 subpostmasters full and fair compensation for losses and suffering caused by the Post Office Horizon scandal.
Osbourne has also tabled an early day motion which could see MPs debate compensation for the 555 subpostmasters in Parliament.
The excluded subpostmasters are members of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), which took the Post Office to court over IT failures that were causing losses in branches, for which the subpostmasters were blamed. The 555 JFSA members won a multimillion-pound group litigation in the High Court, proving the Horizon system was to blame for the losses. They were awarded £57.75m damages, but after paying their legal costs, which were initially covered by litigation funders, they were left with about £11m to share.
In a letter to Kwasi Kwarteng, secretary of state for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BIES), signed by 93 other MPs, Kate Osborne MP wrote about concerns in Parliament that the 555 subpostmasters were being excluded from fair compensation.
“The exclusion of these litigants from the compensation scheme is having, and will continue to have, a direct and devastating impact on these individuals and their families, especially as they exposed the scandal against all odds and have been left with the legal bill for doing so,” Osborne wrote.
A computer system, known as Horizon, was introduced in 2000 to automate branch accounting, replacing paper-based processes. Subpostmasters almost immediately started suffering unexplained losses, which they were subsequently blamed for. Many were sacked, lost their businesses or made bankrupt. More than 700 were prosecuted and some spent time in prison. There are suicides linked to the scandal, and many others suffered and still suffer from stress-related illnesses caused by their experiences.
Kate Osborne, Labour MP
In 2009, Computer Weekly told the stories of seven subpostmasters affected by the problems, which led many more who had suffered losses to come forward and the establishment of the JFSA (see timeline below for Computer Weekly coverage of the scandal).
The 2019 High Court victory forced the Post Office, through government money, to compensate about 2,500 other subpostmasters affected and paved the way for subpostmasters to have wrongful criminal convictions for theft and false accounting overturned. So far, 72 have successfully appealed and will be compensated by the government. They were offered an interim payment of £100,000.
But the government, which has agreed to foot the compensation bill for the Post Office it 100% owns, continues to state that the compensation awarded to JSFA members after the court case was a full and final payment.
Osborne wrote in the letter: “It cannot be right that those who decided not to join the original litigation now have access to full and fair compensation whilst the group of 555 litigants have only recovered a tiny fraction of their losses.”
She urged the government to act quickly on awarding fair compensation: “All those affected by this scandal, including consideration given to the 555 litigants, have suffered deep distress and trauma, and have faced stigma throughout the last few years. They must receive compensation that is commensurate with the suffering they have faced. Failure to do this with speed will inevitably lead to further bankruptcies, loss of homes, potential further suicides, and death of those already at an advanced age before they are able to obtain justice and redress for their ordeal.”
Labour MP Kevan Jones, who has campaigned for justice for subpostmasters for over a decade, said: “Without the 555 subpostmasters successfully taking civil action, we would not have discovered the lies, deceit and subsequent cover-up by the Post Office, nor would we have had unsafe convictions overturned or the current judge-led statutory inquiry. It is time for the government to look again at why this group is currently carved out of existing compensation schemes and recognise that appropriate compensation must be put forward.”
Osbourne’s tabled early day motion, a process used by MPs to draw the attention of the House of Commons to a particular issue, reads: “This house believes that the 555 litigants who won civil proceedings against the Post Office should not be excluded from the Post Office Horizon compensation scheme; that the exclusion of these litigants from the compensation scheme is having and will continue to have a direct and devastating impact on these individuals and their families, especially as they exposed the scandal against all odds and have been left with the legal bill for doing so; resolves that all those affected by this scandal, including the 555 litigants, must receive compensation that is commensurate with the suffering they have faced; and strongly urges the government to put in place an external compensation scheme that is outside the scope of the Post Office and provide this group with the redress they not only deserve but are entitled to.”
In December 2021, BEIS minister Paul Scully acknowledged that if it were not for the 555 victims, the scandal might never have been fully revealed. “I recognise what they have done and that none of this would have been possible without their work,” he said. “The 555 performed a massive public service by exposing the wrongdoings of the Post Office and I recognise the deep frustration they have that the settlement with the Post Office is a full and final one and that they don’t qualify for compensation schemes.”
Scully said he had met some of the subpostmasters affected and would “continue to work with them to see what more we can do”.
But former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who chairs the JFSA, said Scully had not been working with the campaign group to resolve the issue.
In in recent letter to Bates, Scully reaffirmed the government’s view that the £57.75m was a full and final payment. He wrote: “So far as unconvicted subpostmasters who participated in the group litigation are concerned, your organisation has already agreed with the Post Office a full and final settlement which is understood to have catered for shortfalls.”