Starmer demands answers about BBC Horizon story

1 month ago 31

Sir Keir StarmerImage source, House of Commons/UK Parliament

By Ben King

Business reporter, BBC News

Sir Keir Starmer has called on the government to reveal what ministers knew about the cancelling of an investigation which may have cleared sub-postmasters in 2016.

The existence of the investigation was revealed by the BBC on Tuesday.

"What did government ministers know about it at the time?" the leader of the opposition asked.

The prime minister replied that the government had set up a statutory Inquiry.

The questions came after the BBC discovered that David Cameron's government knew in 2016 that an investigation into the flawed Horizon IT system had been cancelled.

Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were wrongly prosecuted after faults with computer software made it look like money was missing from their branches.

If the investigation into the system had shown that Horizon records could be altered remotely, it could have helped sub-postmasters prove their innocence much earlier.

But records seen by the BBC show that the minister responsible for the Post Office at the time, Baroness Neville-Rolfe, was told it should be cancelled on legal advice when a group of sub-postmasters launched legal action.

Mr Cameron was prime minister at the time, though there is no evidence in emails seen by the BBC that he knew about the investigation, or had knowledge the probe had been ditched.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe has told the BBC she had said publicly that she had instructed the Post Office chairman to commission an independent review, but declined to comment further while the inquiry into the scandal was ongoing.

At Prime Ministers' Questions, Labour leader Sir Keir asked Mr Sunak: "Had that investigation revealed that [Horizon records] could be altered, which we now know to be the case, the livelihoods of those wrongly prosecuted could have been saved.

"What did government ministers know about it at the time?"

The prime minister responded saying Sir Keir "had picked one particular date but this scandal has unfolded over decades" and "it was actually after a landmark 2019 High Court case that the previous [Conservative] government established a statutory inquiry, led by Sir Wyn Williams, which is uncovering exactly what went wrong.

"It is right that that inquiry is allowed to do its work," he said.

Mr Sunak added that following the High Court case the government "established an independent advisory board, established not one but three different compensation schemes, and as of now over two thirds of people have received full and final offers, because what we are focused on is making sure that the victims get the justice and the compensation that they deserve".

Mr Starmer asked whether the prime minister had thought of asking Lord Cameron, who is now Foreign Secretary, and Baroness Neville-Rolfe who is now a Cabinet Office minister, what they knew in 2016.

Mr Sunak replied: "No - we have done the right thing which is to set up an independent statutory inquiry."

The former sub-Postmaster Alan Bates who led the campaign which resulted in that 2019 High Court victory has criticised the government for the slow pace of paying out compensation. On 11 February he told the BBC it had become "tied up in a bureaucratic nightmare".

A row has escalated between the government and the former chairman of the Post Office Henry Staunton after he claimed he had been told by a senior official to delay compensation payouts to victims. The government has strongly denied this.

Timeline: What ministers knew and when

June 2014: Deloitte submits a briefing for the Post Office board on Project Zebra, outlining how Fujitsu can alter branch accounts or change records of transactions remotely.

10 September 2015: Business Secretary Sajid Javid approves a letter from Post Office minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe to Post Office chair Tim Parker, urging him to take "any necessary action" about Horizon, after a Panorama whistleblower reveals how Fujitsu can remotely alter postmaster's accounts.

20 November 2015: Mr Javid is briefed that Mr Parker is undertaking a review into the Post Office IT system to look into claims that sub-postmasters have been wrongly prosecuted as a result of faults in the system.

8 February 2016: The resulting report by Jonathan Swift QC and barrister Christopher Knight recommends a full independent investigation into how often and why Fujitsu altered accounts and records "throughout the lifetime" of Horizon.

4 March 2016: Mr Parker tells Baroness Neville-Rolfe and Mr Javid he has commissioned "independent persons" to address "suggestions that branch accounts might have been remotely altered without complainants' knowledge".

21 June 2016: In a letter, Mr Parker tells Baroness Neville-Rolfe that in the light of the sub-postmasters' group legal action, on "very strong advice from leading counsel", the investigation by Deloitte has been immediately stopped. It never completes its work.

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