Hull East MP and shadow minister for legal aid Karl Turner is calling for a statutory inquiry to be launched into the Post Office scandal, which led to hundreds of subpostmasters being prosecuted over missing sums of money that were actually the fault of IT glitches. To date, 47 convictions have been quashed.
Writing in The Yorkshire Post today, he said: “The findings of a statutory review will, I fear, point to criminality.
"If that is right, those that were culpable for the cover-up should be themselves investigated, and if the evidence is established they should be prosecuted, and if convicted should expect heavy custodial sentences.”
Mr Turner is a former solicitor and in 2006 he represented Janet Skinner, one of the subpostmasters who recently cleared their name at the Court of Appeal after a 15-year battle for justice.
She pleaded guilty to a lesser offence of false accounting after being accused by the Post Office of theft and fraud in the hope of avoiding a jail term but was still sentenced to nine months in prison. However, the losses were in fact due to problems with the Post Office's Horizon IT system.
In addition to the 47 convictions that have now been overturned, earlier this month the Post Office revealed it is currently contacting 540 people with "potentially relevant convictions" which are now in question. Further information is being sought from another 100 people.
Mr Turner said: "The case of the sub-postmasters is one the greatest miscarriages of justice in modern Britain.
"They were accused of fraud and theft when the Post Office’s faulty IT system, Horizon, manufactured by Fujitsu, would mistakenly show shortfalls in the day’s takings, sometimes running to thousands of pounds.
"Turning to the Post Office for assistance, they would, astonishingly, be told to plug the gap with their own money, leaving many with crushing debts and bankruptcy. Others were told to balance the book by making up transactions that had never happened.
"To add insult to injury, the Post Office prosecuted thousands of sub-postmasters, an average of one a week, for false accounting and fraud, using evidence from the Horizon system which they knew to be fatally flawed.
"Sub-postmasters’ reputations were destroyed, marriages broke down, and lives were ruined beyond repair. Three former sub-postmasters died before their criminal conviction could be overturned."
While the Government has ordered a review into the scandal which is due to report back in the summer, it does not have the powers of a statutory inquiry to compel witnesses to attend or hand over evidence.
Mr Turner said: "The damning judgment of the court makes it clear to me both as a lawyer and as a legislator that things must change. We need a proper, judge-led, statutory inquiry for the full truth to come out –one with the legal power to compel key witnesses to give evidence. A whitewash review that ends with an empty promise that “lessons will be learned” would be unacceptable."
The Post Office has indicated it would comply with a statutory inquiry if one was ordered.
Post Office chief executive Nick Read has said: "We must, I think, acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that for those most impacted by this scandal, the Inquiry will not necessarily bring closure in and of itself.
“There are those for whom its terms of reference are too narrow, or its powers insufficient. I understand these views and, for the record, repeat what I have previously said - the Post Office will cooperate fully with any form of Inquiry Government thinks fit.”
The Government says it is looking at "all options" to get to the bottom of the scandal in addition to its current inquiry, which is being chaired by ex-High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams.
A Government spokesperson said: “The Horizon dispute and court case has been a terrible ordeal for many postmasters and their families who were unfairly penalised. The independent inquiry is examining what went wrong and assessing whether lessons have been learned and concrete changes have taken place or are underway at Post Office Ltd.
“We continue to engage with relevant parties on all options available to make sure we get to the bottom of where mistakes were made, and to ensure something like this cannot happen again.”
*Buy Tuesday's Yorkshire Post for a special report into the local victims of the subpostmasters scandal
Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you'll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click here to subscribe.