Business Ministers confirmed yesterday that the inquiry already being led by Sir Wyn Williams, a retired High Court judge, will now be placed on a statutory footing so witnesses are compelled by law to give evidence – or risk jail.
The House of Commons announcement was made by Paul Scully just weeks after he told MPs on April 27 that a fully fledged inquiry would take too long to complete.
Now, in a concession that has been widely welcomed by MPs from all parties, Mr Scully – the Small Business Minister – says Sir Wyn will be given additional powers and that his findings will be published in the autumn of 2022 rather than this summer. The new terms of reference are still to be finalised.
“We cannot undo the damage that has been done, but we can establish what went wrong at the Post Office and ensure that nothing like it is ever allowed to happen again,” Mr Scully told MPs.
“The events surrounding the dispute have long been shrouded in darkness, and this Government are determined to bring them into the light. To affected postmasters and their families, my message is that we are listening and we will get to the bottom of this appalling affair.”
Despite appearing to rule out a public inquiry last month, Mr Scully said the new decision was in response to a recent Court of Appeal case that quashed the criminal convictions of 39 postmasters – including Hull’s Janet Skinner who was jailed for nine months for false accounting.
It is now estimated that 900 bogus prosecutions were lodged by the Post Office over a 20-year period following the botched introduction of its Horizon IT system and claims that the Department of Business ignored repeated warnings about the fallibility of faulty software supplied by Fujitsu.
The scandal has already been condemned as Britain’s biggest ever legal miscarriage of justice and Hull East MP Karl Turner, who has represented some of the victims in court, wrote in The Yorkshire Post on Monday that any “statutory review will, I fear, point to criminality” and those “culpable for the cover-up should be themselves investigated”.
Last night Paula Vennells CBE, the Church of England Minister who was the Post Office’s chief executive between 2012 and 2019, said she would co-operate with the new inquiry.
“It is beyond doubt there are serious and unanswered questions as to the manner in which subpostmasters were wrongly prosecuted,” she said.
“All those involved in any way have a duty to those subpostmasters and their families, who were innocent victims, to ensure that this can never happen again.”
Meanwhile Labour’s shadow business minister Seema Malhotra warned that postmasters still faced a long battle for justice and that the issue of compensation remains unresolved.
And Harrogate MP Andrew Jones pressed Ministers to take action to help the Post Office to restore its tarnished reputation.