Post Office IT scandal inquiry chairman warns he will take disclosure failures seriously
The chairman of the inquiry into the Post Office IT scandal has warned he will not hesitate to attribute blame to any party which fails to disclose important and necessary documents.
Between 2000 and 2014, more than 700 subpostmasters and subpostmistresses (SPMs) were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting due to flaws within the Horizon computer system.
However, in December 2019, a High Court judge ruled that the system contained a number of “bugs, errors and defects” and there was a “material risk” that shortfalls in Post Office branch accounts were in fact caused by it.
Since then, many SPMs have had criminal convictions overturned.
Noel Thomas, of Gaerwen, Anglesey was among the former subpostmasters wrongly convicted due to the Post Office’s defective Horizon accounting system.
He told Nation.Cymru last year that he had lost over £250,000 following his arrest in 2005.
“I worked and I am still working.
“I worked for the Post Office for 42 years and at the time, when I left, I was earning in the region of £30,000 a year as a postmaster and between £11-15,000 as a councillor.
“To get that swiped away from you and your lifesavings and everything gone – and luckily I sold my house or else I would have lost that as well,” he said.
Phase Two of the inquiry, which was established in September 2020, is examining the procurement, design, pilot, roll-out and modifications of Horizon.
Inquiry chairman Sir Wyn Williams insisted he will “use all the extensive powers at my disposal” to ensure documents are obtained, in the face of either accidental or deliberate failure to disclose them.
‘Lack of disclosure’
At the beginning of today’s (11 October) proceedings, Sir Wyn heard submissions to adjourn the probe after it was stated that there had been a major lack of disclosure of documents on the part of the Post Office.
The inquiry was told the Post Office had notified the inquiry that it was “undertaking a significant organisation and review of a large number of boxes of hardcopy documents and files held at various Post Office locations throughout the United Kingdom”.
Counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC, said some of the recent document disclosures related to requests made as far back as a year ago, and that the “limited information” on when the Post Office might have fully completed its disclosure “puts the inquiry in a very difficult position”.
But he argued that, while it presents a challenge, there was “not sufficient reason to interrupt good progress that this inquiry is making”, as he said witnesses can be recalled at later stages if needed as a result of the disclosure of further relevant documents.
He argued that an adjournment was likely to “delay and frustrate” the progress that has been made by the inquiry towards fair compensation for all victims of the scandal.
After hearing submissions in favour of an adjournment from lawyers for victims of the scandal, Sir Wyn said he had decided the inquiry should proceed as planned, as he was “satisfied that I can manage disclosure” and having considered the “significant impact” any further delay would have on the inquiry’s timetable.
But he warned that disclosure of required documents will be an issue that is taken seriously.
He said: “I wish to make it clear that if I reach a conclusion at any time that there is either accidental or, even worse, deliberate non-disclosure of relevant documents, I will use all the extensive powers at my disposal to obtain the documents which have not been disclosed.”
He added that, if necessary, he would “attribute blame to any party where that is justified in relation to non-disclosure – I will not deflect from being critical”.
Mr Beer noted that having to begin the second phase of the inquiry with a discussion on problems around disclosure was “something of a paradox, if not a matter which is dripping in irony,” when one of the central issues in the probe is the Post Office’s “past non-disclosure to the criminal and civil courts”.
Kate Gallafent KC, for the Post Office, said the company “emphatically” denies any allegation that it has deliberately sought to make late or partial disclosure of relevant documents.
She said around 95,000 documents have been produced to the inquiry by the Post Office.
Evidence in Phase Two will begin being heard on 18 October, after all the opening statements have been completed this week.
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