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Sunak Faces Mounting Pressure Amid Post Office Scandal

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A national disgrace. Hundreds of innocent lives ruined. A £1 billion IT disaster. This is the story of how a faulty computer system led to the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. Now, with public fury reignited after a TV drama chronicled the scandal, parliament is up in flames. And as he’s expected to address the scandal in the House of Commons during PMQs, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces growing pressure to act.

Will he announce measures today to speed up justice for the hundreds still fighting to clear their names? Or will the victims of this shameful injustice be forced to wait even longer?

But how did this even happen? And how did 700-plus UK Post Office end up getting prosecuted for crimes they never committed?

The UK Post Office scandal has shaken the nation. It represents one of the gravest miscarriages of justice in recent British history, with hundreds of innocent postal workers wrongfully convicted based on a flawed IT system.

The scandal, despite going on for several years, recently reignited after a TV drama based on the affair was broadcast in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the new year.

Mr Bates vs the Post Office chronicled sub-postmaster Alan Bates’s legal battle against the Post Office, which had falsely accused him and some 3,500 others of defrauding the UK’s postal service.

Between 1999 and 2015, over 700 Post Office branch managers were wrongly convicted of financial crimes based on flawed data from the Horizon computer system.

The software, developed by Fujitsu and still used today, inaccurately flagged widespread embezzlement by postmasters and postmistresses, resulting in many being imprisoned.

This miscarriage of justice only came to light in 2019 when a court ruled Horizon was to blame, prompting a government inquiry in 2020. But justice has been painfully slow.

Only 93 convictions have been overturned so far, despite clear proof the system was defective. In 2021, just 39 more convictions were quashed.

So what exactly went wrong with the Post Office’s technology?

When Horizon was rolled out in 1999 to manage branch finances, bugs quickly started to appear. Staff complained of errors, but were completely ignored.

With unfixed gaps and no support from above, some managers covered missing funds themselves to balance the books. But rather than investigate potential software flaws, the Post Office prosecuted workers for theft and false accounting.

This relentless pursuit of prosecution, despite evidence Horizon was defective, destroyed lives and reputations. The incident was deemed “the worst miscarriage of justice in recent British legal history.”

The personal impact has been devastating. Respected community members were shunned after criminal convictions for “dishonesty”. Marriages collapsed, some even committed suicide.

Trust in the Post Office has been absolutely decimated.

The Post Office betrayed hundreds of decent, law-abiding employees through its refusal to acknowledge serious technology failures.

Following the airing of the ITV series which reunited the whole debacle, signatures on a petition to strip former CEO Paula Vennells of her CBE honor surged to over 1 million.

This pressure apparently had the desired impact, because on Tuesday, Vennells bowed to demands and agreed to hand hack her CBE “immediately.”

This marks a sudden end to a career marred by her organization’s relentless persecution of over 900 post office employees through wrongful prosecutions.

Last year, postmaster Alan Bates, who spearheaded efforts to expose the Horizon IT scandal portrayed in the TV drama, declined an OBE honor himself. He argued it would be “inappropriate” to accept while victims still suffered and Vennells retained her accolade.

Vennells was awarded a CBE for services to the Post Office and charity in early 2019, shortly before stepping down as CEO.

Her 7 years in charge, during which hundreds of innocent postal workers had their lives destroyed, still netted her over £4.5 million in compensation.

The public pressure and petition campaign have finally forced Vennells to give up the honors she obtained while presiding over one of the worst miscarriages of justice in recent British history.

For the many victims still seeking justice, it represents a small but symbolic reckoning.

But most victims are now looking towards a much more powerful figure in the United Kingdom; Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

In fact, Sunak promised that the 700-plus postal workers who were prosecuted for crimes they never committed would “get the redress that they deserve,” and even called the convictions an “appalling miscarriage of justice”.

And when asked if the Post Office should be relieved of its role in the appeals process, he added: “Obviously, there’s legal complexity in all of those things but [we are] looking at exactly those areas that you’ve described. It is right that we find every which way we can do to try to make this right for the people who were so wrongfully treated at the time.”

The government is now under huge public pressure to speed up the ongoing legal process of reviewing the convictions, and Sunak is due in the House of Commons later for Prime Minister’s Questions, where he’s expected to address the Post Office IT scandal.

Sunak is also under growing pressure to halt new public sector contracts with IT firm Fujitsu. This follows revelations that Fujitsu continued securing lucrative government deals even after it knew of its role in the Horizon scandal.

Despite being aware its flawed software had led to hundreds of wrongful prosecutions, Fujitsu has won billions in taxpayer-funded contracts over the past decade.

Even now, the firm remains embedded in critical operations across the British state.

Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake said earlier that the government is “very, very close” to outlining some kind of solution.

The government is reportedly considering a number of options, including introducing legislation to quash all convictions of postal workers caught up in the scandal.

Also, Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said that the idea of using legislation to clear the names of the hundreds of sub-postmasters and postmistresses whose convictions still stand is under “active consideration”.

The next stage of the public inquiry should be a disclosure hearing in London next week, with the full timeline for the inquiry expected to stretch well into the year.

In the House of Commons, MPs from all corners of the House lined up to address the issue.

But the main thing I noticed is why so many politicians are only now jumping on the bandwagon, over a decade since the injustice first came to light?

Where were these elected representatives when hundreds of postal workers were being falsely accused and prosecuted years ago? Their sudden chorus of condemnation rings hollow for many.

Many MPs failed to speak up or take action when it really mattered – back when the scale of the Horizon scandal was emerging. Their professed outrage now smacks of political opportunism.

Under successive governments, hundreds of contracts have been awarded to IT provider Fujitsu, the firm behind the defective Horizon system. Yet inadequate oversight failed to prevent the technology wrecking innocent lives.

Now, politicians act shocked and appalled. But their lack of scrutiny regarding outsourcing core state functions may have enabled this injustice in the first place.

No doubt the Post Office victims deserve justice and compensation. But the belated reaction from some MPs only highlights how accountability evaporated as government services were privatized.

For those who suffered, the current bandwagon of political outrage must ring hollow when contrasted with years of inaction.

The sooner we examine how outsourcing key public services led to this scandal, the sooner steps can be taken to ensure it never happens again.

However, there may be a reason why some politicians seem hesitant to take immediate action, including the Prime Minister himself.

The government may be worried about overstepping its authority as it tries to fix the Post Office scandal. Normally, the justice system is independent of political interference.

Some members of parliament have privately warned that politicians could face penalties if they meddle in ongoing legal cases.

And while the government accepts it must correct the huge miscarriage of justice suffered by postal workers, some are still concerned that rushing to pardon everyone could accidentally let a few guilty people off the hook too.

It’s a tricky situation. While the government claims to want to grant justice for innocent workers whose lives were ruined. But they have to be careful not to cause new problems by moving too fast.

With jobs lost and lives destroyed, the victims have waited long enough. But given the scale of the miscarriage of justice, solutions were never going to be straightforward.

The government must reflect carefully as it charts a rocky road ahead.

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