Statement from the Chair, 19 May 2021

Earlier this afternoon Paul Scully MP, Minister for London and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets), made a statement to Parliament to the effect that the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, which I chair, would be converted into a statutory inquiry from 1st June 2021.

When I agreed to chair the Post Office IT Inquiry, I was fully aware that there were many people who considered that the Inquiry’s terms of reference were too narrowly drawn and that the Inquiry could not succeed in its aims without powers to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of documents. My own view was that much could be achieved even without those powers and, as I have explained to many of those who engaged with me, I was never of the view that I was precluded from investigating the historical decision-making processes at the Post Office which led to adverse consequences for sub-postmasters. For example, I was always satisfied that the decision-making processes which led to prosecutions and convictions in reliance upon the presumed accuracy of information generated by Horizon was properly within the terms of reference of the Inquiry, whereas matters of substantive criminal law were properly for determination by the criminal courts. That said, I understand why others have interpreted the terms of reference differently.

However, there can be no denying that the judgment of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) in R v Hamilton and others, understood in the context of the judgments of Mr Justice Fraser in the civil litigation between sub-postmasters and Post Office Ltd, has generated important lines of enquiry some of which were previously undisclosed. Against this background, the powers available to a statutory public inquiry are necessary to support a proper assessment of all the relevant facts. Having digested the judgment of the Court of Appeal and returned to the judgments of Mr Justice Fraser over many days I made the request to Minister Scully that he should convert the Inquiry.

At the same time as I made the request for conversion, I suggested to the Minister that some amendments could be made to the Terms of Reference so as to properly reflect the scope of the converted Inquiry. The Terms of Reference which the Minister has set out in his written statement have been the subject of consultation and discussion with me.

To date, I have received substantial assistance from those institutions whose decision-making over the years is now under the spotlight (that is the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), UK Government Investments (UKGI), Post Office Limited and Fujitsu UK Services).

I would also like to make clear that I am grateful to those sub-postmasters who have chosen to engage with the Inquiry both publicly and in private. Their testimony has provided rich insights about the human impact (direct, distributed and continuing) on the lives of many people. I have also learned much about the processes, culture and other business operations at Post Office Limited from their engagement and that of the National Federation of Sub-postmasters (NSFP) and the Communication Workers Union (CWU). I hope and expect that many more current and former sub-postmasters will be willing to participate in the work of the Inquiry following its conversion. The conversion of the inquiry will, inevitably, delay the production of my report. In the coming weeks, the Secretariat will produce and publish a statement of approach which will provide details about how I intend to proceed with the work of the Inquiry over the next few months. In September, the Secretariat will produce and publish a further statement of approach which will set out all relevant details about the public hearings which I intend to convene later this year and into 2022. I can say now, however, that before I begin hearing evidence under statutory powers at public hearings, I will provide a progress update to the Minister which, I understand, he will then make public.

Sir Wyn Williams, FLSW