The inquiry into the Horizon scandal has been strengthened from an independent inquiry into a statutory inquiry by the government.
The decision to make the inquiry statutory was taken by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng and Minister for Postal Affairs Paul Scully, in light of the recent Court of Appeal judgment which saw 39 postmasters have their convictions quashed.
The Post Office Horizon IT inquiry was initially established in September 2020 on a non-statutory basis establish a clear account of the implementation and failings of the Horizon IT computer system over its lifetime.
The move will give the inquiry, led by Sir Wyn Williams, new powers to compel witnesses and demand documentary evidence.
Non-compliance with or hinderance of the inquiry could result in sanctions including imprisonment, a fine or both.
The inquiry’s Terms of Reference will also be changed to clarify that it can investigate the Post Office’s decision-making in pursuing prosecutions of postmasters.
This decision follows engagement with postmasters by the Prime Minister and Postal Affairs Minister to determine the best option to “understand where mistakes were made and ensure something like this does not happen again”.
Postal Affairs Minister Paul Scully said: “The Horizon dispute has wrecked the lives of postmasters and their families – its impact cannot be overstated.
“We are determined to ensure something like this can never happen again, which is why we launched this inquiry last year to bring the failings around Horizon into the light. Sir Wyn and I are both of the view that the context for the inquiry has changed in light of the Court of Appeal’s judgment and that now is the right moment to convert the inquiry to a statutory footing.
“While the inquiry has already made significant progress, these extra powers will ensure the inquiry has access to all the information it needs to establish the truth.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson added: “We must stand with postmasters to get to the bottom of what went wrong in the Post Office Horizon IT dispute. I heard first-hand the irreparable impact it has had on their lives.
“That’s why, in light of the recent Court of Appeal judgment, we’re stepping up our independent inquiry by putting it on a statutory footing, so we can get the answers they deserve.”
In response to the change, chief executive of the Post Office Nick Read said: “There can only be closure for victims of the Horizon scandal by establishing a comprehensive picture of what went wrong.
“As I have said previously, Post Office will support and co-operate with any inquiry the Government sees fit to convene, and I welcome the announcement that Sir Wyn Williams’ inquiry will now move to a statutory footing. Post Office will continue to co-operate fully with Sir Wyn and his team.”
Horizon inquiry timetable change
The change to the inquiry means it will have an extended time frame to allow for a thorough inquiry and analysis of the decision-making processes that led to the Horizon dispute, with its final report now expected in autumn 2022, rather than summer 2021.
However, a progress update is expected this summer, to set out the inquiry’s progress to date and any initial findings. Public hearings that had been planned for June will be temporarily delayed while the inquiry is repositioned to meet the new terms of reference and establishes itself as a statutory inquiry in line with the requirements of the Inquiries Act 2005.