Newly released documents show that Post Office chiefs secretly ditched forensic accountants who found problems in the Horizon IT system – with the full knowledge of David Cameron’s coalition government.
A Post Office committee called “Project Sparrow”, decided to sack Second Sight, a firm of investigators which uncovered evidence that the computer system was faulty, and bring the investigation in-house.
The records show that former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells, senior lawyer Chris Aujard, and Richard Callard, a senior civil servant at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, were all part of the Post Office committee.
Former subpostmaster Alan Bates told the broadcaster: “It’s been a cover-up from start to finish. That’s coming out now. It’s undeniable.
“And this is what we’ve been up against all the way. We’ve always known they were covering up – it’s just been very difficult to find proof.”
Second Sight first identified various IT bugs in the Horizon computer system in a report on 8 July 2013, which cast doubt on the data used to prosecute subpostmasters.
The Post Office was warned by its own legal counsel this could be in breach of its legal duties as subpostmasters who were convicted should have been made aware of the faults.
However, months later when Project Sparrow met in April 2014, the members said it wanted to pay “token payments” to subpostmasters, in the region of around £1m. The compensation bill is now expected to reach £1bn.
Months after the meetings, former Post Office minister Jo Swinson reiterated the independent role of Second Sight in a parliamentary question in 2014 on the Horizon IT scandal. Vince Cable was the business secretary at the time.
Second Sight’s contract was terminated in 2015 and the operations of Project Sparrow” were not uncovered until years later.
In a statement, the Post Office said: “We never discuss individuals and it would be inappropriate to comment on allegations being made outside of the Inquiry, whose role it is to consider all of the evidence on the issues it is examining and independently reach conclusions.
“We fully share the public inquiry’s aims to get to the truth of what happened in the past and accountability.”
In other developments, Labour MP Kevan Jones warned on Thursday of a potential “second scandal” involving the Post Office after concerns were raised that subpostmasters were convicted over losses involving another IT system.
Mr Jones has called on Post Office boss Nick Read to come before MPs to answer questions following reports about faults with the Capture software used for accounting.
No 10 has said it wants the matter investigated and “robust action” must take place if there are any issues.
The i newspaper first reported concerns about the prospect of a second faulty IT system, following on from the scandal over the Horizon system.
In a letter to Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake, Mr Jones said: “We know the Capture software was faulty, resulting in corrupted data. We also know that the Post Office knew about these faults at the time, as it openly communicated with subpostmasters about them.”