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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Tristan Kirk Courts Correspondent

Early warnings of Post Office scandal dismissed by Government in 2009, inquiry hears

Gordon Brown’s government dismissed early signs of the Post Office scandal and claimed it had no role in investigating the prosecution of wrongly accused subpostmasters, the public inquiry has heard.

Lord Arbuthnot, who was the Conservative MP for North East Hampshire, raised the cases of subpostmasters Jo Hamilton and David Bristow with then-Business Secretary Peter Mandelson in November 2009.

He put forward his concerns that postmasters may have been accused of fraud when Post Office’s troubled Horizon IT system “is responsible”.

In response, junior minister Pat McFadden replied in a letter to say the Government has “assumed an arm’s length role” in the Post Office, after reforms to give it greater commercial freedom.

“The issues raised by your constituent are operational and contractual matters for POL and not for government,” wrote Mr McFadden in December 2009.

“I understand from POL that errors at the branch have been fully investigated and there is nothing to indicate that there are any problems with the Horizon system.”

Lord Arbuthnot, a former barrister and Tory minister, told the inquiry he wrote to the government as it is the sole Post Office shareholder, and he assumed something would be done to tackle his concerns.

In his letter, he set out the impact on the lives of accused subpostmasters and their families, “often involving bankruptcy and certainly significant financial hardship”.

“I just wanted it sorted out, and I thought I might write to the person who owned it, which was Peter Mandelson,” he told the inquiry.

But he said the government in its response was “refusing to take the responsibilities that go with ownership”.

He added: “They were saying ‘no, not me guv’.”

On Tuesday, lead campaigner and former subpostmaster Alan Bates said the Post Office acted like “thugs” in its pursuit of subpostmasters, while refusing to accept problems with the Horizon system.

He insisted those in government who had oversight of Post Office must be “held responsible” for the scandal, while suggesting the organisation is a “dead duck” and could be sold off to a private company like Amazon.

Politicians including Mr McFadden and Lib Dem Leader Sir Ed Davey, a former Postal Affair minister, are due to give evidence to the Inquiry.

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