THE former MP for North East Hampshire has warned that a scandal similar to the Post Office one could happen again if lessons are not learned.

Lord James Arbuthnot, who was MP for North East Hampshire from 1997 to 2015 and has been instrumental in helping victims of the Horizon Post Office scandal seek justice, told the Gazette: “I’m afraid yes I do think something like this could happen again.”

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Lord Arbuthnot, who is now a member of the House of Lords, first became involved in the matter in 2009 when his constituent Jo Hamilton – a former sub-postmaster from South Warnborough – got in touch to ask for his help.

Ms Hamilton was falsely accused of stealing £36,000 from the Post Office and pleaded guilty to false accounting in 2008. However, her conviction was finally quashed in 2021, after she was found to be a victim of the Horizon Post Office scandal.

The scandal, which is currently the subject of an inquiry, has gained huge public interest following the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, which told how the faulty Fujitsu Horizon accounting system led to more than 700 sub-postmasters being prosecuted.

Lord Arbuthnot, who is now part of the unpaid body Horizon Compensation Advisory Board, described the drama as “magnificent” adding: “It’s really made a difference and brought about discussions of change that were previously going at snail's pace.”

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He added: “The campaign continues and there’s still so much to be done. Possibly the most worrying thing is there were between 700 and 900 prosecutions and only 93 had them overturned. It’s the tip of the iceberg. Until you get those overturned you can’t trigger compensation. It’s too slow being assessed.”

Asked what he would like to see happen now, he said: “This is a mass problem with hundreds of people convicted and needing them overturned. I think we need a mass solution that involves legislation. It need not be complicated. There is uneasiness about having legislature to overturn the courts. I understand that. Working our way through that is one of the things MPs and peers will have to deal with as we go through that.”

Lord Arbuthnot said the scandal was able to happen because “people in power” at the Post Office “adopted a position of defending it and the brand at all costs”.

He added: “They protected the brand at the expense of people like Jo Hamilton and that is really shocking. They did almost anything they could, including shredding documents and not telling the sub-postmasters about the faults in the system. It moved to a system of group thinking and refusal to acknowledge the demands of fairness and justice.”

He now hopes that the inquiry which is due to finish later this year will result in lessons being learned to prevent a similar miscarriage of justice happening again.

“The public inquiry needs to find the best way of ensuring it doesn’t happen again. Sir Wynn Williams has a herculean task ahead of him and he’s doing it very well but we have to recognise how big the task is,” said Lord Arbuthnot.

He also believes that individuals involved will face prosecution as a result, but declined to name any names, adding: “I certainly think there are a number of individuals in the frame for prosecution.

“It’s not for me as a politician to say who – that’s for the prosecuting authorities. But I think it would be strange for there not to be, within the Post Office and Fujitsu and civil servants who oversaw this.”

Asked whether he believes former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells should give back her CBE – which has been called for by more than one million people who have signed a petition – Lord Arbuthnot said: “I’m a bit uncomfortable about concentrating entirely on Paula Vennells because, although she has her share of the blame and it’s not a small share, for us to concentrate on one woman misses the point.

“I recognise that feeling of insult but I want to avoid any thought that she was the only person to blame. There is some feeling that we would serve justice by getting Paula Vennells. But if we’ve learned anything from this awful saga, it’s that justice should be measured and fair. We need to follow the right processes.”

Following this interview, Ms Vennells handed back her CBE. 

Rishi Sunak also announced new legislation to exonerate wrongly convicted Post Office branch managers.

The prime minister said there would be a new upfront payment of £75,000 for some of those affected.