• 73 Convictions Quashed

    This week the 73rd Subpostmaster conviction was quashed. Margaret White (neé Sowinska), ran the Banbury Road Post Office in Oxford. In 2007, she pleaded guilty to two counts of false accounting after Post Office “auditors” found a £28,000 discrepancy at her branch. That conviction was quashed at the Court of Appeal on Tuesday.

    The Oxford Mail has a write-up, here.

    Of the two other cases heard the same day, one was adjourned, the other was opposed and a judgment will be made in due course.

    According to information I have been given, of the 706 convictions Post Office convictions which the Post Office believes may be Horizon-related, 100 have now been through the appeal courts.

    72 convictions have been overturned unopposed and 28 have dismissed, abandoned or refused permission.

    One Postmaster conviction secured by the DWP (using Horizon evidence) has been overturned, a further five have either been opposed by the CPS and upheld or abandoned.

    Statistical oddity

    The Court of Appeal has so far maintained its record of failing to overturn any case which the Post Office has opposed, whilst also quashing all the convictions of those whose appeals have been unopposed.

    It’s not clear how much actual analysis of each case the Court of Appeal is doing, or what effect this might be having on CCRC referral decisions.

    The barrister Paul Marshall, who represented Seema Misra, Janet Skinner and Tracy Felstead told me:

    “The Court of Appeal appears to have adopted, as the determinant of whether an appeal is allowed or not, a test that correlates exactly with whether the Post Office resists the appeal or contests it.

    “If the Post Office contests the appeal, the Court of Appeal… appears to adopt a formula that in loose terms is…: ‘was Horizon/its reliability central to the prosecution’?

    “While attractive for its beguiling simplicity, that formulation… may be doubted. For the whole of the relevant period, the only accounting system available to the Post Office was Horizon. Further, there was, intentionally, no other parallel system…

    “The only way in which the Post Office was able to evidence amounts paid out or in was by Horizon. Without doing too much injustice to the Court of Appeal’s approach, to apply a test of whether the issue is a “shortfall of cash or stock” might suggest that the court may not have fully grasped the full scale, consequences and effects of Horizon’s unreliability – or various other unresolved doubts about the Post Office’s systems and processes.

    “Oversimplification may readily be productive of error.”

    I will be putting Mr Marshall’s points to the CCRC and Court of Appeal in due course.

  • Treasury Announces Compensation for 555 Civil Litigants

    After all the hints, it’s finally happened. On Tuesday 22 March 2022, a full two years and three months after the settlement of Bates v Post Office, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that all 555 claimants in that case will be properly compensated for their losses.

    Two years and two months ago, Alan Bates invoiced the government for the sum of £46m – representing the figure taken from the £57.75m High Court settlement to cover legal fees and the litigation funders’ success fee. He was told to go away.

    He did not. Bates, along with his fellow litigants and their MPs continued to push the government – relentlessly – until the Treasury was forced to agree the funds.

    Both the PM and Chancellor were quoted in Tuesday’s press release. This is what Boris Johnson said:

    “We’ll be introducing a new compensation scheme for those who led and won the landmark legal case over the failings, so they can receive their fair share… Whilst it cannot take away the years of distress, the postmasters who have suffered terribly over the Post Office Horizon scandal deserve to be fairly compensated.”

    And this was what Rishi Sunak came up with:

    “Without the efforts of these postmasters, this terrible injustice may have never been uncovered so it is only right that they are compensated fully and fairly. That is why we have set up this new compensation scheme for those who played a crucial role bringing this scandal to light.”

    As the SNP MP Marion Fellowes said in the subsequent parliamentary debate:

    “The Horizon scandal has spanned decades under Labour, Lib Dem and Tory Ministers. It is a stain on the Post Office and its single shareholder the Government. This response proves that the Government do the right thing in the end, once they have done everything else.” [my italics]

    Speaking on BBC Breakfast, former Subpostmaster Lee Castleton, who is one of the 555 said of the compensation package:

    “I just hope that it encompasses everybody in the group…. it needs to be inclusive, it needs to be respectful and it needs to happen quite quickly. There are people in the group who are coming to the ends of their lives and they deserve to finish this.”

    Therium

    The Business Minister, Paul Scully, took up his current post in February 2020. He spent a large part of his first year as a minister telling the 555 civil litigants that the compensation they received from the Post Office was “full and final”, whilst sympathising with their plight.

    In April 2021 there was a shift in his language. During an interview, when I challenged him on compensation for the 555, Scully told me:

    “I can’t just pledge to step in at this moment in time. But I want to make sure that I can have good conversations with Alan Bates and the Postmasters within the 555, just as much as I want to have good conversations with other wronged Postmasters, because they need justice and they need fair compensation.”

    Since then, the minister has moved, glacially, towards where we are today. This was not without relentless pressure from backbenchers, peers and campaigners themselves.

    One of the reasons Scully gave for the delay in announcing proper compensation for the 555 (once the government decided, possibly after the Court of Appeal ruling in April 2021 that it was something it wanted/had to do) was a concern that Therium, the litigation funders for the claimants in Bates v Post Office, would have a legal claim to a percentage of the compensation heading the Subpostmasters’ way.

    Therium did not take the full amount they were entitled to when the settlement was made. They might have asked to recover that, plus a percentage of any further compensation, based on the fact they funded the court case which led to it being announced. Scully told MPs that Therium have sensibly agreed to waive any future claim they might have, adding:

    “I also thank Lord Arbuthnot, whom he mentioned, who has helped in the past couple of weeks to unlock the situation we have today.”

    Lord (James) Arbuthnot used to be Jo Hamilton’s MP and is very close to the Justice for Subpostmaster’s Alliance. I understand he set up the line of communication between Alan Bates and Paul Scully which led to Bates getting confirmation from Therium that they would not raise any claim.

    The dreaded consultation phase

    Now the compensation has been announced, what any scheme will look like has yet to even be discussed, let alone decided. Scully said he was planning to have a meeting with “representatives of the JFSA” on 30 March and would be writing to them “to consult it about the scheme’s operations”. The JFSA presumably means Alan Bates and his advisor Kay Linnell. Whether any legal representatives will be there, or indeed any other former Subpostmasters is not known.

    Concerns any scheme could take as long as the Historical Shortfall Scheme to set in motion were not exactly put to bed by the minister, who said:

    “The historical shortfall scheme started slowly, as it first worked through the cases and benchmarked those that would help inform future payments, so that we know so much more about the 555. Dovetailed with the HSS information that we have gained, I want to ensure that we can start delivering that compensation very quickly. I am still aiming for the end of the year for the HSS. We need to establish, once we know what the process is, an exact timescale agreed with the JFSA.”

    Fujitsu

    Another interesting snippet came out of yesterday’s announcement – the prospect of the government going after Fujitsu to recover all or part of the compensation the taxpayer would otherwise have to stand. In parliament, Karl Turner asked:

    “What are we doing to get some money back from Fujitsu? This will cost the taxpayer potentially hundreds of millions of pounds. How on earth are we going to allow Fujitsu to get away with it?”

    Paul Scully replied:

    “The frank answer is that we will not – we will push as much as we can in any avenue to tackle compensation. Wherever it comes from, it should not be the UK taxpayer who is picking up the tab for other people’s problems.”

    The government vs Fujitsu could well be the next battlefront to be opened in this scandal, and it could get litigious very quickly.

  • Tim Brentnall’s Closing Statement

    Tim Brentnall ran the Roch Post Office in Pembrokeshire. He was convicted of false accounting in 2010. His conviction was quashed at the Court of Appeal on 19 July 2021. Tim gave evidence to the Post Office Horizon Inquiry on 1 March 2022.

    Tim’s closing statement is a powerful piece of rhetoric aimed at reminding the inquiry chair Sir Wyn Williams that he should not be investigating the IT, but the people who used it to systematically deny hundreds of people their reputations, livelihoods and mental well-being.

    Following Tim’s lead I have clipped out the relevant section of video from the inquiry’s youtube channel so you can watch what he said as well as read it):

    Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry – Tim Brentnall

    Here is the text of Tim’s statement, slightly tidied up for clarity.

    “I know this inquiry is called the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry. It’s fair to say it’s the root cause – and the problems started with Horizon – but we’re here discussing the human impact and I think the inquiry should also be looking at the human cause of these problems.

    Myself as every other Subpostmaster you’ve heard from and probably will hear from, had problems that started with Horizon, but their problems did not finish with Horizon.

    Horizon merely provided the data that showed a shortfall, but it was people who chose to believe that data over myself or hundreds of other Subpostmasters.

    It wasn’t Horizon that prosecuted us, it was the Post Office. It wasn’t Horizon who encouraged us to pay back money under threat of theft charges, that was people at the Post Office.

    It wasn’t Horizon that sacked Second Sight when they found uncomfortable truths in their report in 2013, that was people at the Post Office.

    It wasn’t Horizon that then went on to shred documents. That was people at the Post Office.

    Horizon then did not try and outspend the group litigation people – the 555 as we are known – in court, as an attempt to deny us justice. That was a Post Office decision.

    Horizon did then not try and recuse the judge at that trial. That was a Post Office decision.

    Horizon did not tell hundreds, if not thousands of us that we were the only people having problems.

    That is the evilest of lies. And again, that was the Post Office.

    And I hope this inquiry will look very closely not only at Horizon, but the people.”

    You can watch all of Tim’s evidence here and read the transcript here.

  • Chirag Sidhpura’s Closing Statement

    Rushita Patel (Chirag’s wife) and the man himself outside the inquiry

    I watched Chirag Sidhpura give evidence today. You can read about his story here, and in the live-tweets I put together whilst he was talking. At the end Chirag read out a prepared statement, which he has kindly shared with me (whilst also showing me how to work my new phone).

    Chirag is an extraordinarily determined person, and the journey he has been on is unique, but it started in the same place: Post Office auditors finding a discrepancy at his branch and Post Office investigators threatening him with criminal prosecution unless he made it good.

    Do read Chirag’s story and the tweets or just dive into the closing statement (with minor edits for clarity) which follows:

    “The Post Office bought misery not only to me and my family but also a local community.

    I had goals and plans to give myself and my family a better life and a bright future. This was stolen from me overnight.

    The Post Office, from top to bottom, knew there were bugs, errors and defects within the computer system, especially when it came to the ATM machine.

    The Post Office tried to take away documents which I held in my branch but were unsuccessful as I stood my ground and told them it’s information which I have produced, not them, so I would not be handing anything over.

    I was advised by the auditor to have a look at my trading statements which I had produced from Horizon to try and identify the alleged shortfall. I had gone through all this over and over again but could not find anything wrong.

    I had followed everything the way in which I had been trained, not for days, weeks or months, but for years. As informed by the Post Office investigator the alleged shortfall has come about within 6 months of the date of the last audit. If that was the case then why would Post Office continue to send large amounts of money week-in week-out to service the office? Why was this not bought to my attention earlier? A phone call, email, a letter in the post to say ‘we think there maybe something wrong in your office please investigate’ or to tell me if I needed any assistance to contact them.

    But as far as I was aware everything was ok.

    I was left fearing that I may have to leave my family and friends behind for a while because I may be sent to prison. I can not even describe the way I felt as I have always been a law-abiding citizen, with a clean record.

    I was advised by the National Federation of Subpostmasters to obtain a criminal solicitor due to the value of the alleged loss. I was threatened by Post Office investigators that I would be interviewed with the police present under caution. To me this was all bully tactics to try and get someone to say they have done something even though they haven’t. I was shadowed by a fantastic solicitor Michelle George who gave me all the confidence to stand my ground.

    Approximately £80k worth of cash and stock was left in my premises for near 9 months, even though the Post Office Limited terminated my contract. I was told I had no right to appeal this, which I thought was totally bizarre. If I had murdered someone and admitted I had committed the crime, the Police would still have to build a case to take to the CPS, then to court. If I was found guilty of the crime I would still have the right to appeal. This is the law of the land. The law of the land also states that any person is innocent till proven guilty, but with the government-owned Post Office I was guilty until I could prove my innocence, like many others.

    I had challenged the Post Office for many documents which should have been provided to me. Instead I had to pay for data access through information rights.

    I was generally told by Kerry Moodie [the former information rights manager at the Post Office] – “This is commercially privileged”.

    When I kept challenging this is was told in a polite way by Kerry to go away as she will not respond to any more emails from me.

    I was contacting many other Postmasters who helped me as much as they could to identify possible causes, which led me to provide information to Paul Southin to investigate rather than being the other way round.

    I was left scared, anxious, depressed, stupid, worthless, incompetent and I’m sure there are many more words that could describe my mental sate and feelings. This was all done by the hands of one individual representing the most trusted brand in the country:

    Angela van den Bogerd was appointed by the Post Office to conduct an independent review of my case, but because the trend was already set by Paul Southin she could not go back and change that even if she wanted to. This was months before the GLO [Bates v Post Office group litigation] was to start.

    I was left a broken man. I used to be confident, proud, outgoing. I always made time for my family and friends. This has now all changed due to the way the Post Office have treated me.

    My marriage is broken due to the stress of me trying to prove not only to the Post Office but also to my wife that I have not done anything wrong. Even today we argue because I was in charge, so I am to blame. The Post Office has turned me into a self-centred individual. All I seem to do now is try to prove I have not done anything wrong.

    Interaction with my children has been hard as my eldest daughter used to ask me “Daddy are you going to jail?” This broke me even more. I could not even look my kids in the face. I would lock myself in the bedroom and not come out. Sometimes I leave the house when they are awake and not return until they are asleep.

    I could not face anyone as fingers were being pointed. People had now a different view of me.

    I had many thoughts of suicide, running away, relocating – but I was extremely lucky to have my father-in-law and also my staff and friends who supported me through my darkest days, they gave me strength and support to get to where I am today.

    I have had to give up something that I was so proud of and worked so hard for without any financial gain whatsoever.

    The Post Office have a lot to answer for in the way they conducted my case as I still have not got answers.

    During the time where the Post Office was shut down – a further 5000 had gone missing from the Horizon system the post office put this down to auditors mistake and was quickly and quietly brushed under the carpet…. Why? – because the very person dealing with the alleged second shortage could not go back and say sorry this could be a systemic error as the whole class action could have collapsed. It would have definitely saved the UK government a substantial amount of money.

    At this point I had no doubt that there is definitely a problem with the computer system. All the evidence is there.

    If a shortfall can occur when the computer system has been shutdown and not used what can the system do when it is in use committing thousands of transactions a day.

    I am today still passionately serving my local community behind the same Post Office that I was accused of taking… losing… £57,500. How ironic.

    With the help and support and certain people I have now become stronger – to have the courage and support to battle the Post Office.

    I will not allow a man-made computer system beat me. I am determined. I may have been left a broken man, mentally but with the support I have behind me makes me stronger than ever.

    What I would ask the Post Office to do is the right and lawful thing which would be to:

    – pay back what I have paid including the interest

    – put me back into the financial position that I would have been in to date

    Unfortunately no amount of money is going to be able to buy time, or a family, or love, or mental health but what it can do is help me move on in life. To do the things which my family missed out on due to the Post Office’s wrongful actions.”

    The video of Chirag’s full evidence and the transcript will be posted on the inquiry website – it usually appears within 48 hours.

    I will be speaking to Chirag at St John’s Church in Farncombe, Surrey, tomorrow evening (18 March). More information can be found here.

  • Horizon Remote Access 2016-style

    Sue Edgar at the inquiry

    Sue Edgar is Chair of the National Federation of Subpostmasters and a serving Subpostmaster. Her story is fascinating. The evidence she gave to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry on the afternoon of Fri 4 March will undoubtedly be seen as significant for a number of reasons, but I would like to focus on what she said about remote access to Subpostmaster branch accounts.

    By 2016, the Subpostmasters’ campaign for justice was well known to the Post Office and the National Federation of Subpostmasters. Remote access to the Horizon IT system was a live issue.

    In order to maintain confidence in the integrity of its prosecutions (and sackings/asset recovery processes), the Post Office had to convince everyone that Subpostmasters were in sole control of their accounts.

    After all, if someone else had access to them through the Horizon system back-end, particularly if that access could not be detected, then they were not in sole control of their accounts. If that was the case, it was a little unfair to criminally prosecute them. More than a little unfair, in fact.

    In 2015 three Post Office executives stated, on the record, to a Panorama producer:

    “It is 100% true to say we can’t change, alter or modify existing transaction data, so the integrity is 100% preserved.”

    The Panorama producer checked: “And that’s true now, and has been for the duration of the system?”

    To which the Post Office execs answered an unequivocal “Yes.

    This was not true. Proving it was not true would require a multimillion pound High Court case which eventually went to trial in 2018.

    But in 2016, according to her evidence on 4 March 2022, Sue Edgar and a fellow Subpostmaster called Ann were invited to Fujitsu HQ. And this is what Mrs Edgar said happened:

    “They were showing us what the Horizon would do and what it couldn’t do after a conference one year… and we went and we were looking round and we were saying, ‘Oh, so this is where you do whatever, and this is where you write the programmes’, and what have you.

    And then they took us into another room that we weren’t allowed to discuss because we shouldn’t have been in there apparently and this guy was showing us … so we said, ‘What do you do?’ He said, ‘Oh, I go through the systems and blah, blah’.

    I can’t really exactly say what he said but he said, ‘Look, I can get into every Post Office in the land, I can get into their system’, and Ann and I just looked at each other and he said, ‘I’ll show you’. What he did, he said, ‘There, look what I’m doing’, and he went into a postmaster’s stock unit and he took I can’t remember the amount but he took some Euros out of that guy’s stock unit, and our jaws just dropped to the floor, and we were looking at each other and said:

    ‘But won’t he be short now? Are you putting them back in?’

    ‘Oh no, I’ll put them back in tomorrow.’

    ‘Right. Well, what happens if it’s his trading period or he wants to balance?’

    ‘Well, he’ll be short but they’ll be back tomorrow and he’ll find them tomorrow.’

    And we said – ‘But you can’t do that’ – it was wrong.

    ‘Oh no, no, it’s okay, it’s okay. I’ll put them back tomorrow.’

    Now, we left that night and got on the train to come home but we didn’t know if he’d put them back in and whether that postmaster was right or whether he balanced right or he balanced short.

    People used to say they could do that and I said ‘no’, but I used to say ‘there will be a back door’, I mean even though I’m not techie I knew there must be a back door into a system because every computer has that and I did mention this to… I can’t remember exactly the date but we think it was about 2016 and I mentioned this to my contracts manager.

    I mentioned it to a couple of people that were in the Federation at the time who were higher than me, because I was just at the branch secretary then, and they more or less – especially Post Office, they just fobbed me off with: ‘No, he was just carrying on. He was just like showing off. He can’t do that. He’s just like telling you that. Because you don’t understand he’s just saying that’. But we actually saw it. Two of us saw it at the time and, to be honest, it was a topic of conversation all the way home.”

    You can watch Mrs Edgar’s saying the above here, (thanks to Tim Brentnall):

    Rudkin re-run

    Not only is Mrs Edgar’s evidence extraordinary in itself, it almost exactly echoes the experience of Michael Rudkin, a former NFSP exec, who visited Fujitsu HQ for a look-see at the Horizon system in 2008. Here are the relevant passages about this episode from my book:

    “Rudkin was met at Fujitsu reception by a friendly chap called Martin Rolfe, who signed him in, gave him a guest pass and took him on a little tour of the building. This concluded at Rolfe’s own office space.

    Martin introduced Michael to one of his colleagues, who didn’t take well to a Fed exec being in his place of work. ‘He was rude and rather negative,’ said Michael. Martin engineered a swift exit. ‘He said, “Let’s get out of here. Come with me, Michael.” As though I was his long lost friend.’

    The two men went through several secure doors which needed a pin-pad entry code. As they did so, they discussed some of the issues Rudkin wanted to raise around problems with bureau de change and accounting for foreign cash.

    They went downstairs and ended up in the doorway of what Rudkin describes as ‘a boiler room. A subterranean office. All their gubbins – the air conditioning, the central heating was in that room.’

    In what sounds like some kind of bizarre dream, Rudkin told me that alongside the machinery in this boiler room, there were two desks, with two Horizon terminals sitting on them.

    The terminals were recognisably the same as the terminals Rudkin had in his own Post Office – that is, exactly the same hardware you’d find on a Post Office counter top – and they were running the same software. Four men in office-wear were present. Rolfe introduced them as ‘The Covert Operations Team.’

    As soon as the men clocked the arrival of visitors, three of them left. They were not friendly as they did so. One remained sitting at a terminal. Rolfe gestured towards the unattended Horizon terminal and said,‘This is one of the offices we have a problem with.’The man who had left the terminal in a hurry was still logged on.

    Rudkin said Rolfe was showing him the branch’s figures and told him, ‘This is the live system.’ Rudkin asked what he meant – could the figures be adjusted in real time on the system?

    According to Rudkin, Rolfe ‘made an alteration on screen to demonstrate to me that he could do that. He then reversed the transaction and he made a joke about reversing the transaction, otherwise the office would not balance.’

    Rudkin challenged him. ‘I said, “Have you just altered the bureau de change figures in that branch?” and he said “Yeah.”’

    Rudkin was aghast. ‘I said to him, “For years, we’ve been told that you do not have remote access into Post Office branch accounts.”’

    Rolfe seemed to think it was a bit of a joke. Rudkin didn’t, asking in that rather intimidating baritone, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’

    Rudkin told me he could not be escorted out of the building quickly enough.”

    The day after Mr Rudkin’s visit to Fujitsu he was suspended by the Post Office over an alleged discrepancy. Michael resigned his position on the NFSP and was systematically discredited by the organisation’s leadership (for the full story, please do buy my book).

    The point is – here was something almost identical happening to another Subpostmaster, eight years later.

    As Mrs Edgar states – she mentioned this experience to the Post Office via her contracts manager, and to her NFSP superiors. Everyone denied it.

    What was going on in there?

    You can watch Ms Edgar’s evidence in full here, or read the full transcript of it here.

  • “She didn’t even have the guts”

    For obvious reasons I have spent many hours dealing with sacked and convicted Subpostmasters, rather than those still working.

    David Hartley at the Inquiry

    The evidence given to the Post Office Inquiry has come from both serving and former Postmasters. I am currently watching the focus group session on the afternoon of Fri 4 March – particularly because of some social media interest in what the Chair of the National Federation of Subpostmasters, Sue Edgar, told the inquiry about remote access to Horizon, the Post Office’s disastrous IT system.

    I haven’t got to the relevant bit yet, but before I do, I thought it was worth putting up a post about the evidence from David Hartley.

    David is a serving Subpostmaster at Bispham Road Post Office in Southport, Merseyside. He is an active member of the National Federation of Subpostmasters. David took on his Post Office in 2005, but before that he ran Hope Place Post Office in Nelson for sixteen years. David decided to take on a Post Office “because it’s seen as a national institution” and a “trusted brand.” He told the inquiry “I thought it was a good move and that it would settle our future together.”

    David’s disillusionment was writ large in his demeanour throughout the focus group session. He described himself as “well past retirement age… but to actually sell a post office now is nigh impossible because the word’s got out there to the general public, and naturally they don’t want to touch it with a barge pole. Would you?”

    Automated Teller Madness

    Like so many other Subpostmasters who had given evidence, David spoke clearly about the sense of abandonment he felt and how it continues to this day. The Post Office has apparently recently switched many of its cash machines (ATMs) away from Bank of Ireland to an in-house set up.

    Although the Post Office publicly denied it, ATMs have long caused huge issues for the Post Office and postmasters over the years, with Postmasters being badly trained and held liable for thousands of pounds worth of discrepancies.

    When independent forensic investigators Second Sight raised problems with accounting for cash dispensed by ATMs back in 2014 they were publicly rubbished by the Post Office who said “there is little evidence to support this view”. A year earlier, a secret report presented to the Post Office noted “losses from ATMs have been one of the major concerns.”

    Bispham Road PO and its ATMs

    So how is the Post Office managing the sensitive switch from Bank of Ireland ATMs to the new system? According to David:

    “We were sent a booklet, just a few leaves of paper actually, not even a booklet. That was the extent of the training for it. I’ve since – and I’m not on my own – experienced losses in the ATM. I’ve got a paper here that’s asking me to pay £1,426.61. That’s just come yesterday because of shortages in the ATM.”

    David welled up with tears as he described the losses he’d experienced since Horizon was introduced and the Post Office process for dealing with them:

    “The process was you put it right”, he said. “That was the end of it. There was no… it was either a black and white. There was no grey areas… If there was a shortage you put it in. You made that right… We’ve had to borrow from family members, from friends, we couldn’t even… sorry … we couldn’t even afford a pint of milk one week because we’d had to put that much money in.”

    Federal Failure

    Although David himself had been an executive officer of the National Federation of Subpostmasters (around 2012), he described the NFSP’s failure to act on Horizon:

    “We were told by the then General Secretary that we have to believe that the system is robust, even though I’ve been paying God knows how much back to the Post Office over the years from when Horizon first started. So I believed it. I thought it’s bound to be mistakes on somebody’s part. I’ve sacked staff in the past thinking they were stealing.”

    The full horror of this treatment of Subpostmasters – suspecting their employees whilst experiencing the creeping dread of their livelihoods slipping through their fingers – has to be seen in the context of Paula Vennells’ relentless drive to reduce Subpostmasters pay, which ran pretty much throughout her seven year tenure. David told the inquiry:

    “We’ve taken pay cuts as postmasters to keep the business afloat and I challenged the then chief executive officer, Paula Vennells. I stood up at conference and said, ‘Can you tell me why we are taking pay cuts and you are awarding yourself an 18 per cent pay rise of over £500,000?’

    “I said, ‘You should hang your head in shame’. She didn’t even have the guts to respond to it. She just looked at her side-kick and nodded and she stood up and said, ‘I think that’s rather personal’. Well, yes, it was rather personal. It was personal to all of us that we’re taking pay cuts.”

    Watch David’s evidence here. Read the transcript of the focus group session here. The inquiry will continue to take evidence from former and serving Subpostmasters until the end of this month.

  • “Good news” for the 555 “in the next few days”

    Paul Scully, Minister for Postal Affairs

    This scandal has been characterised by many things, but one of the most striking is the absolute relentless determination of backbench MPs and peers to hold the government to account.

    To my mind, it is a racing certainty that without consistent pressure from parliamentarians of all stripes, the government would not have made available £1bn in compensation to wronged Subpostmasters outside the High Court litigation settlement, nor would we have a statutory inquiry.

    That is not to belittle for one moment the excellent work done by campaigners, lawyers and other professional people who care about what happened or who were affected by it, but the sound and fury – particularly since the settlement in Dec 2019, has been something to report.

    Bridgen the gap

    Thursday was a case in point. Andrew Bridgen MP secured a debate. Once more the Post al Affairs minister Paul Scully was forced to the despatch box.

    Scully’s first statement spoke of compensation to the 555 Subpostmasters locked into the settlement agreement which gave them a fraction of the compensation they are owed.

    Scully again admitted:

    “It is unfair that they received less compensation than those who were not part of the case. I cannot yet report a resolution of that legally complex issue, but we are doing everything we can to address it.”

    For the Members listening, that did not cut it. Andrew Bridgen, Michael Rudkin’s MP, responded:

    “They deserve justice and adequate compensation now—not in months and years when the Department, which is partly culpable for the situation, finally gets its act together.”

    Scully replied:

    “The 555 have been pioneers in this area, and I will absolutely work at speed. I do not want this to go on a moment longer than necessary, which is why we have tried to do everything we can to short-circuit any bureaucratic processes to be able to get on and compensate everybody fairly.”

    Not good enough

    He was pressed again, this time by Kevan Jones, Tom Brown’s MP and a long-term campaigner for the Subpostmasters:

    “if the problem is the Treasury, can he not call that out now, so that we can put the fire on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure we get the funding that is needed properly to compensate these individuals? The Minister knows as well as I do that this scandal will not go away.”

    And this was when Scully came back with something new. He replied:

    “There is no single blockage in the Treasury. We are trying to work through the holistic view about where the money is coming from… We are also trying to unpick that legal settlement… That will take a few days, but I want it to take days, not months—certainly not years—and I am working as quickly as I can to get that resolution. I am really hoping that I will be able to come back to the Despatch Box and have good news for him in the next few days.” [my emphasis]

    Siobhan Baillie, Nicki Arch’s MP, caught the significance immediately:

    “I was going to press him on a timeline, but I think he said days, not weeks or months. Will that be the case…?”

    Scully backtracked slightly:

    “I am working at pace and need to give myself a little bit of leeway, but it is days or weeks—it certainly will not be a moment longer than is necessary to put these people out of their misery and give them compensation and justice.”

    David Davis got to his feet and, describing himself as “a long-term Whitehall hand”, said:

    “I see the symptoms of a Minister caught between the jaws of the Treasury and Whitehall lawyers. Lawyers do not always deliver justice and the Treasury rarely does. What I will say to him is this: nobody deserves justice more than the 555. They opened up the worst miscarriage of justice in modern Government. If it helps him in his battle to get this done quickly and properly, I will say this to him: if he cannot do it, we will find a way of having this House instruct the Government to do it. Let him use that in his battle with the Treasury and the lawyers.”

    Scully rather limply responded: “any pressure will be gratefully received.”

    But anyone watching will now know that the jig is finally up. The civil servants and lawyers at the Treasury and BEIS will no longer be able to keep blocking fair compensation to those who deserve it most. Parliament is simply not going to let them.

    You can read the full debate here, which I recommend, as it is relatively short. Or watch it here on parliament.tv

    So – it looks as if the 555 civil litigant claimants can expect to be hearing some welcome news, and soon.

    Addendum

    A couple of weeks back, Paul Scully tweeted that he was reading my book, which was good to know. On Thursday, (possibly because he is finding it difficult to put down?) he brought it into the House of Commons debating chamber. Given that less than twelve months ago this book had only just been commissioned and lived as nothing more than an idea inside the laptop on which I am currently typing, please forgive me for having a little moment when I saw it nestling there by the despatch box. I hope lots more powerful people read it, and I hope it has an effect.

  • “They never want the truth to come out.”

    Lesley and Malcolm Simpsom

    Malcolm Simpson was a Subpostmaster at Boxgrove Post Office near Chichester, West Sussex. Malcolm came to the inquiry on 24 Feb with his wife Lesley (pictured above).

    Malcolm and Lesley bought Boxgrove village shop in 2003. It had a Post Office counter which was run completely separately by the incumbent Subpostmaster. The Subpostmaster left in 2007 and although he was reluctant to do so, Malcolm said it was the “logical step” for him to take over.

    After inadequate off-site group training (during which Malcolm said none of the trainees could balance correctly) he was let loose on Horizon in his branch.

    A Post Office trainer came in to monitor Malcolm’s account balance at Boxgrove at the end of his first trading period. He was £150 down. According to Malcolm, the trainer “said ‘oh that’s the way it is. Go and get the money out of the shop till to balance’ as if it was normal.”

    Malcolm’s problems continued. Discrepancies arose which he had to make good – losing £12,000 in the process. He was eventually suspended and sacked in 2012 after his third audit, which found an alleged stock discrepancy of £4820. He was threatened with criminal prosecution if he did not make good this and his other accumulated discrepancies.

    Malcolm was relatively calm as he described the way the Post Office had methodically gone about destroying his business, his life and his health. He tried to explain how he felt now, saying:

    “I’m a bit broken… cautious and scared. I’ve always been somebody who respects authority and expects people to treat you as you treat them. The Post Office… don’t care about anybody, and that makes you anxious and scared all the time when you’re working for them… and there’s no support. They don’t care… you’re just a number, and I couldn’t cope with that. I’ve always worked in teams and with people who there’s mutual respect and there just wasn’t any of that and it just grinds you down… [he breaks down]… you feel so alone. And so… I’m not as confident as I was.”

    Malcolm has had two strokes, brought on by stress. During his evidence he paid tribute to Lesley, calling her the “strongest person I know”.

    Before he finished, Malcolm gave a written statement to the inquiry. It is a powerful cri de coeur which goes to the heart of this whole scandal. Afterwards the inquiry chair, Sir Wyn Williams, paid tribute to this “formidable speech”. As he left the witness seat, I asked Malcolm if I could have what he had written. He very kindly gave me his handwritten papers. I have transcribed his words below:

    Malcolm Simpson’s oral statement to the inquiry

    “These people take away your sense of worth and your sense of self. There is no need to invest in the individual, to nurture and develop. No desire or culture to help people grow, to make them feel valued.

    Instead there are just lies, indifference, aggression, all take. Demands for total loyalty to the brand and blind acceptance the Post Office is always right.

    The reality is the complete opposite. The only people within the whole Post Office structure who are held accountable for every action, every stamp and every penny are Subpostmasters. And that accountability is managed by a totally corrupt computer system which is not fit for purpose. And a system that is policed by a corrupt hierarchy who spout the party line over and over – “Horizon is robust and works very well”, “You are the only person in the whole network who is having problems.” – Nigel Allen [Malcolm’s Contracts Manager] told me that.

    Auditors arrive, turn your business into a crime scene, provide no written evidence, get the Contracts Manager on the phone after just one-and-a half hours and his first statement is: “Well – you need to resign.”

    When I reacted to this he just hung up – he knew he didn’t have to argue with me – everything is stacked in his favour. He knows I am going to crash and burn. After all, Subpostmasters are totally expendable.

    You are belittled by the whole process, you can’t prove your side of the argument, you can’t defend yourself, there is no support, no honest fair process, you are alone.

    It’s too much for many. You feel abandoned, tainted and that is what they want. A quick call, grab some money, move on to the next victim. Leaving heartache, anguish and devastation in their wake.

    If you’re lucky, and I was, someone steps up, trusts you and guides you through to the calm times. They carry the whole burden until you recover. Eventually you dig in, start afresh, reinvent and move on. But the hurt and pain is always there, buried deep, suppressed, but always eating away.

    After a stroke you are known as a ‘stroke survivor’. I’m lucky enough to consider myself a Post Office survivor as well – but they damaged me and tried to damage my self, my worth, my family, my business and my community.

    What do I want from the the Post Office?

    – Significant compensation paid to all victims including the 555 [claimants in the Bates v Post Office litigation] now. Plus the costs that are owed to the 555. It will never bring back loved ones lost or replace all the lost years but it will allow every victim to move forward with some sense of security and with less stress, anxiety and hurt.

    – Post Office to start behaving with honesty and integrity. Providing full and open disclosure going forward. They will never extinguish the deeply embedded toxic culture that still exists until there is root and branch change. This change will only come through closing this devastating chapter fully, by coming clean and admitting all the lies and exposing all the guilty at all levels of the organisation.

    I fear for this inquiry in the long run, because the actions of the Post office previously all show that they will do anything at any cost to protect themselves. The civil case [Bates v Post Office group litigation] was fought in the most aggressive manner by Post Office and when they attempted to recuse Judge Fraser and tarnish his reputation, it showed everyone how low they are prepared to go.

    Be careful, Sir Wyn, and your colleagues here at the inquiry. Post Office will try every underhand, dishonest and evil tactic to destroy any threat and they have powerful friends who will back them all the way. They never want the truth to come out. I fear for all your reputations and well being.

    Messrs. Scully [Postal Affairs Minister], Kwarteng [Business Secretary] and Read [Post Office Chief Executive], through your delaying and blocking of proper compensation for all the victims of this scandal you are as guilty and complicit as [Paula] Vennells, [Angela] van den Bogerd, Elaine Ridge and Nigel Allen and all the others who bullied and terrorised so many.

    Sort it out now – do the decent thing for once and put the victims first.”


    After putting Mr Simpson’s statement on twitter, I went to Derbyshire, where I had been invited to read from my book in a pub (the Royal Oak in Ockbrook – see below). There was a member of the 555 present (Tracy McFadden, who spoke very movingly), several serving Subpostmasters, a CPS lawyer, a police officer, a lawyer representing 11 convicted former Subpostmasters and two senior Post Office executives. I finished by reading Malcolm’s statement to the room, and I will continue to read it at every event I go to.

    The Royal Oak function room
  • Numbers Matter

    The number of people affected by the Horizon scandal is a question news editors used to ask me and journalists used to ask themselves when trying to get some kind of handle on scale of this story. This was in the bad old days when the Post Office refused to give out information and no one else had a record of it.

    Alan Bates from the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance always had a perceptive view of the likely scale. In our very first conversation in 2010 he told me the number of people affected could be “the high hundreds, possibly more”. I thought that sounded unlikely.

    Computer Weekly’s seminal 2009 article which broke the story featured seven people.

    The Welsh-language Taro Naw documentary strand, which broadcast its first investigation the same year, found a further 29.

    By the time I did my first investigation for the BBC in 2011, that number had expanded to 55.

    Then, in 2013, the Post Office’s own Complaint and Mediation scheme attracted the hitherto unimaginable figure of 150.

    In 2017, at the first open hearing of the High Court litigation, we were told that 198 people had signed up as claimants. This included people who had been forced to hand over money and/or been sacked, as well as those who had been prosecuted and convicted.

    By the time the group litigation at the High Court began in 2018, there were more than 500 claimants. Of those claimants 74 had been prosecuted and 61 had criminal convictions.

    It was only after the claimants had secured their stunning victory at the High Court that the true scale of the scandal became apparent. In April 2020 the Post Office told me it was looking at “around 500 additional cases … which resulted in convictions.”

    That was the moment the doors were blown off. We knew there were 500+ people involved in the civil litigation – ie people who had lost money over the scandal, but now the Post Office was fessing up to “around 500criminal convictions using Horizon evidence.

    This admission came at the same time thousands of people were dying of a horrible virus, which rightly dominated the news agenda. I passed the figure to the excellent Tom Witherow at the Daily Mail. He and his editor were equally astounded, but given what was going on in the world, we were lucky it made p27.

    On 25 May 2020 we were told the Post Office was “reviewing” 900 prosecutions since 1999, then, in April 2021 we were given the final reckoning – the Post Office believed 736 convictions between 2000 and 2013 might be unsafe . This briefly increased to 738 convictions between 2000 and 2015, but in the last couple of weeks the Post Office has settled on a number of 706.

    The number has reduced from 736 “as further information was received during the work” the Post Office is doing to investigate prosecutions based on Horizon IT evidence.

    Of these 706 “94… have now been through the appeal Courts” with “71 convictions overturned and 23 dismissed/abandoned/refused permission” (the 72nd conviction which was overturned was a DWP prosecution based on Post Office Horizon IT evidence).

    On 11 January the Post Office chief executive told Parliament that 736 convictions were unsafe. If the Post Office is now saying it believes 706 convictions might be unsafe, of which 23 are unlikely to be overturned, we are down to the high six hundreds.

    Getting the numbers right matters, as is remembering that every number represents a person and a family being put through hell. The fact these figures are still in “the high hundreds” is almost insane. And that’s before you begin to count the thousands of Postmasters who weren’t prosecuted, but who were still forced to hand over money to cover the holes in their branch accounts. Many of these individuals lost their life savings. Some were sacked anyway, losing their business investment and livelihoods.

    I’m rather glad there is going to be a statutory inquiry, so we can at last begin to understand how this happened.

    NB – all the unlinked stats above are referenced in my book, which is available below.

  • Recusal Top Dog Revealed

    Lord Neuberger, former President of the Supreme Court. Pic copyright the Royal Society

    One of the most extraordinary episodes in the Bates v Post Office group litigation was the Post Office’s attempt in March 2019, in the middle of the Horizon trial at the High Court, to have the managing judge, Mr Justice Fraser, recuse himself on the grounds his first (Common Issues) trial judgment was somehow biased.

    During the recusal hearing, which took place in April 2019, the Post Office’s QC, Lord Grabiner – a true legal Big Dog – told Mr Justice Fraser:

    “This is regarded as an extremely serious application to be making. It was made at board level within the client and it also involved the need for me to be got up to speed from a standing start. And I am not the only judicial figure or barrister that has looked at this… It has also been looked at by another very senior person before the decision was taken to make this application.”

    The hitherto unnamed “judicial figure or barrister” involved in the recusal attempt was Lord (David) Neuberger, former President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, now Lord Grabiner’s colleague at One Essex Court chambers. This information has been confirmed to me in a much-delayed answer to a Freedom of Information request I made in November last year. The delay was due to the Post Office deciding whether or not it was in the public interest to tell me.

    The shadowy “judicial figure” has always been the subject of intense speculation in the legal and political world, not least because almost everyone I spoke to thought the recusal attempt during the Horizon trial was both morally illegitimate and deeply cynical.

    Every legally-qualified person I spoke to variously thought the recusal attempt was desperate, doomed to fail and/or little more than a delaying tactic. And let’s be clear what it was delaying – justice. It prolonged the agony for hundreds of people who had their lives materially changed for the worse by the Post Office.

    “Absurd” application

    At the time the application to recuse Mr Justice Fraser was made, Patrick Green, the claimants’ QC, told the court it was “likely – if not calculated – to derail these proceedings.”

    Once the application got to the Court of Appeal it was given the contempt it deserved. Lord Justice Coulson described it as “misconceived”, “fatally flawed”, “untenable” and “absurd.”

    Coulson set out his findings in some detail over 19 pages, but emphasised he was only doing so “because of the volume and nature of the criticisms which have been made and the importance of the group litigation to both parties.”

    He made it clear he was not giving such a detailed ruling “because of the merits of the application itself,” which he said was “without substance.”

    Lord Coulson added:

    “It is a great pity that the recusal application and this application for permission to appeal have had the effect of delaying the conclusion of the critical Horizon sub-trial. Indeed, the mere making of these applications could have led to the collapse of that sub-trial altogether. Although I can reach no concluded view on the matter, I can at least understand why the [claimants] originally submitted on 21 March that that was its purpose.”

    Neuberger’s involvement

    Given the opprobrium heaped by all sides on the recusal application, one wonders why on earth Neuberger got involved. He must have known how his seniority would be weaponised.

    Lord Grabiner’s statement that he was “not the only judicial figure or barrister that has looked at this” was careful and deliberate. Fraser was being warned off.

    In his rejection of the recusal application, Lord Justice Coulson said:

    “Such a comment, presumably made in terrorem, should not have been made at least without proper explanation of its relevance.”

    It wasn’t explained. It was left hanging there. Well – at least we now know who it is.

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