Chirag Sidhpura's closing statement
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.
"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.
If you would like to know more about this story, please consider buying my book, The Great Post Office Scandal. If you purchase a copy through Bath Publishing you will be invited to join a "secret" email list for free. This irregular newsletter provides updates on my work documenting the various twists and turns of this story. 10% of the book's proceeds goes to the Horizon Scandal Fund. Many thanks.