Post Office pursued vindictive prosecutions against subpostmasters

The appeal court victory of 29 of those wrongfully convicted has opened the floodgates for hundreds more claims.

Proletarian writers

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Another fiasco of privatisation, the Post Office covered up knowledge of its slipshod IT system – brought in under a Labour government – and hundreds of subpostmasters were wrongly accused and convicted of theft. The impact on the lives of those blamed for financial losses misreported by the system has been immeasurable.

Proletarian writers

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On Friday 23 April, the court of appeal (CoA), sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, overturned what prime minister Boris Johnson described as an “appalling injustice” that had been suffered by 39 former subpostmasters.

These latest thirty-nine complainants follow six others who won appeals in 2020, and they are sure to be followed by many more victims in this unfolding and shocking case.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which investigates potential miscarriages of justice, is reviewing a further 22 cases and is asking anyone else affected to get in touch with them. It has been estimated that compensation payments arising from all cases will eventually top £350m.

In 1999, during the long and low-key run-up to the total privatisation of Royal Mail and the Post Office, the then management and the Labour government of Tony Blair rolled out the Horizon computer system to all post offices. In May 1996, under John Major’s Tory administration, the system had been trialled as a localised pilot; three years later a £1bn contract was awarded to extend it across the country.

Initially, the system was meant to serve the government’s benefits agency as well as the Post Office, but ministers at the Department of Social Security decided to withdraw from the arrangement.

The Horizon system was developed by Japanese company Fujitsu and used for a variety of tasks, including accounting and stocktaking. But it appears from evidence given at the Court of Appeal that the system was dogged from very early on by significant and recurring bugs that could cause the system to misreport finances involving both very substantial and somewhat smaller sums of money.

Despite these known issues in its reporting, Horizon-based ‘evidence’ was used by the Post Office to prosecute and convict 736 people, many of whom were imprisoned or heavily fined. All of those convicted lost their reputations and their livelihoods – businesses into which that they had invested time and resources over many years.

Finding employment after serving a jail sentence for theft is never easy, but for individuals to find themselves in that position through no fault of their own, and to find that themselves powerless even to be heard, never mind to get redress, cannot but have an extremely negative impact on both the mental health and the personal relationships of those concerned.

One of those wrongfully convicted is thought to have taken their own life. Most have had their lives ruined, with many having had to move house in order to escape hostility from the communities in which they had formerly lived and worked.

As a recent Guardian article pointed out: “The plight of the managers was intensified by the fact that the Post Office was the private prosecuting authority, supposed victim and guardian of the disputed evidence in all the cases.”

Solicitor Neil Hudgell, who represented 29 of the former subpostmasters in court, said that the Post Office “has been found to have been an organisation that not only turned a blind eye to the failings in its hugely expensive IT system, but positively promoted a culture of cover-up and subterfuge in the pursuit of reputation and profit”. He added: “They readily accepted loss of life, liberty and sanity for many ordinary people as a price worth paying in that pursuit.”

Lord Justice Holroyde, speaking at the appeal court, said that the Post Office “knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon” and had a “clear duty to investigate” the system’s defects. Instead, however, managers “consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable” and “effectively steamrolled over any subpostmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy”.

Speaking after his name had been cleared, Harjinder Butoy, who had been convicted of theft and jailed for three years and four months in 2008, said that those responsible for the scandal “need to be punished, seriously punished”, adding: “They’re just bullies, that’s all they are. Somebody needs to really, really sort this out and charge them for this.”

Hughie ‘Noel’ Thomas, who was also cleared, said he had been fighting for 16 years to get justice, noting that throughout that time, “people have walked away from this who were responsible”.

Who were those people in the know who just walked away? One of them was certainly Paula Vennells, former chief executive of the mail from 2012-19, who resigned that position just a couple of months before the publication of a 2019 report that detailed the scandal.

Following this latest decision of the appeal court, Ms Vennells quit her roles as a non-executive director of high street chains Morrisons and Dunelm, for which she has pocketed fees of £89,000 and £30,000 respectively in the past year. She also resigned her role as an associate minister in the diocese of St Albans, although it is rumoured that the bishop, the Rt Rev Alan Smith, whose mother was a subpostmistress, is considering defrocking her.

Even MPs in Parliament, a group not known for worrying overmuch about the fate of working people, are starting to call for the punishment of Vennells, and for the stripping of her CBE.

Ms Vennells, asserting that she was quitting all her positions in order to “focus fully on working with the ongoing government inquiry”, said that she was “truly sorry for the suffering caused” to those who had been victims of the organisation that she oversaw and whose pleas of innocence she ignored.

Her statement might have carried a little more weight if it had been made when the first doubts about Horizon-based prosecutions and convictions were brought to her attention.