By Tony Collins
In a two-page spread at the weekend, the Daily Mail reported on what some MPs have called a national scandal – how the lives of individuals have been ruined by numbers shown on an imperfect computer system.
Pregnant sub-postmistress Seema Misra was one of those individuals. She went to jail.
She had paid £200,000 for her post office in West Byfleet, Surrey. She experienced problems with Horizon from the day she opened in June 2005, said the Daily Mail.
Small amounts of money, under £100, appeared missing at first. Under a contract with the Post Office, sub-postmasters are responsible for any losses. To balance the books, Seema put in thousands of pounds of her own money but the deficits shown on Horizon continued. She could no longer afford to balance the books using her own money.
In January 2008, two auditors turned up unannounced and found a £74,609 shortfall. They suspended Seema on the spot and sent someone else to run the post office. Naively, she felt relief, said the Daily Mail. She thought her problems were over. She thought the Post Office would sort it out. “They were supposed to look after me,” she told the Mail.
In fact the Post Office took her to court. It charged her with theft and false accounting.
Standing in the dock at Guildford Crown Court in 2010, she was sentenced to 15 months in prison. She felt an agonising pain in her stomach and blacked out, said the Mail. She was taken to hospital and, when she came round, found herself in handcuffs. She’d never had as much as a speeding fine before.
Overcome with shame, she asked a prison officer to borrow his coat to put over her wrists.
She told the Mail, “Changing into my prison uniform that day was the worst experience of my life. If I hadn’t been pregnant, I would definitely have killed myself.”
Seema’s case is one of dozens being considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The Commission could ask the Court of Appeal to review the convictions.
More than 500 former sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, including Seema, are suing the Post Office for financial loss, personal injury, deceit, duress, unconscionable dealing, harassment and unjust enrichment. The Post Office says it is robustly defending the case.
Conservative peer Lord Arbuthnot, a former MP who has led a parliamentary inquiry into the Post Office’s handling of the sub-postmaster cases, told the Mail,
“The behaviour of the Post Office throughout has been disgraceful. This is an organisation which is owned by the public, which needs to behave in a way the public should feel proud of.”
At one level it is difficult to understand how a national institution with the Post Office’s reputation could take actions and decisions that led to a pregnant sub-postmistress finding herself recovering in hospital from a black-out – in handcuffs.
At another level, the Post Office’s decisions are understandable. Public institutions have access to an endless supply of public money with which to justify their decisions and actions.
Some at the MoD and RAF spent 17 years defending their decisions against two dead pilots whom they accused of causing a Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre that killed four crew and 25 senior intelligence specialists. Eventually, the miscarriage of justice was corrected and the pilots’ names were cleared but only because a minister intervened.
The Post Office has spent £5m on the High Court case so far, to justify its allegations against about 550 sub-postmasters. The case will eventually cost much more than £5m.
What of the personal accountabilities of those who are spending that money?
More importantly, what are the real costs of the Post Office’s decisions and actions in terms of human misery and the ruination of lives? Hundreds of lives.
Post offices are regarded as vital assets within local communities. It’s generally believed that the Post Office runs village post offices. It doesn’t. In the main, they are run by self-employed businessmen and women. These sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses buy local post offices and run them under contract to the Post Office.
In acquiring post offices, the purchasers become the public face of the Post Office. They are in effect the Post Office’s local representatives.
How is it then that Post Office corporate HQ can trust the numbers shown an imperfect computer system more than they trust the words – the heartfelt, bewildered explanations – of their local representatives -those 557 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses?
Optimists will say that sense will prevail eventually. Indeed Mr Justice Fraser, the judge in the case of Bates v the Post Office, has shown a deeply impressive grasp of the labyrinthine technological and legal issues involved in the case.
But the question nobody can answer is at what cost sense will eventually prevail. For the human cost can never be measured.
An appalling cover-up? – Daily Mail two-page spread 1 December 2018
Postofficetrial – Nick Wallis’s coverage of the High Court case
Post Office held back information on Horizon IT system errors – part of Karl Flinders’ coverage of the High Court case in Computer Weekly
Shedding new light on Post Office Horizon controversy? – how institutions will defend their technology whatever new facts emerge