By Tony Collins
The BBC’s consumer correspondent Coletta Smith reported yesterday that 400 payments to sub-postmasters have been made as part of the Post Office’s “Historical Shortfall Scheme”.
Smith also reports on Anjana and Baljit Sethi who are among 2,000 other sub-postmasters who are still waiting for compensation under the scheme.
The Post Office said 2000 claims are “progressing” and added, “We are committed to fairly resolving claims, with assessment by an independent panel, and are keeping people updated on their cases.”
The Sethis have been struggling from the fall-out of the Post Office IT scandal for nearly 20 years. They are now into their 70s. They lost their business, their jobs and were forced into bankruptcy. They could not afford to pay an unexplained shortfall of £17,000 shown on the Post Office’s centrally-run Horizon system. Fujitsu built the system. The Post Office decided to close the Sethis’ store in which the couple had invested £120,000.
Post Office IT scandal
The Post Office required that sub-postmasters make good from their own pockets unexplained shortfalls shown on an untrustworthy accounting system Horizon. It also wrongly prosecuted more than 700 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses for theft, false accounting and fraud on the basis of Horizon evidence. It’s the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history and no democracy anywhere in the world has wrongly convicting hundreds of people on the basis of defective technology.
Many victims of the scandal lost hundreds of thousands of pounds each. In total, the Post Office wrongly held more than 3,400 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses responsible for unexplained shortfalls shown on the Horizon system.
A group of 555 sub-postmasters and sub-mistresses led by Alan Bates exposed the scandal. But the government has decided not to include the group’s members in publicly-funded compensation deals for victims of the scandal.
Bates, with help, raised the money to sue the Post Office in the High Court. The case proved that the Post Office was wrong to claim that Horizon was robust. The judge, Mr Justice Fraser, found that Horizon was not remotely robust. He also found that the Post Office was wrong to hold sub-postmasters liable for unexplained shortfalls. But the group ran out of litigation funding and had to settle the case prematurely. The Post Office’s £57.75m settlement left the Bates 555 with huge losses because £46m of the money went in costs. Most of those in the group have not received back money they were made to give the Post Office to cover shortfalls shown on Horizon.
They see this injustice that as being compounded by the government’s willingness to pay fair compensation to sub-postmasters who did not sue the Post Office. Those victims of the scandal who did not take part in the litigation have been eligible to join the Post Office’s Historical Shortfall Scheme which is not open to the Bates 555.
About 2,400 people who joined the scheme are due to receive about £63,000 each on average, the Post Office having said in its annual accounts that £153m has been set aside for compensation claims. The postal affairs minister Paul Scully has announced that government will help the Post Office to pay the claims.
In contrast, Scully has made no commitment to pay fair compensation to those who sued the Post Office. This means the litigants have received, after group costs, an average of only £20,000 each – a third of the average being paid to non-litigants.
Critics say this unfairness has been further compounded by the government’s decision to set up a public inquiry into the scandal that specifically rules out any consideration of the litigation settlement deal. The Bates 555 is threatening to boycott the inquiry unless compensation becomes part of its formal remit.
The Post Office has confirmed the 400 payments. Its spokesperson said,
“We set up the Historical Shortfall Scheme to provide redress for those who may have experienced shortfalls related to previous versions of the computer system Horizon. Around 400 compensation payments have been made through the scheme and other claims are progressing. We are committed to fairly resolving claims, with assessment by an independent panel, and are keeping people updated on their cases.”
Asked whether there is any openness and transparency related to the payments and whether any of the payments were contingent on recipients signing so-called gagging clauses, the Post Office spokesperson said scheme applicants are “not asked to sign confidentiality agreements as a condition of accepting compensation offers”.
The Banner Lady – Tim McCormack’s blog on the excellent work of Eleanor Shaikh
The Great Post Office Trial – journalist Nick Wallis’ BBC R4 series
Post Office IT inquiry finally begins after chances to address problems were ignored – Karl Flinders, Computer Weekly