By Tony Collins
In an article published today, Conservative peer Lord Arbuthnot asks, “Who would buy an organisation which had this awful reputation for skulduggery and deceit?”
He criticises the absence of “full and proper” compensation for 555 members of the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance [JFSA], who brought the Post Office IT scandal to light. For more than a decade, first as an MP, former defence minister James Arbuthnot has sought justice for victims of the scandal.
Separately, Alan Bates, founder of the JFSA, questions why anyone would want to buy a Post Office branch in the light of the scandal. He says the treatment of the JFSA’s 555 victims bears testament to how little the Post Office has changed in the wake of the scandal.
Over 14 years, from 2000 to 2014, the Post Office prosecuted a total of 736 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses based on data derived from a flawed computer system, Horizon, which was built and supplied by Fujitsu. The Post Office concealed Horizon’s flaws from the courts, sub-postmasters, Parliament, the public and media.
Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses who had been mystified at the cause of financial shortfalls being shown on the Horizon accounting system, were prosecuted for theft, false accounting and fraud. Some went to prison. Many were financially ruined, shunned by their communities and suffered poor health. Some have since died.
Alan Bates, through his legal team, brought details of the scandal to light by suing the Post Office in the High Court. But the government and Whitehall appear to have reacted badly to the litigation’s uncovering of the widest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. Bates sees that the government and Whitehall, in not paying fair compensation, are punishing the JFSA’s 555 members for bringing the scandal to public attention.
Bates’s article on the JFSA’s website
Bates says the JFSA is often asked about the merit of buying a post office after all that has happened and whether the situation has improved. He says that the Post Office, a once-respected organisation, “has been brought into such disrepute by the way it has been treating subpostmasters that the brand has suffered irreparable damage”. He questions whether the Post Office has changed since the High Court case. He says,
“There have many words and promises of how Post Office has changed, ‘seen the light’ and how things will be different in the future, but what has been the reality?
Nick Read, the Post Office’s CEO, has said the Post Office “caused what for some has been very deep pain”. Read added that “absent the possibility of turning the clock back, compensation appropriate to that pain must follow”.
In May 2021, Boris Johnson and the Postal Service minister Paul Scully also promised compensation when speaking on Zoom to three of the 555 JFSA members. Johnson and Scully promised to work with the three and other victims to “ensure they were quickly and fairly compensated for the devastation the Horizon scandal had caused to their lives” and told them, ‘We will work with you to get something that is fair and speedy”. But fair government compensation for the “Bates 555” group has not materialised.
Bates criticises Johnson and Scully. “.. the 555 victims group have been left in financial ruin having paid £46m to cover the costs of the legal action that thousands of others are benefitting from, and they were only left with just over £10m to share, when their true losses are closer to £350m.” He says,
“The truth is, that both Post Office and government are happy to make wild promises and then simply ignore them. However we all know it is deeds not words that really matter.”
Bates suggests that no JFSA member believes justice has been done given the lack of financial redress. On whether things have improved and whether a potential buyer of a branch can trust Post Office, Bates says that, if the questions are considered on the basis of deeds and not words, the answer is, he adds, a “very definite no”.
Below is the article by Lord Arbuthnot which is published today on the PoliticsHome website. Lord Arbuthot writes ….
“You may have thought the Post Office Horizon scandal was over, and that it had been dealt with. It isn’t. It hasn’t been.
“The plight of the subpostmasters, wrongfully accused by the government-owned Post Office of stealing money when it was actually the new Horizon accounting system that was to blame, has horrified the country. In April this year we saw the Court of Appeal overturned the largest number of miscarriages of justice ever to be considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
“It clearly horrified the Prime Minister too, because he said on the day of the verdicts:, ‘… we’ll have to make sure that people get properly looked after because it’s clear that an appalling injustice has been done’.
“So what have the government/Post Office been doing about it? First, the government has set up an inquiry (which is now, after the scathing judgement of the Court of Appeal, a statutory one) under the chairmanship of retired High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams.
“Second, just as Parliament went into recess, it was announced that those who had had their convictions overturned could apply for up to £100,000 in interim compensation. This was an acknowledgement that the story was a shocking one, but it was also an attempt to reduce the claims for malicious prosecutions that will be made.
“Alongside that, the Post Office has set up a compensation scheme for wronged subpostmasters, called the Historic Shortfall Scheme, which is slowly – oh so slowly – beginning to pay some of the smaller claims.
“But – and this is shameful – the 555 subpostmasters who brought the matter to light by taking the brave step of taking the Post Office to court, are expressly excluded from that shortfall scheme. This is because, in their bitterly contested litigation where the judge described the Post Office’s obstinate denial of the problem as “the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat”, the subpostmasters were forced (having run up legal and funding fees of £45 million) to settle the action on unfavourable terms.
“Sir Wyn’s inquiry is forbidden from looking into this, despite the duress applied on the subpostmasters, their inequality of bargaining power as against a taxpayer-backed Post Office, and the fact that when they settled the case the subpostmasters did not know (because the Post Office kept it secret) that the Post Office had been advised in 2013 that false evidence had been given against the subpostmasters. The settlement should be set aside.
“So where does this leave the Prime Minister’s words? I can tell you where it leaves the 555 subpostmasters – impoverished, many bankrupt, many having lost their homes and some their family (having been told by the Post Office that they must sack their apparently dishonest relations who worked for them), and, appallingly, some dead through suicide or illness brought on by this shocking story. Many of the group litigants were not convicted – they reluctantly paid the Post Office, so that the recently announced compensation is not available to them. The Post Office is keeping their money.
“Quite apart from the issue of morality, this jeopardises the government’s eventual hope of selling the Post Office as a going concern.
“The Post Office could, if circumstances were right, act as the vibrant heart of both rural and urban communities, even acting as a bank in those many areas where banks have closed their branches, or as a government portal providing essential services. But who would buy an organisation which had this awful reputation for skulduggery and deceit? It is in the interests of the government, as well as being the right thing to do, to give full and proper compensation to all those wronged by this awful saga.”
Nick Wallis’ forthcoming book “The Great Post Office Scandal”.
Overturned convictions of subpostmasters mount up, but 555 victims no closer to justice – Karl Finders, Computer Weekly