Fresh spotlight on Post Office IT scandal reopens old wounds

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Vijay Parekh had just turned 50 when the Post Office took him to court on trumped-up charges alleging he had stolen tens of thousands of pounds from the government-owned business.

The former sub-postmaster, now 65, was pursued by investigators and lawyers acting for the Post Office, who tried to convince him that pleading guilty would help him avoid prison. “I even had a probation report saying that a custodial sentence should not be there, but the judge took a different view,” he said.

Parekh, from West London, spent six months in prison before being released on curfew. It would be more than a decade before his conviction, alongside those of 38 other sub-postmasters, was overturned in 2021.

He and the other victims of the Horizon IT scandal have been caught up in a maelstrom this week, triggered by the airing of an ITV drama into the affair that has gripped the nation.

In 2019, the High Court ruled that Fujitsu’s Horizon IT system contained bugs and errors that had erroneously flagged account shortfalls. By this time, the Post Office had forced at least 4,000 sub-postmasters — individuals who run local branches — to make repayments based on this data.

Less than a week after Mr Bates vs The Post Office was broadcast, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took to the despatch box and declared he would introduce legislation to exonerate more than 700 people who had been prosecuted between 2000-2014 using the Fujitsu data.

While the drama and the attention that followed have been welcomed by sub-postmasters, it has done little to settle their mental burden.

Parekh said the spotlight had “brought back all the feelings of what happened and all the pressures”, and while it had shone a light on the Post Office and Fujitsu, two of the culprits, he would not feel vindicated until those who were culpable were prosecuted.

“Executives are still working, getting huge amounts of money in senior roles. We haven’t been able to move on, because our lives were ruined,” he said.

Postmasters celebrate outside the High Court after their convictions were quashed
Postmasters celebrate outside the High Court after their convictions were quashed © Mark Thomas/Alamy

“They made a criminal out of you,” said Rubbina Shaheen, a 59-year-old former sub-postmaster in Shrewsbury. “That would keep going round in my mind, everything would go round in my mind and I would get depressed.”

Rubbina was handed a year-long sentence when she pleaded guilty after shortfalls showed up in her Post Office branch’s accounts. She and her husband Mohamed were prepared to battle her case in court, but the prosecution offered a plea bargain shortly before the trial started.

Mohamed Sami and Rubbina Shaheen
Mohamed Sami and Rubbina Shaheen © Andrew Fox/FT

Prosecution lawyers told Rubbina that if she agreed to the lesser charge of false accounting, rather than theft, she might avoid prison.

This was a tactic employed by the Post Office to coerce sub-postmasters into entering a guilty plea, although many would still wind up imprisoned, the public inquiry into the affair was told.

Under English law, anyone has a right to bring a private prosecution but the Post Office was in the unique position of being the claimant, investigator and prosecutor in cases relating to its own finances.

Alan Bates outside the High Court in 2019
Former sub-postmaster Alan Bates outside the High Court in 2019 © Sam Tobin/PA

It used criminal convictions in court to seek compensation orders to recoup costs from sub-postmasters, while it benefited from legislation drafted in the late 1990s that maintained that evidence based on computer systems data was robust unless proven otherwise.

Patrick Green KC, lead barrister for the sub-postmasters in the case, said the Post Office had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence as required.

“The big difference is that the Post Office had all the information available to them and not only did the sub-postmasters not have the information but when they asked for it in these criminal cases, the Post Office said: ‘You’d have to pay for it’,” Green noted.

The combination of questionable legal tactics, large financial resources and the fact that the burden of proof was shifted on to victims were highlighted by the public inquiry into the scandal.

Janet Skinner outside the inquiry at Aldwych House
Former sub-postmaster Janet Skinner outside the inquiry at Aldwych House © Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

Parekh also pointed out that many sub-postmasters were told they were the only ones under investigation, forcing them to go through the process alone in the pre-social media era until campaigners were able to better organise in the late 2000s.

Lord James Arbuthnot, a Conservative peer who has campaigned on behalf of sub-postmasters since 2009, said the television drama had “brought a level of public fury” that should be welcomed.

But, he added, it had also been “traumatic” for the victims, “many of whom have been forced to relive what has happened to them”.

The media descended on the public inquiry as it resumed at Aldwych House in London on Thursday.

Janet Skinner, a former sub-postmaster who travelled for hours from Hull in the north of England to hear from what others called a “mafia like” Post Office investigator, said she “had gained a lot more strength”.

“The only nice thing about it is watching them on the other side being questioned and probed about things they don’t like. That they’re not sure about,” she added.

Kevan Jones
Kevan Jones, an MP and member of the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board © James Manning/PA Wire

Skinner was 35 when she was convicted in 2007 after a £59,000 shortfall appeared on her branches’ Horizon system. She pleaded guilty to false accounting and served 10 weeks in prison separated from her two teenage children.

During her incarceration, she was placed on suicide watch and a later health crisis left her temporarily paralysed, forcing her to relearn how to walk.

Her mobility has improved in recent years but the demands of the inquiry and ongoing compensation claims have left her exhausted, she said. Others described frequent panic attacks and insomnia, while Parekh suffered a heart attack in 2017 in the midst of building his case seeking exoneration.

The government has offered £600,000 in full and final settlement to each sub-postmaster with an overturned conviction should they wish to avoid a formal claim.

However, the three victims who spoke with the Financial Times said they were proceeding with a full claim, as they considered the figure paltry given the scale of distress and loss of income. and in Shaheen’s case, the repossession of her home.

The Post Office has paid out less than 15 per cent of the £1bn set aside by the government for the compensation of victims in the Horizon scandal, under three separate schemes. 

A separate government offer of £75,000 to those involved in the 2019 High Court case has also been rebuffed by some of those still seeking justice.

Kevan Jones, Labour MP for North Durham and a member of the government-appointed Horizon Compensation Advisory Board, said the past week had been “horrendous” for the sub-postmasters. “But what’s commendable about them is they want to tell their stories and it’s very important.”

Many of the former sub-postmasters are determined to fight on, despite the personal toll. “It’s worth it if it means another person comes forward and doesn’t have to feel alone anymore,” Skinner said.

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