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Post Office would stand by prosecution of more than 350 sub-postmasters, boss told minister in letter | UK News

The boss of the Post Office wrote a letter to ministers saying he would stand by the prosecution of more than 350 of the sub-postmasters convicted in the Horizon scandal.

Chief executive Nick Read sent the letter to Justice Secretary Alex Chalk last month, informing him that the Post Office would be “bound to oppose” appeals against at least 369 prosecutions.

The document was dated 9 January – the day before the government announced plans for a new law to exonerate and compensate sub-postmasters who had been wrongly convicted in the Horizon scandal.

Mr Read’s letter was published by the Post Office on Thursday, as the government confirmed it was pressing ahead with the legislation to automatically quash convictions by July.

In response, the government said it would introduce “safeguards” to avoid “anyone who was rightly convicted” attempting to “take advantage” of the compensation scheme.

“Innocent post-masters have suffered an intolerable and unprecedented miscarriage of justice at the hands of the Post Office, which is why we are introducing legislation to swiftly exonerate all those convicted as a result of the Horizon scandal,” a government spokesperson said.

In the letter, Mr Read wrote that the Post Office had conducted an external legal review into prosecutions linked to the Horizon IT system between 1999 and 2015.

Nick Read, the Post Office chief
Image:
Nick Read, chief executive of the Post Office. Pic: PA

The period saw hundreds of sub-postmasters prosecuted because of discrepancies in the IT system, in what has been called the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history.

Mr Read wrote that the review found that the Post Office was “bound” to oppose appeals against 369 of the roughly 700 prosecutions made in the period of the Horizon scandal because the evidence relied on in these cases was unrelated to the faulty system.

He wrote that a further 11 cases were under review, while there was insufficient evidence to take a decision either way in 132 cases.

“This clearly raises acute political, judicial, and communications challenges against the very significant public and parliamentary pressure for some form of acceleration or by-passing of the normal appeals process,” he wrote.

Attached to Mr Read’s letter was a note by Nick Vamos, the head of business crime at Peters & Peters, the solicitors for the Post Office.

In the note, Mr Vamos wrote that it was “highly likely that the vast majority of people who have not yet appealed were, in fact, guilty as charged and were safely convicted”.

The publication of the letters comes after allegations from the former chairman of the Post Office, Henry Staunton, who claimed there was “no real movement” on payouts to sub-postmasters until after the airing of ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office earlier this year.

British Justice Secretary Alex Chalk leaves Number 10 Downing Street after a Cabinet meeting in London, Britain, December 5, 2023. REUTERS/Hollie Adams
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Justice Secretary Alex Chalk. Pic: Reuters

Read more from Sky News:
Post Office Horizon scandal: The unanswered questions about legislation
Who is former Post Office chairman, Henry Staunton?

The claim was denied by the government and sparked a high-profile row between Mr Staunton and Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch.

While making the allegations, Mr Staunton revealed the existence of Mr Read’s letter.

The Post Office published the letter and the note on Thursday with a comment which said they were sent to “explain the work that the Post Office had requested its legal counsel, Peters & Peters, undertake to proactively identify, on the papers available, any convictions that could be unsafe”.

“This was primarily to offer the government any support that might assist them as they consider relevant issues in advance of passing legislation, without any value judgement on what the correct course of action might be,” it said in a statement, alongside publishing the letters.

The Post Office also said the note provided by Peters & Peters was “not solicited” by them and was sent to “express the personal views of its author”.

“(The) Post Office was in no way seeking to persuade the government against mass exoneration,” it said.

“We are fully supportive of any steps taken by government to speed up the exoneration of those with wrongful convictions and to provide redress to victims, with the information having been provided to inform that consideration.”

Henry Staunton
Image:
Henry Staunton

On Thursday, the government announced it aimed to get the exonerations done “as soon as possible before the summer recess” on 23 July.

Writing to the House of Commons, Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake said: “As noted in my statement on 10 January, the legislation is likely to exonerate a number of people who were, in fact, guilty of a crime.

“The government accepts that this is a price worth paying in order to ensure that many innocent people are exonerated.”

In an attempt to ensure people are truthful in signing up for compensation linked to convictions being overturned, they will have to sign a disclaimer confirming their innocence.

“Any person found to have signed such a statement falsely in order to gain compensation may be guilty of fraud,” Mr Hollinrake added.

An independent public statutory inquiry is ongoing to establish a clear account of the implementation and failings of the Horizon IT system at the Post Office over its lifetime.

Post Office scandal: Distressed sub-postmasters say Horizon system ‘still causing mystery shortfalls’ | UK News

A group representing almost 1,000 sub-postmasters across the UK has told Sky News the Post Office Horizon system is still causing unexplained shortfalls, which are wrecking businesses.

Voice of the Postmaster (VotP), which was set up to campaign for current staff, alleges the discredited IT software is still generating mysterious missing money.

Marlene Wood, postmistress at Comrie Crieff Post Office in Perthshire, alleges the apparent shortfalls she has been facing are partly linked to Horizon and are eating into her profits.

The 53-year-old, who has been in charge of the branch for more than four years, told Sky News: “My business is failing. I will go under in part due to the discrepancies that I pay back.

“There is no computer system that is fail-safe. There continues to be bugs.”

Ms Wood claimed there was one discrepancy of a couple of hundred pounds.

She said: “I spent the night going through the safe, transactions, notes and couldn’t find anything.

More on Post Office Scandal

“I went to bed and woke up, redeclared my cash amount and there was no discrepancy. It had vanished.

“I am not saying Horizon is to blame for everything but not to the degree that you go to bed and it can magically disappear.”

Ms Wood, who said she is emotionally distressed, estimates she is around £2,000 in the red and is facing losing her livelihood.

She also said her “marriage is gone” and has had to borrow money from her mother.

Ms Wood added: “If it does go under, I am going to have nowhere to live as the house is above the Post Office.

“I will be sleeping on my mum’s couch at the age of 53 with no job, no credit rating and owing, potentially, thousands of pounds. That’s the reality of having a Post Office.”

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Ex-Post Office executive challenged over scandal

In response, Post Office chiefs told Sky News it was “very sorry” to learn of the concerns.

A spokesperson said: “We are very sorry to hear of the experience our postmistress for Comrie Crieff is having.

“Our area manager has visited her to understand the issues and talk through the support that is available which could make a difference to her situation, and we are following this up.”

Read more:
What is the Post Office scandal?
Post Office ‘deceitful’ if it withheld information, says Humza Yousaf
Sub-postmaster who tried to take own life still battling to clear name

It comes after Japanese technology firm Fujitsu said it plans to compensate sub-postmasters wronged in the original Horizon scandal dating back decades.

The multinational company – which developed the Horizon system – is in the spotlight after TV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office renewed public interest in the issue and sparked outrage.

Hundreds of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were prosecuted over claims they were stealing from the Post Office – but the missing money was actually due to errors in the IT software.

A different version of the Horizon software is used today but Voice of the Postmaster claims problems persist with “not a postmaster in the country” unaffected.

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Peter Sewell remains silent over ‘nasty chap’ comment

Sara Barlow, secretary of VotP committee, told Sky News: “Horizon is not the robust system that we’d like to think in 2024.

“Obviously, there’s human error but we are all experienced enough to find where we’ve made an error and rectify it.

“There are plenty of times where things just don’t add up, things don’t make sense, and we don’t know where the shortfall has come from.”

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Ms Barlow, who runs a branch herself, alleges Horizon “absolutely” is to blame.

She said: “There are plenty of times where they can’t account for where the mistakes are coming from, they’ve checked CCTV, action logs.

“I’m sure the system has improved from 2015 but it is still happening. It is still having issues. There are still plenty of people who are having sleepless nights.”

Read more:
Post Office’s Horizon compensation chief to step down from board
Horizon IT system had bugs since 1999, says Fujitsu boss

The Post Office said there have been several versions of Horizon since its introduction in 1999.

A spokesperson added: “And the current version of the system, introduced from 2017, was found in the group litigation to be robust, relative to comparable systems.

“But we are not at all complacent about that and we continue to work with our postmasters to identify and invest in improvements.

“Current postmasters who have concerns about today’s Horizon system are encouraged to raise these with us – including directly with their area manager – so that we can help.”

Post Office scandal back in spotlight as MPs grill Fujitsu bosses and wronged sub-postmasters | Politics News

The Post Office scandal will be back in the spotlight today, when MPs hear evidence from a number of witnesses including campaigner and wronged sub-postmaster Alan Bates.

Mr Bates, whose story inspired the ITV hit drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office, will appear in front of parliament’s Business and Trade Committee alongside other figures, including business minister Kevin Hollinrake and representatives from Fujitsu, which developed Horizon, the faulty IT system at the heart of the scandal.

MPs on the committee will quiz the witnesses about the process for delivering fair and timely compensation for the victims of the scandal, which occurred between 1999 and 2015.

What is the scandal about?

The Post Office Horizon IT scandal saw more than 700 sub-postmasters and mistresses convicted after faulty Fujitsu software made it appear as though money was missing from their branches.

Last Wednesday Rishi Sunak confirmed that all victims of the IT scandal will have their convictions quashed under fast-tracked legislation after growing pressure to take more serious action.

Number 10 also confirmed that sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses would be eligible for a £75,000 upfront payment with the new law, but acknowledged that would not be sufficient for everyone.

More on Post Office Scandal

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Post Office victim: ‘I was spat on’

The move was prompted by the TV drama, Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, which chronicled the campaigners’ two-decade fight for justice and detailed the poor treatment they received at the hands of their employer.

Mr Sunak said last week that the government had paid almost £150m in compensation to over 2,500 victims and pledged that victims would be “swiftly exonerated and compensated”.

Who is appearing before the committee?

Among those who will give evidence to MPs today is Alan Bates, a key member of Justice For Sub-postmasters Alliance whom the ITV drama was named after.

Mr Bates, who was played by the actor Toby Jones in the drama, was one one of six lead claimants in the original court battle with the Post Office. He believes he was dismissed because he flagged up problems with the Horizon system.

Speaking to Sky News ahead of his questioning by MPs, Mr Bates said he had “one concern – and it’s to get the compensation right – that’s it.

“They should be moving heaven and earth to get it done and get it done fast.”

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‘The whole thing is unbelievable’

He will appear alongside Jo Hamilton, who was played by Monica Dolan and whose story also featured heavily in the series.

The sub-postmistress in South Warnborough, Hampshire, previously told Sky News of the pressure she faced to plead guilty and how she felt “backed into a corner”.

“I felt I had a gun held to my head and had no choice,” added Ms Hamilton.

“They said if I pleaded guilty to false accounting and paid the £36,000 shortfall, they would drop the theft charge.

“I was so terrified of going to prison, I couldn’t think of anything else. It was terrifying.”

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‘They made me look like a criminal’

Crucially, the committee will also hear from Paul Patterson, the chief executive of Fujitsu’s Europe arm – the first time an executive has answered questions on the scandal – and Nick Read the current chief executive of the Post Office.

Other witnesses include Dr Neil Hudgell, executive chairman of Hudgell Solicitors, the firm which represented 74 people who have already had their convictions quashed.

Read more:
Who are the key figures in Post Office scandal?
TV drama writer warned ‘nobody would watch’ programme
Post Office scandal: Horizon developer Fujitsu handed £6.8bn in public contracts since 2012

Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, the Tory peer and former MP who has campaigned on behalf of the sub-postmasters for nearly 15 years, will also give evidence.

Postal services minister Kevin Hollinrake – who has argued that figures at the Post Office who are found to be responsible for the scandal should be jailed as the “ultimate deterrent” – will also appear before MPs, as will Carl Cresswell, director of business resilience at the Department for Business and Trade.

What is happening at the Post Office inquiry hearing?

Separately, the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry will continue in London and will hear from Rajbinder Sangha, the release management coordinator of Fujitsu Services and former member of Fujitsu’s fraud and litigation support office.

A statutory inquiry opened in 2021 into what has been described as the “worst miscarriage of justice in recent British legal history”.

On Thursday at the inquiry, former investigator Stephen Bradshaw, who was involved in the criminal investigation of nine sub-postmasters, denied he and others “behaved like mafia gangsters” in the criminal probe of several sub-postmasters.