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Jason Beer QC was speaking at the start of the public inquiry to examine the wrongful convictions of hundreds of postal workers who were accused of theft, fraud or false accounting. Mr Beer, counsel to the inquiry, said: “Lives were ruined, families were torn apart, families were made homeless and destitute. Reputations were destroyed, not least because the crimes which the men and women were convicted of all involved acting dishonestly.
“People who were important, respected and an integral part of the local communities that they served were in some cases shunned. A number of men and women sadly died before the state publicly recognised that they were wrongly convicted.”
Between 2000 and 2014, more than 700 subpostmasters and mistresses were prosecuted based on information from the Horizon system, installed and maintained by Fujitsu.
In December 2019, a High Court judge ruled that Horizon’s system contained a number of “bugs, errors and defects” and there was a “material risk” that shortfalls in Post Office branch accounts were caused by the system.
Baljit Sethi, the first witness at the central London inquiry, broke down in tears as he told how he was left to pick up the bill of £17,000 due to the flaws.
Mr Sethi, 69, and his wife Anjana, 67, who have three children, initially ran a branch near Romford in Essex from 1983.
Mr Sethi, who said he “contemplated suicide”, cried as he told the inquiry: “It was a very successful post office, we never had any problems. We had seven armed robberies but we never let them take a penny. They came with real guns.
“The community loved us. We were so happy. It was the best time of our lives.”
In 2001 Mr Sethi took on another branch in Brentwood, which after one year showed a hole in the accounts of £17,000, which the couple were asked to cover out of their own pocket.
Mr Sethi, who was never charged, said: “I was the only man in the country who ran the post office seven days a week.
“I used to open it at 8am and shut at 8pm.”
Mr Sethi, whose contract was terminated, added: “I knew there was something wrong with the system but no one wanted to know that.” Noel Thomas, 74, became a subpostmaster in 1994. He was jailed for nine months in November 2006 after pleading guilty to one count of false accounting, on the basis that he accepted there was a shortfall of £48,450 which he was contractually obliged to make good, but did not know how it had come about.
He told the inquiry of his “hell” behind bars, including the “indignity” of showering in front of a prison warden and only being let out of his cell for food. He cried as he said: “I felt awful because I didn’t expect it, I’d never been a criminal in my life.”
Mr Thomas called for the inquiry to achieve “justice” for the others wrongly accused.
It also heard from Josephine Hamilton, who was given a one-year supervision order in 2008 after being wrongly convicted of false accounting.
The former subpostmistress from South Warnborough, in Hampshire, was accused of stealing £36,000 from her branch.
She was forced to remortgage her house and borrow money from friends, and people in her village donated money to help.
She told reporters she wants “some people to face the consequences for what they’ve done”. She told the inquiry: “I’m so angry about the group that [the Post Office] is refusing to compensate.”
A total of 72 former sub-postmasters have had their names cleared so far.
The inquiry, which is expected to run for the rest of this year, will look into whether the Post Office knew about faults in the IT system and will also ask how staff were made to take the blame.
Inquiry chairman Sir Wyn Williams, said: “I cannot stress enough the importance of me understanding the scale and the nature of the harm which has been caused to so very many individuals.”
Comment by Alan Bates
The inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal has started to hear about the suffering and despair the Post Office inflicted.
It seems the media-handling machines of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Post Office are running their spin campaigns flat out to present a hair-shirted position of how it had all gone wrong in the past and they are doing everything they can for those poor, poor victims.
But all that is far from the truth, and the real truth and desperation of the situation is being overlooked.
Sir Wyn Williams’ inquiry has an opportunity to lift the veil of darkness so desperately clung on to by BEIS, UK Government Investments (UKGI), Fujitsu and the Post Office and expose those guilty of maladministration.
We can only hope he takes it.
This is a scandal that only broke because 555 ex-subpostmasters were determined to expose the truth, despite the Post Office’s only shareholder, the Government, backing it to the hilt.
It took nearly 20 years but eventually the High Court issued damning judgments about the conduct and mismanagement of the Post Office and its flawed Horizon computer system whilst holding the subpostmasters financially liable for any errors.
Following the High Court findings schemes were set up to address shortages that 2,400 other subpostmasters had suffered and to compensate the hundreds of subpostmasters convicted on evidence from the Post Office’s flawed computers.
Yet the real victims, those now being overlooked, are the original 555 who dared challenge a Post Office determined to stop the truth being exposed. They have been abandoned and barred from any scheme to receive the monies they are rightfully owed.
Recent correspondence from BEIS has confirmed that none of the £1billion earmarked to compensate subpostmasters is being made available for the original 555.
It seems the policy is now clear: let them sit it out in squalor until they die off one by one and the problem disappears.
It took the group 20 years to expose the cover-up and duplicity, so if they can drag out platitudes and half-promises for another 20, then that’s the matter sorted.
Especially as Government has already managed to clock up deaths of at least 15 of the 555 as well as a number of suicides.
Heck of a game plan, BEIS.
• Alan Bates is the Founder, Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance
Dad ‘driven to take life’
The son of a postmaster who killed himself after being wrongly accused of stealing “100 percent” blames the Post Office for his death.
Martin Griffiths, who died aged 58, had operated a Cheshire branch for 14 years before shortfalls appeared in 2009.
He was “hounded” over £100,000 of “missing” money while he had depression – and his son Matthew, 37, said this is why Mr Griffiths stepped in front of a bus in 2013.
He told BBC’s File on Four programme: “The Post Office was constantly chasing my dad and hounded him for money. He became a shadow of his former self.
“He just had no sort of passion to do anything. I couldn’t even recognise him by the end.”
An inquest held in September 2013 found he took his own life.
The Post Office said: “We are in no doubt of the human cost of the Horizon scandal and are doing all we can to fairly address this for victims.”
- For confidential support, call the Samaritans on 116123
At last, I’ve got my good name back
Wendy Buffrey was prosecuted more than 10 years ago for false accounting but had the conviction quashed in April 2021 by the Courts of Appeal, alongside 38 other former sub-postmasters.
She said there were not enough words to describe how she felt to finally have her name cleared following a 13-year nightmare.
Speaking through sobs at the Royal Courts of Justice, Wendy said: “I can’t believe it’s all over. Nearly 14 years…It’s horrendous we were all put in this position in the first place. How do you replace that time? It’s just gone. Now all we need is for the people who are responsible for this to be held accountable.”
Wendy was sentenced to a 12-month community order after being accused of stealing £26,000 at her Up Hatherley post office in Cheltenham.
Being accused of taking money that was not hers “absolutely devastated” her.
She said: “I have got back my good name which means one hell of a lot to me.”
Wendy says she only pleaded guilty because her barrister had told her to in order to avoid jail.
‘My life was destroyed and someone must be jailed’
Fomer subpostmaster Harjinder Butoy, who was wrongly imprisoned for stealing £208,000, says “someone on the other side” must be punished.
Mr Butoy, of Chesterfield, Derbys, who was jailed for three years and three months in 2008, called the Post Office “a disgrace” when his conviction was overturned last April.
He ran a post office with his wife Balbinder in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Notts, and said his imprisonment “destroyed [his] life for 14 years – that’s not going to be replaced”.
Mr Butoy said it was impossible to get a job after spending 18 months behind bars and being declared bankrupt.
He said: “People say you’ve had your name cleared, you’re all right. But it’s not, you want justice.
“I want someone else to be charged and jailed like I was.”
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