LP Magazine EU






Industry focus

Looking Beyond the Horizon

Four Years On from its Original Story, LP Magazine Europe Revisits Its Coverage of What Has Now Been Branded “the UK’s Biggest Miscarriage of Justice” 

The 1998 film Straight Outta Compton is no ordinary biopic in the same way that the 2024 ITV drama Mr Bates versus the Post Office is not just a story about “little people who are skint”, as the main protagonist of this David versus Goliath saga about falsely accused sub-postmasters taking on the legal might of the Government and Post Office describes it. 

Both dramatisations have changed and re-defined their landscapes. The first is about the origins of hip hop in a Los Angeles “hood” that forms the backdrop of a political war where one party can’t accept rap as a new form of art while another group evangelises that it is the only form of truth speaking to power. 

The other is a four-hour ITV drama that has achieved more than holding power to account than the legions of lawyers, Parliamentary Select Committees and public enquires have managed to achieve, stretching right back to the start of the crisis in 1999.

Indeed, the programme was re-dubbed Straight Outta Fenny Compton, after the small hamlet in south Warwickshire where the sub-postmasters from all over the UK met and mobilised their fight back after each of them was told they were the “only ones affected” by shortfalls in their takings even though the powers that be knew from the start of the failings in the Horizon software.  

Fenny Compton, with its aging population of less than one-thousand people, has become something of cause célèbre since Mr Bates versus the Post Office was aired at the beginning of the year. 

The sub-postmasters who regularly gathered at the village hall may not have understood “rap” music, but certainly recognised they were being led on a merry dance by their employers, the Post Office, their sole shareholder, the Government, and the developers of the faulty software, Fujitsu, a global IT software supplier that has now stood themselves down from bidding for future Government IT projects in the wake of the scandal. 

The “Horizon Scandal”, as it became known, saw the Post Office, a respected crown-bearing institution sitting as a pillar at the heart of our communities, doggedly and mercilessly pursuing a self-destructive path of attempting to prove false positives against its own counter employees, simply—as it transpired over time—because it had taken its eye off the horizon. 

Horizon, the multi-million-pound computer system developed and supplied by Fujitsu and used by Post Office Ltd was in 2013 being used by at least 11,500 branches and was processing some six million transactions every day. However, it controversially came under scrutiny when it generated at least 2,000 errors in the system, which according to widespread press reports, may have caused the loss of dozens of jobs, unwarranted prison sentences, bankruptcies, and one documented suicide.

Rather than reviewing software glitches and ordering a high-level internal enquiry, Post Office Ltd decided to bring the full weight of the criminal legal system against those branch managers whose books failed to balance as a result of Horizon’s errors, even though—it transpires—it knew there was a problem with the IT system. 

The Post Office eventually acknowledged “it had made mistakes” but not before millions of pounds was spent on a high court group legal challenge on behalf of the sub-postmasters, which secured a pay-out of nearly £58 million to settle with five-hundred-and-fifty-seven claimants.

More than seven hundred sub-postmasters were prosecuted, but since Mr Bates versus the Post Office was aired at the beginning of January, the Government has capitulated further with the announcement that each of those wrongly accused through the courts will have their convictions quashed and will be entitled to at least £600,000 in compensation in order to try and re-build their lives.

Furthermore, the public enquiry into the scandal—now in its third year—has raised further uncomfortable questions for the Post Office, Government, and Fujitsu about the incentivisation of private prosecutions—the Post Office is unique in being able to bring criminal charges without the need for public interest scrutiny from the Crown Prosecution Service.

These prosecutions, the inquiry has heard, were more about the Post Office retrieving money from the postmasters, often from their own savings to re-balance the accounts that Horizon had wrongly calculated in the first instance.

The inquiry, as illustrated in the drama, also revealed that Fujitsu was able to remotely access and manipulate the accounts of the sub-postmasters without their knowledge, something the firm and the Post Office had previously publicly denied.

What Happened?

So, why did the Post Office pursue this “divide and conquer” strategy? None of those charged were made aware of other sub-postmasters who had fallen foul of the IT failure, which resulted in what many fraud experts would see as, at best, a textbook example of how not to carry out an investigation and, at worst, a total PR and brand-damaging disaster that includes claims of a cover up.

The story dates back to the early noughties when the Post Office began accusing thousands of sub-postmasters of “dipping into the tills” based on “evidence” from its Horizon IT platform. Many were told to pay back supposedly missing funds or face prosecution. Some were convicted and imprisoned while hundreds more were advised to plead guilty to lesser charges to end further action.

The Victims

One example was that of Seema Misra, who was pregnant with her second child when she was convicted of theft and sent to jail in 2010. “If I hadn’t been pregnant, I definitely would have killed myself,” she said. “It was the worst thing. It was so shameful.”

Seema became a sub-postmistress in West Byfleet in Surrey in June 2005 and was suspended in January 2008 after an audit found a discrepancy of £74,000 in her accounts. She was so worried, that she had been feeding at least £100 per day from her shop into the Post Office tills in an attempt to make the books balance. One day, there was a £10,000 hole. This state of affairs went on for two years, during which time she said there was very little support from the Post Office.

In another case dating back to 2003, newly married Balvinder Singh Gill moved to Oxford from his hometown of Coventry to “start a new life” as sub-postmaster at the town’s Cowley Road branch. But “a decade of hell” later, he had suffered a mental breakdown that led to him being sectioned. He says his life was destroyed after he was accused of stealing £108,000 from the Post Office. 

“I had problems from day one,” he said. His weekly balance would show a “massive shortfall”, and he just could not balance the books. One morning, six months in, he was suddenly locked out of the office by auditors. “They turned up a little bit like a pseudo-police force. They interviewed me in a back room. They interrogated me,” he said.

Eventually he was told he had to repay the full amount in monthly instalments and was chased relentlessly by debt collectors. “Financially, it really wiped me away. I had to declare bankruptcy. They said if I didn’t pay it back, they’d take me to prison. They said I was the only case,” he said.

In a double blow for the family, in 2009 his mother, Kashmir, now the sub-postmistress, was found guilty of stealing £57,000 from the same branch, a conviction she is now hoping will be overturned by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). The family went from being reputable business owners to working in local kitchens or petrol stations on minimum wage.

“Our reputation in our community was totally destroyed. My family broke up over this. I broke up with my wife some years later,” said Balvinder. “More than the money, it’s just the justice. Mainly that we can get on with our lives and put right a lot of people who thought we were bad.”

Wendy Buffrey, the former sub-postmistress of the Up Hatherley branch in Cheltenham was advised to plead guilty to false accounting in 2010 to avoid jail after a shortfall of £26,000 was identified in her accounts. Unable to explain the discrepancy, she took out a loan to repay the difference and is still counting the cost. 

“We lost our business. We lost our home. I had to pay the Post Office £26,000,” said Wendy. “We had to start again. There isn’t any monetary figure that can compensate for the way we were treated, and the way things happened to us.”

Rubbina Shaheen was accused of taking £43,000 from her branch and ended up serving three months in jail. Her conviction for falsifying accounts at the Greenfields Post Office in Shrewsbury was quashed a year after Loss Prevention Magazine Europe published her story in 2020 but like so many, she still awaits news of her compensation.

“When they said I was going to prison, I was just totally devastated. I didn’t know what to say, what to do,” said Rubbina, now aged fifty-eight, who at the time was on dialysis for renal failure. Her husband, Mohamed Hami, age sixty-five, added, “We were both on suicide watch. The only good part is that we were both holding each other’s hands.”

Rubbina worked as sub-postmistress, whilst her husband ran the connecting convenience store. She initially had money deducted from her salary after an £8,000 discrepancy was identified in 2007, but two years later, her contract was terminated after £43,000 went missing. Despite Rubbina identifying at least eleven errors on the Horizon system, she was not believed, said her husband.

After her release from prison, the couple ended up living in a van, evicted from the shop’s living quarters by the bank after falling into arrears. Eventually they cashed in their pensions to buy a derelict house in Brockton, Shropshire, and he took a job at a Shropshire school, selling tuck. 

Cost versus Compensation

Freelance journalist Nick Wallis, who has been reporting on the case since 2010, pointed out that litigants would have spent about £22 million, assuming their legal bills were similar to the Post Office’s. 

As highlighted in the ITV drama, Wallis noted that each of the 557 claimants would expect to be paid between £47,000 and £78,000. He said, “Given that these people have already had to pay back money the Post Office claimed they had stolen, and in some cases were prosecuted for stealing, these are not huge figures.”

One former sub-postmaster said, “This is nothing but a great win for the Post Office. My losses alone came to £200,000. This compensation will not cover the fraudulent claims that the Post Office took from me.” 

Long before the ITV drama aired it was known that from the group legal action in the High Court that the Post Office and Fujitsu knew full well that Horizon was flawed but pressed on anyway with its deployment and the procuring of criminal charges against sub-postmasters running branch offices. 

But, even with a year to run on the public enquiry—which is still hearing evidence from other sub-postmasters in Scotland and Northern Ireland whose cases had not previously come to light—questions still remain as to what happened to the money they were falsely accused of stealing and, apart from claims of compensation, will they ever see the hundreds of thousands of pounds of their own money that they pumped into the Post Office’s coffers to balance the books?

MP Kevan Jones, who raised the issue in the House of Commons on behalf of one of his constituents who had been wrongly accused, said, “This House has considered the Horizon settlement and future governance of Post Office Ltd. Innocent people jailed, individuals having their good name and livelihoods taken away from them, the full use of the state and its finances to persecute individuals—those are all characteristics of a totalitarian or police state. But that is exactly what we have seen in the twenty-first century in the way the Government and the Post Office have dealt with sub-postmasters and their use of the Horizon system. The Horizon system was the biggest non-military IT project in Europe. It cost over £1 billion to install and affected eighteen-thousand post offices throughout the UK.”

“I first came to be involved in the issue when a constituent, Tom Brown, came to see me in my surgery.” 

“Tom Brown, like thousands of sub-postmasters, was a hard-working and well-respected individual. He had won awards from the Post Office for fighting off an armed robber, but because of the introduction of the Horizon system, he was accused of stealing £84,000.” 

“Even though he said and demonstrated that that was not the case, the Post Office took him to court, and he went through the agony of being publicly shamed—we must remember that a lot of these individuals are the stalwarts of their local communities.”

“Tom went to Newcastle Crown Court, and on the day of the trial the Post Office withdrew the case, but the damage had already been done. His good name had been ruined, and he had lost—because he had to go bankrupt—in excess of nearly half a million pounds in the form of his business, the bungalow that he had bought for his retirement, and some investment properties. He now lives with his son in social housing in South Stanley. The man who should have had a nice retirement, and who was well respected in his community, has been completely ruined and is destitute.”

“The scandal of this—what makes me so angry and why I have persistently hung on to the campaign—is that the Post Office knew all along that the Horizon system was flawed.”

In the statement following the airing of the ITV drama, Post Office chief executive Nick Read said: “We sincerely apologise to victims for the devastating impact of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal on the lives of so many. We are doing all we can to provide redress and urge anyone affected who has not yet come forward to do so.”

In a video to all staff, Read added: “As chief executive, I have met some of the victims and heard first-hand many of their personal stories. I reiterate and extend an apology on behalf of Post Office.”

“To all those affected, it’s imperative we listen and acknowledge these stories, understanding the profound impact the scandal has had on lives. The ITV drama, Mr Bates versus the Post Office features some of the deeply personal and moving accounts of postmasters and their families, highlighting again the human aspect of this scandal. The statutory inquiry led by Sir Wyn Williams is ensuring every aspect of this scandal is thoroughly examined.”

“We hope that the ITV drama will raise further awareness and encourage anyone affected who has not yet come forward to seek their address and compensation they deserve. We also urge anyone who believes they were wrongly convicted in a Post Office prosecution to pursue an appeal.”

Derisory and Offensive

Alan Bates, played by Toby Young in the ITV drama who mobilised the sub-postmasters in Fenny Compton, remains unconvinced and refused the Government compensation offered to him.

Although campaigners won the right to have their cases reconsidered, only ninety-five convictions have been overturned and unbelievably, Horizon is still being used across the Post Office estate to this day.

The Government has promised to quash their convictions and pay compensation, and while Mr Bates said an offer was made to him by the Government on Wednesday 31 January 2024, one-hundred-and-eleven days after his claim—prepared with the help of forensic accountants engaged by his lawyers—had been submitted, he would not be accepting it.

He said: “Full and fair might be His Majesty’s Government’s interpretation, but in reality, the offer is derisory, offensive, and after all this time, yes, cruel—I will absolutely be turning this offer for financial redress down.”

“It’s just a terrible way to treat human beings—and I have heard from several sub-postmasters who have received similarly derisory offers, while others are still waiting.”

With a year of the public enquiry still to run, it is still too hard to look beyond the horizon at the lessons learned until the full extent of the reality and drama are revealed. 

It is not only a story straight out of Fenny Compton, but a tale straight out of the pages of a Franz Kafka novel and one truly befitting the ITV dramatization which critics argue has done more for the sub-postmasters than a legion of lawyers over two decades. 

Unbelievable as it may be, it is a true story of “little skint people” taking on the system and one that needed to be told if justice is to be served.

Leave a Reply

(Your email will not be publicly displayed.)

Captcha Code

Click the image to see another captcha.

iFacility CCTV and Alarm Installation