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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
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HomeNewsMy 14-year fight for the cruelly mistreated sub-postmasters

My 14-year fight for the cruelly mistreated sub-postmasters

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IN 2010, as a newly elected MP, nothing prepared me for a constituency surgery appointment with Michael and Susan Rudkin, a couple who gave me their account of how they had been treated by the Post Office.

It was not until the public inquiry into one of the country’s worst miscarriages of justice began a year ago that I finally got a chance on GB News to detail the suffering of thousands of sub-postmasters and mistresses like my constituents which I have been pursuing for nearly 14 years. 

And it is only now, with the airing of ITV’s drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, that the shocking story of corporate misconduct, false prosecution, victimisation, sequestration of assets and the long-running cover-up has come to the forefront of public attention.

When I look back, as a new MP it would have been easy to dismiss Mr and Mrs Rudkin as cranks or delusional, but there was something about them when they came to me with their problem. They were intelligent, articulate and genuine – and clearly traumatised by accusations of fraud and theft that the Post Office had laid at their door. They had both been sub-postmasters for many years and were considered pillars of their community. 

I began to ask other MPs if any of their constituents had reported similar experiences. Many had. That led, in 2011, to a few of us forming an MP Review Group. We called meetings with representatives of the sub-postmasters and management of the Post Office. Why were so many Post Office employees claiming they had been wrongly convicted of false accounting and theft after running local post offices honestly and successfully, in many cases for decades?

Our meetings with the sub-postmasters’ reps were open and frank. They were hugely grateful that someone was willing to listen to them. They came across as honest and convincing, in complete contrast to the top brass of the Post Office whom we consistently found to be defensive, aloof and evasive.

The then CEO of the post office, Paula Vennells, was particularly acerbic even when questioned by Oliver Letwin MP (whose attendance at all the meetings has significance – it’s hard to think that the then chief political adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron would not have been briefing him).

The crux of the issue, we discovered, was the sub-postmasters’ belief that the software system which they were forced to use by the Post Office to transact all their business, Horizon, was faulty. The Post Office maintained that Horizon, made by Fujitsu of Japan, was a ‘watertight Rolls-Royce system’ without bugs. Only under huge pressure from the MP Review Group did we get Post Office senior directors to agree to allow a team of independent forensic accountants to look at the Horizon system.

I suggested a firm called Second Sight, an experienced fraud investigator team led by Ron Warmington. The Post Office offered to pay, so confident were they of their system and protocols. I was against this. How could we ensure that the investigation was truly independent of Post Office pressure on Second Sight should faults be discovered in the Horizon system?  I was overruled – something that we, Second Sight, and the sub-postmasters would ultimately come to regret.

Soon I was taking calls from Ron Warmington, who was coming up against huge resistance by the PO management to disclosing any information. The relationship between Second Sight and the Post Office was to deteriorate. The Board of the Post Office demanded reports from Second Sight be redacted before being released to the MP Review Group and the sub-postmasters’ representatives. The investigation ground on for years against threats of legal action by the Post Office against Second Sight. Thanks to Ron’s huge moral fortitude it continued, and the truth started to drip out.

What emerged was that for an aspiring sub-postmaster to take up his or her position in the Post Office ‘franchise’ he or she was forced to use the Horizon system and became personally liable for any shortfall of funds in their branch. The contract they had to sign put all the powers of the state, including special powers of prosecution, at the disposal of the Post Office without any accountability. The PO did not have to consult the police or the CPS to put a sub-postmaster in court, and this is exactly what happened, as viewers of the ITV drama saw.

During these court proceedings the PO claimed the Horizon system was perfect and that any shortfall must be down to theft or error by the sub-postmasters. The PO also falsely maintained that it was not possible for anyone to alter the data in a sub-postmaster’s computer remotely without leaving a digital fingerprint. The judges in these cases believed the Post Office. Many other cases did not even get to court with sub-postmasters coerced into ‘repayment’ of sums they did not owe, under the threat of being charged with false accounting. As the TV drama detailed, it broke people’s lives and drove several to suicide.

In 2014, a bombshell landed on the ‘watertight’ Horizon system when a Fujitsu whistleblower disclosed to the forensic accountants that, while sorting bugs and problems in the Horizon system, the firm hadsecretly and remotely altered data in individual sub-postmasters’ computers. It showed that remote data manipulation in individual branches was possible and was happening without leaving a record. The revelation blew a hole in the Post Office’s prosecution cases and made thousands of criminal convictions of sub-postmasters (many of whom were by now imprisoned) potentially unsafe. But because the information discovered by Second Sight was being given – or as the Post Office characterised it, ‘leaked’ – to me and then to the sub-postmasters, the Post Office threatened Second Sight with legal action for ‘breach of contract’. Ron Warmington’s moral fortitude in standing up to this intimidation by the Post Office was remarkable, as the ITV drama rightly showed.

By 2014 I had clear evidence that the criminal convictions of the sub- postmasters for fraud were ‘unsafe’. The Post Office and the Government were made fully aware of this. Yet, shockingly, nothing was done to rectify the clear and huge miscarriage of justice.

I spoke to all the major media outlets. I briefed journalists at the BBC, Sky News, Channel 4 and ITV as well as all the national newspapers that I had all the proof that the Horizon scandal was the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history. Journalists were keen and excited, but none were allowed by their editors or executives above them to run the story.

That it’s been left to ITV to mine it for dramatic purposes – presumably with the aim of turning a profit – using the wrecked lives that its editors and journalists deliberately ignored for years, I find particularly foul. Some of these sub-postmasters killed themselves.

ITV, the BBC and the rest of the MSM have no excuse for this omission, indeed dereliction of their duty. It’s eight years now since 555 sub-postmasters launched their prolonged and much-publicised legal action against the Post Office. Sadly this precluded any further direct intervention in the case by elected Members of Parliament. The legal case went on for years and has probably cost over £100million. The litigation was dragged out thanks to the Post Office, using huge amounts of taxpayers’ money, to repeatedly delay, object and appeal. All ignored by the MSM.

In 2019 the High Court finally found in favour of the sub-postmasters and against the Post Office, concluding that ‘the Post Office IT system was not remotely robust’ and there was a ‘material risk’ that shortfalls in Post Office branches were caused by Horizon.

So is this a happy, if overdue, ending? Not really. The whole scandal represents the biggest miscarriage of justice by the number of false convictions, easily more than 1,000, in our country’s history. Many more were coerced into ‘repaying’ money they did not owe.

I recently met Michael and Susan Rudkin, the couple who brought the case to me in 2010. Susan was one of the first tranche of nine sub-postmasters to have her criminal conviction overturned in December 2020. Vindicated, yes, but the 14-year ordeal has weighed heavily on them both. More than three years later their compensation claim still has not been fully finalised or paid. It was only after a Zoom meeting that I managed to arrange between Michael Rudkin and the then PM, Boris Johnson, that the 2019 full judge-led public inquiry was finally announced.

Alongside Labour’s Kevan Jones, the MP for North Durham (the only other original member of the MP Review Group still holding elected office), and the former Conservative MP James Arbuthnot (now in the House of Lords) I now am appealing to colleagues in the House of Commons – most whom were not even elected when this issue first came to our attention – to join us in lobbying Government for proper compensation for the victims and for the overturning of the unsafe criminal prosecutions for all the 736 sub-postmasters convicted on Horizon evidence alone.

Meanwhile, despite repeatedly writing to the public inquiry team led by Sir Wyn Williams, I still have not been called to give my evidence. It will be damning.

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Andrew Bridgen
Andrew Bridgen
Andrew Bridgen, Member of Parliament for North West Leicestershire

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