I have for years been taking tea in the cafés of London Road. I arrange meetings with people I know. When alone, I read. Occasionally I chat with other customers, passing the time of day. I usually forget what’s been said. However, on occasion, words spoken are seared into my memory.
I recall one conversation, which happened well over a decade ago, and which deeply troubled me. I noticed a man, in late middle age, sitting quietly in a corner of a modest café. I had seen him there before, always alone. I knew his face well, because for years he had worked in a neighbourhood post office, one I used from time to time. I thought he’d retired so asked him how he was and whether he missed the work.
He told me that, after many years at the post office, he had lost his job. He had left under a cloud, because allegations were made that money had gone missing.
He did not explain the exact circumstances of his leaving, only that it had caused him great grief. He said that he had done nothing wrong and was bitter at the way he had been treated.
I was stunned by what he said. He was probably not even in charge, just a conscientious post office clerk of the old school – a reliable, old-fashioned public servant.
He gave me a strange account of a system which didn’t work. I didn’t understand what he said but I hope I was sympathetic. I asked if he had support from a trade union but he indicated he did not.
This was some years before the Post Office scandal broke. When it did, I immediately thought of the man, who had so often sold me stamps and posted my parcels.
A terrible injustice had taken place. Across the country many hundreds of sub-postmasters had been dismissed and publicly humiliated, ruined financially and in some cases imprisoned or driven to suicide after being wrongly accused of defrauding the Post Office.
I’ve no idea how many staff and family members may have been wrongly accused, albeit in good faith, by sub-postmasters themselves.
The real cause was not dishonesty but defective software supplied by the company Fujitsu, a global brand which, with no apparent sense of irony or shame, continues to use the strap line “We use technology to make happier lives”.
A fault in its Horizon IT system generated false losses in accounts from 1999 onwards, for which post office staff were blamed. Many “repaid” money they had not taken. Others went to their deaths with their reputations in tatters.
One local sub-postmaster forced to borrow money to “repay” money that he had not taken was Sami Sabet, who ran Post Office branches in Portslade and Shoreham.
In 2009, he was convicted of stealing £50,000 and received a 12-month suspended prison sentence. Twelve years later, in July 2021, that unjust conviction, along with those of eleven others, was overturned at the Court of Appeal.
Postmasters regularly complained that the system was at fault but Post Office executives denied it. Scandalously, even after evidence became clear, they continued to act against postmasters, concealing the faults in their system.
Over many years, hundreds of innocent people continued to be wrongly accused of theft and fraud. Though these individuals have been exonerated in the court of public opinion, most have had neither apology nor compensation.
The government has set aside £1 billion to compensate the hundreds of victims involved but, according to a recent Times newspaper report, only a tenth of that amount has been paid out.
Many have yet to receive any money at all. Those who have received payments have seen them dissipated by tax and legal costs. Hundreds have yet to apply. Dozens have died without compensation.
A statutory inquiry is in progress but has recently been stalled, apparently due to the Post Office’s late delivery of documents. This has further delayed compensation payments.
While traumatised victims wait, shameless Post Office executives have awarded themselves bonuses, just for aiding the inquiry.
Fujitsu has remained silent. It has paid no compensation and at the same time has continued to earn billions of pounds from public sector contracts.
As a recent Times Editorial stated: “To date, no one in the Post Office or Fujitsu has faced any kind of formal penalty for perpetrating this huge injustice.
“This is despite the fact that some of those who concealed information about Horizon’s failings during the prosecutions of sub-postmasters between 1999 and 2015, and a High Court action brought by 555 victims in 2019, could be liable to prosecution for perverting the course of justice or perjury.”
Last year, Lord Bassam of Brighton urged Fujitsu to take responsibility for its actions and pay towards compensation. I hope he will be supported in this demand by all our Members of Parliament.
At a local level, I hope individual councillors and the wider community will give greater attention to this issue, offering support and assistance to any of our neighbours who have suffered, and continue to suffer, as a result of this terrible injustice.
Jean Calder is a campaigner and journalist. For more of her work, click here.