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Former Post Office CEO apologises to subpostmasters over Horizon scandal

Subpostmasters criticise former CEO’s apology for their suffering as “too little, too late”

Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells has apologised to subpostmasters who suffered because of faults in the Horizon computer system that they use to run their branches.

A group of subpostmasters recently won a long-running court battle, which cost tens of millions of pounds, with the Post Office over the suffering they experienced when they were blamed for accounting shortfalls.

The Post Office agreed to settle, paying £58m in damages, apologising and promising to change its ways. The case culminated with the judgment in the trial concerning the Horizon system, held earlier this year, when the judge ruled that the subpostmasters were right in saying that problems with Horizon could cause accounting shortfalls. The Post Office had always vehemently denied this.

According to a report in the Daily Mail, Vennells has now apologised, saying: “I have, of course, been closely following the developments related to the Post Office legal action.

“I am pleased that the long-standing issues related to the Horizon [computer] system have finally been resolved. It was and remains a source of great regret to me that these colleagues and their families were affected over so many years. I am truly sorry we were unable to find both a solution and a resolution outside of litigation and for the distress this caused.”

Supostmasters have had problems with Horizon since it was introduced in 2000. It was that year that former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who spearheaded the group litigation against the Post Office, first informed the Post Office about the problems.

Bates first contacted Computer Weekly in 2004, and in May 2009, Computer Weekly revealed that the lives of some subpostmasters had been turned upside down after being fined, sacked, made bankrupt or even imprisoned because of unexplained accounting shortfalls (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles below)

Following Vennells’ apology, Bates told Computer Weekly: “It is a shame she didn’t bother investigating during the time she was in post because it was repeatedly brought to her attention. How is this type of apology meant to comfort the 550 claimants who are being thrown pennies after costs are taken into account?”

The Post Office agreed to pay £57.7m in damages, but when costs are taken out, the figure left for the subpostmasters is thought to be about £10m.

Supostmasters reacted to Vennells’ apology with dismay. “Saying sorry that people suffered is not apologising, it is sympathising,” said one former subpostmaster. “The claimants don’t need sympathy, they need justice.

“This is how you apologise: ‘I am deeply sorry and regret that I didn’t intervene earlier, I didn’t believe you, I ignored all the signs, I didn’t investigate, I promoted those who were complicit, I allowed this to happen, I was incompetent and I could have resolved this years ago’.”

A current subposmaster added: “They destroyed lives and perpetuated it for an extra five years. She has just said sorry like she nipped in front of you in the entrance to the car park.”

Another said: “When you read this, you realise how entrenched the Post Office are in their views and why they thought the world was flat.” This was a reference to the judge’s comments about the Post Office’s refusal to accept that Horizon could ever be the cause of accounting shortfalls.

Another subpostmaster described Vennells’ apology as “too little, too late”.

In his judgment on the Horizon trial, Judge Fraser said the Post Office had exhibited “a simple institutional obstinacy or refusal to consider any possible alternatives to their view of Horizon, which was maintained regardless of the weight of factual evidence to the contrary”. 

He added: “That approach by the Post Office was continued, even though now there is also considerable expert evidence to the contrary as well, and much of it agreed expert evidence on the existence of numerous bugs.

“This approach by the Post Office has amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat.”

There are now calls for a judge to lead an inquiry into the scandal.

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009

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