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Government minister holds secret meeting with Post Office Horizon scandal victims

BEIS minister Paul Scully has Zoom call with three subpostmasters who were victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal

The government minister in charge of the Post Office has secretly met with a group of victims of the Horizon IT scandal.

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) minister Paul Scully spoke with three subpostmasters who were wrongly convicted of financial crimes and imprisoned.

According to a source, he met last week with Seema Misra, Tracy Felstead and Janet Skinner, via Zoom.

All three were victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal, which saw subpostmasters blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls from 2000 to 2015. They were sent to prison, but have since had their convictions quashed, along with about 60 others so far.

During a High Court litigation in 2019, the financial shortfalls were found to have been caused by errors in the retail and accounting computer system used in Post Office branches, known as Horizon.

The meeting could be a welcome sign that the government is addressing subpostmaster demands for fair compensation and addressing what went wrong, but its secrecy raises questions about the government’s approach and openness in righting the wrongs for all subpostmasters who suffered in the scandal.

Compensation not forthcoming

There is currently a dispute over compensation for all the subpostmasters affected by the scandal and calls for Post Office and government officials to be investigated. A statutory public inquiry on the scandal is currently underway, chaired by former judge Wyn Williams.

Computer Weekly has no further details on what was discussed in the Zoom call, but has asked BEIS for details about the subject of the meeting and the outcome.

Some 736 subpostmasters were convicted based on evidence from the Horizon system over a 15-year period, and many thousands had their lives ruined as a result of being blamed for shortfalls and forced to pay them back.

In May this year, Scully and Boris Johnson met with three victims, including Tracy Felstead, as well as Dionne Andre and Michael Rudkin.

During that meeting, Scully said the government would work with them and other victims to ensure they were quickly and fairly compensated for the devastation the Horizon scandal had caused to their lives.

Rudkin told Computer Weekly he was disappointed the wider subpostmaster group was not informed about this latest meeting. “They should have openly relayed this to the wider group so we understand the direction the government is heading,” he said.

Rudkin added that since his meeting with Scully and Johnson, when he was promised a speedy and fair resolution, he has not been contacted by the government.

In 2009, after experiencing unexplained accounting shortfalls, Rudkin’s wife, Susan, was wrongly convicted of stealing over £40,000 from their branch in Ibstock, based on evidence from the faulty Horizon system, which the High Court judgment said could not be trusted.

She received a 12-month suspended sentence and was ordered to complete 300 hours of unpaid work and placed on an electronically monitored curfew for six months.

The couple lost hundreds of thousands of pounds as a result of the errors and were forced to use their family home as a bed and breakfast to pay the bills.

Susan Rudkin has since had her conviction overturned.

Misdirected blame and punishment

The Post Office blamed and punished the subpostmasters that run local Post Office branches for accounting shortfalls, but after years of campaigning, a High Court judge found that the errors in the Post Office’s Horizon retail and accounting system were to blame.

The scandal began when the Horizon system was introduced in 1999/2000. It was in 2009 when a Computer Weekly investigation revealed the stories of seven former subpostmasters whose lives were devastated after being blamed for unexplained cash shortfalls (see box below for Computer Weekly’s coverage of the story since 2009)

This has become the biggest miscarriage of justice in British history. So far, 63 wrongly prosecuted subpostmasters have had their convictions quashed, with many more expected to follow.

Thousands of subpostmasters who were not prosecuted had their lives ruined after being forced to pay back unexplained shortfalls, which only existed on Horizon.

After the High Court trial ended in 2019, the Post Office was forced to set up a compensation scheme for subpostmasters who had suffered losses due to Horizon errors. But this excluded those convicted of crimes or those who were part of the High Court action that proved the Post Office system was to blame. Since the overturning of criminal convictions, the Post Office has agreed to pay those victims an interim £100,000 compensation while full compensation is calculated.

The subpostmasters in the group of 555 that took the Post Office to court but who were not criminally convicted are still seeking fair compensation. They were awarded £57.75m between them after the trial, but once legal costs were taken out, they were only left with £11m to share. This did not come close to repaying the money they were forced to pay the Post Office, never mind compensating them for their suffering.

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

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