‘Pathetic’ Post Office spat detracts attention and fuels ‘disdain’ for authority

Former Post Office chair’s row with the government and Post Office cannot be allowed to deflect attention away from achieving justice and recompense for former subpostmasters

Those who suffered at the hands of the Post Office say the public spat between a former Post Office chairman, its current CEO and the government is another “dead cat” that has turned the hearing into a “comedy show”.

The war of words between former Post Office chairman Henry Staunton, his former employer and the government has stolen the headlines at a critical time for Post Office scandal victims, fuelling disdain for authority.

MPs held a five-hour select committee hearing to drill into the problems victims are experiencing in trying to get the financial redress they deserve.

Discussions outlined problems with all financial redress schemes, there were demands that the government get Fujitsu to commit to how much it will contribute to the bill, which is over £1bn, as well as details about the Post Office’s approach to subpostmasters who might have suffered as a result of problems with the pre-Horizon Capture System.

Important recommendations were made, including setting legally binding deadlines for the government to pay victims what is owed to them, re-opening unfair settlements already agreed, and amending legislation on compensation.

But accusations against the Post Office’s former CEO by the organisation’s former chair, Henry Staunton, who believes there is a smear campaign against him, dominated the headlines.

Computer Weekly spoke to former subpostmasters and their legal representatives following the hearing, which descended into a “comedy”, according to wrongly prosecuted former subpostmaster Janet Skinner.

“It was like a comedy show,” she said.

At the beginning of the hearing, Skinner said Post Office CEO Nick Read approached her and another wrongly prosecuted subpostmaster Tracy Felstead to greet them. “One of the things he said was that he hoped the hearing would not end up being about Henry Staunton and more about what we are supposed to be here about – compensation.”

Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who has led the campaign for justice for nearly 20 years, said the longer this goes on the more “it shows how dysfunctional the Post Office is and what a toxic environment it is and how it has never and will never change”.

He stressed what should be the priority for everyone involved: “People have got to concentrate on the real priority in all this, and that is getting the money to the victims. What they are doing at the moment is not working. Things have got to change to make it easier because there is lots of bureaucracy bogging it down.”

To put it into perspective, some of the victims suffered life-changing hardship at the hands of the Post Office two decades ago. Over three years ago, they proved in the High Court that the Post Office was to blame for their suffering, which included wrongful imprisonment and suicides, yet hundreds are yet to receive the financial redress and compensation they are owed. Many have died waiting for it.

Lawyers have warned that it will be one to two more years before all victims receive fair compensation.

Bates said nothing sums up the dysfunction at the Post Office more than the fact that “you have all these people squabbling over money at a senior level, their bonuses, and then you have a stress fund for subpostmasters that are struggling”.

Jo Hamilton, a former subpostmaster who, like Janet Skinner, had her wrongful conviction overturned in the Court of Appeal in 2021, said the focus on the dispute between Staunton, the Post Office and the government doesn’t help the subpostmasters.

“It’s another distraction. Just stop throwing dead cats into the room,” she said.

Lawyers representing scandal victims were equally scathing. During the hearing, James Hartley, a lawyer at Freeths Solicitors, which represents hundreds of subpostmasters, said his clients were “exhausted and traumatised by the process” of claiming what is owed to them.

Following the hearing, he told Computer Weekly the Staunton dispute was a “massive distraction” that was drowning out important details about the problems being experienced by former subpostmaster claiming financial redress.

“Our clients think it is distasteful; they don’t like it. It fuels their disdain for the system and those in authority, which is how the problems started in the first place,” said Hartley.

Nick Gould, a partner at Aria Grace Law, said the session with Staunton “ought to become a classic case study for anyone involved at looking at corporate governance, and how not to do it”, describing it as a “near-perfect example of a dysfunctional board of directors”.

He added: “The directors, and the rest, continue to talk ‘compensation’, but somehow, full fair and prompt compensation doesn’t seem to be happening. Much to the obvious annoyance of the committee members.”

Neil Hudgell, solicitor at Hudgell Solicitors, also representing victims, said: “What is becoming clear is the Post Office and the government do not have the resources to deal with the claims.”

During the committee hearing it emerged that the government and the Post Office have eight lawyers dealing with claims. In comparison, there are 23 at Freeths, and Hudgell said there are about 25 at his firm focused on processing subpostmaster claims.

Computer Weekly first exposed the Post Office scandal in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered as a result of flaws in the Horizon system (see below list of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal).

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal.

• Also watch: ITV’s Post Office scandal documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story.

Here are all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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