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The decision to use public money to silence victims of the Post Office scandal must have come from the top of government, one victim claimed in his statement to the ongoing public inquiry.
Speaking in Glasgow at the latest round of victim hearings in the Post Office Horizon scandal public inquiry, Chris Dawson, who was the subpostmaster at Pitlochry Post Office in Scotland, said the millions of pounds spent on defending the Post Office in a High Court litigation was used to stop the truth coming out.
Dawson lost his business and home, and his marriage broke up, as a result of being blamed for unexplained losses at his branch.
“Who sanctions the legal costs to fight us to a standstill in the civil case, to stop us from getting the full truth?” asked Dawson.
“I do not believe for one minute that a pen pusher or bureaucrat sanctioned this, and I don’t even think it is within the remit of the head of the Post Office. I think that this has to reach to government level, be it the business secretary, the chancellor, or it may even go as high as Number 10,” he said.
“For that amount of public money to be used to protect an asset whose sole shareholder is the Westminster government, somebody within that government knew.”
About £43m was spent by the government-owned Post Office to fight a group litigation order brought by 555 former subpostmasters who said the faulty Horizon computer system was to blame for their accounting losses and subsequent suffering.
The Post Office’s continued defence of its system in court meant the claimants were forced to borrow £46m from litigation funders to continue the action. They were forced to accept a settlement with the Post Office before the whole truth was revealed, because they ran out of money. The case proved the subpostmasters right about the computer problems, which the Post Office and Fujitsu knew about all along.
Despite evidence supporting the subpostmasters’ case, the Post Office was able to use public money, running into tens of millions of pounds, to fight and stop the litigation. The 555 subpostmasters won the case, but due to huge legal costs had to accept a Post Office offer of £57m damages, which after costs left the claimants with just £11m to share.
The two trials that had already been completed revealed evidence that the Horizon system contained many errors, which the Post Office had not revealed, but further trials never saw the light of day after the settlement was agreed.
The group litigation order costs were funded by the Post Office, which the government owns and subsidises through taxpayers’ money.
Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who led the group of 555 subpostmasters to the High Court, where they won their case against the Post Office, said the fact that the Post Office spent millions on the case, despite evidence it knew about Horizon problems, raised questions.
Alan Bates, former subpostmaster
“It has to come out because people want to know who made the decision to continue with the court case when they were aware of the truth,” said Bates. “I am pretty certain the decisions on the litigation were made at Post Office board level, where two members of the government sit.”
During the inquiry hearing in Glasgow, Dawson also called for an investigation into those who allowed the scandal to happen. “I want to see Paula Vennells, amongst other senior officials, feel the full weight of the law, in a similar manner that was so eagerly dealt out as judge, jury and executioner whilst in full knowledge that those who they were prosecuting were innocent.”
This is a sentiment shared by Mary McCrory Philip, who bought a Post Office in Fife in 2001 with her mother, Mary Logie Philip, who was subpostmistress. Her mother was suspended in 2006 after being blamed for unexplained losses, despite having paid tens of thousands of pounds of her own money to cover shortfalls over the years. She died before the truth about the Horizon system problems was revealed and later proved.
“I firmly believe that the people who instigated all this criminalised people, and I really think now that they’re criminal themselves. I hope that the rightful authorities will look at this and perhaps make them feel how we felt,” she said.
McCrory Philip expressed her belief that her mother’s complaints about Horizon had singled her out as a target because the Post Office was “so intent on protecting a computer system” that it had “completely disregarded all of the human resources”.
“I have come to the conclusion that my mother was targeted by the auditors, bearing in mind that we paid all the shortfalls into the scheme, because she was making such a noise about the Horizon system,” she said.
Computer Weekly first reported on problems with the IT system in 2009 (see timeline of coverage below), when it made public the stories of a group of subpostmasters who were being blamed for unexplained losses.
The public inquiry now moves to Belfast to hear the stories of Northern Ireland-based subpostmasters who suffered at the hands of the Post Office and its error-prone system. Watch live here on Wednesday 18 May and Thursday 19 May.