Public inquiry update: Former Post Office workers wrongly convicted in Horizon IT scandal, call for prison sentences for management
Senior management at the Post Office who knew the Horizon system was faulty but pressed ahead with unsafe fraud prosecutions anyway, should be sent to prison.
This is the demand from multiple witnesses at the second day of the public inquiry into the Post Office’s Horizon scandal, which has been described as the worst miscarriage of justice in recent British legal history.
The inquiry on Monday heard how the scandal left some victims contemplating suicide after theft and fraud allegations and convictions.
More than 700 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were prosecuted for theft and false accounting between 2000 and 2014.
Some went to prison, some went bankrupt, and many re-mortgaged their homes to address the imbalances caused by the faulty Horizon IT system.
Some became homeless and developed addiction problems. Some died before their names were cleared.
In April 2021 a total of 39 convictions were quashed at the Court of Appeal, with a further twenty two cases still being investigated by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
Earlier in December 2020, the convictions of six other former postmasters were overturned due to wrongful conviction.
Last year Paula Vennells, who was in charge of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, apologised and resigned her roles on the boards of the supermarket Morrisons and home furnishing store Dunelm.
The second day saw multiple witnesses call for convictions and prison sentences for former Post Office management.
Damian Owen, who was manager of a Post Office branch in Bangor, north Wales, was jailed for eight months after he was accused of stealing £25,000 as a result of computer errors, the Guardian newspaper reported. His conviction was quashed in 2021.
Owen said the £25,000 hole in his branch accounts appeared shortly after Horizon system was installed, and he knew the figures didn’t add up.
“We never held that amount of money there. It was a small branch,” Owen said. “As far as I was aware, the most held there was £13,000.”
The inquiry, which is being chaired by the retired high court judge Sir Wyn Williams, is expected to hear evidence from about 60 former Post Office workers over the coming weeks.
Owen was the first to call for former Post Office management to face charges.
“I want there to be convictions, not only for the people who have perpetuated the whole conspiracy inside the Post Office, everyone from the top down who knew and was still pushing charges,” he was quoted as saying. “I want charges against people not only in my court case who came to give evidence and lied under oath, I want each of them to receive a perjury charge.”
Lorraine Margery Williams, a former sub-postmistress from Anglesey, also called for prosecutions of former Post Office managers.
“I want them to go to jail for what they have done. But that would be an easy life for them. They’d come out and still have their money,” she was quoted by the Guardian as saying.
“I want them to feel the way I felt and the way we suffered financially,” said Williams. “I just want somebody to be accountable. It has gone on for so long and people are hiding. Somebody has got to be accountable for this.”
Williams had received a suspended prison sentence in 2012 before her conviction was quashed in 2021. She told the inquiry she had struggled to find work after her conviction, which also caused her family’s mortgage repayments to quadruple.
Williams said the experience had profoundly affected her, her husband and her daughter.
“I was a recluse, I wouldn’t go out. I still don’t feel I am the same person. I get angry at times,” she said. “I don’t trust anybody any more and it’s difficult.”
Lisa Brennan, a former Post Office counter clerk from Huyton near Liverpool, ended up homeless after her conviction for theft in 2003.
“I had no job and I couldn’t afford the mortgage. I had to sofa surf,” Brennan was quoted by the Guardian as telling the inquiry, adding she felt too ashamed to return to her home after being found guilty.
Brennan insisted on her innocence throughout her trial and said she had planned to kill herself if she had been sent to prison, despite her daughter only being six years old at the time.
She was given a suspended prison sentence, a conviction that was quashed last year.
“It was the end of the world to me,” she reportedly said. “That was my life, all I had known was the Post Office from 16, and just to be told: ‘You’re a thief’ is horrible. I wasn’t, and hadn’t taken anything.”
After her conviction, Brennan was declared bankrupt, her marriage ended and she attempted to take an overdose.
Talking about her almost 20-year ordeal, Brennan said: “It is just scandalous. It should never have happened. I wasn’t the only one. All of us say the same thing, we were told: ‘It’s only you. Nobody else is making these mistakes.’”
Janine Powell, originally from Tiverton in Devon, cried as she described how she was accused by the Post Office of stealing more than £71,000, the Guardian reported.
When Powell was sent to prison in 2008, she was separated from her children, which she said had a big impact on their relationship.
“We were all very close, and I think [my daughter] blamed me for leaving her,” she said. “It was hard to get that relationship back on track.”
Powell had to wait for more than a decade until her conviction was quashed.
The inquiry continues.
The government meanwhile has recognised the scale of the miscarriage of justice at the Post Office, and in July 2021, it said that it would make an interim payment of up to £100,000 in compensation to each of the postmasters affected in the scandal.