Anorak News | After Horizon : salvation for Postmasters but Post Office gods escape

After Horizon : salvation for Postmasters but Post Office gods escape

by | 25th, March 2021

The Post Office believed the data churned out by Horizon, its flawed computer system, over the statements of more than 900 postmasters who said they had not stolen money. Postmasters were responsible for cashing up and balancing their books with the Horizon system. Any error was the postmaster’s responsibility to correct. And those errors were mounting up.

Discrepancies between the money in the till and the money Horizon said was there began in the pennies. Gary Brown, a former postmaster from Yorkshire, tells the Times what happened when he called the Post Office helpline. He’d ask, “Is this happening only to me?” He says the answer was always “Yes”. Gary and his wife Maureen, who lived over their shop, hired a private auditor who spent five days studying their books. “No one could find a solution. The till’s shortfalls grew to thousands of pounds. They were losing money. But how? They worked longer hours. They sold hot food and decorated cakes. Gary took a loan to cover the cash shortfall. But the losses grew. They remortgaged their home. They borrowed from family and friends. Gary began taking antidepressants. In 2014, Horizon said the till was £32,000 short. Auditors from the Post Office searched their home. “It was stomach-churning. I’ve never stolen in my life. I burst into tears,” says Gary. “I was frightened,” says Maureen. “He was falling to pieces.” Gary tried to take his own life. They say the Post Office “stole our home and stolen our future”.

Postmaster Seema Misra was pregnant when she was sentenced to 15 months in prison in 2010 for stealing £74,000 from her branch in West Byfleet. In court she pleaded her innocence. “If I hadn’t been pregnant, I would have killed myself,” she says. “It was so shameful. I trusted the Post Office. I trusted I was working with a good company and this is how I’m treated.” Paying back the Post Office left her family financially destroyed.

The Post Office said computer errors could not be responsible for the missing money. In 2020, the BBC’s Panorama claimed to have seen internal Post Office emails which show its legal department was told about Horizon errors shortly before her trial.

One email from the Post Office Security Team to the Criminal Law Team is about a bug in the Horizon computer system that makes money “simply disappear”. In one case, £30,611 went missing.

The security team tell the legal team they are worried the bug may have “repercussions in any future prosecution cases”.

An attachment to the email says that “any branch encountering the problem will have corrupted accounts”.

The document was printed out by the Post Office legal department just three days before Seema Misra’s trial, but it was never disclosed to her defence.

Postmasters were prosecuted using unreliable evidence.

This year the Post Office agreed not to contest 44 of the first 47 cases referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. hearing at Southwark Crown Court . Oxfordshire sub-postmaster Vipinchandra Patel has had his 18-week prison sentence quashed. He did not steal £75,000. “The past nine years have been hellish and a total nightmare, but today I feel I can start living again. I can look forward and focus on enjoying life,” he says. “I feel euphoric as I have finally been vindicated. This conviction has been a cloud over my life for almost 10 years.”

Not everyone lost. Japanese company Fujitsu, the company that devised horizon, was paid handsomely.

And the boss? Paula Vennells was Chief Executive Officer of the Post Office Limited from 2012 to 2019. In 2019 she became chair of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London. In December 2020 it was announced that she would be leaving this role early, for personal reasons.

Vennells is an Anglican priest. “I hear from my parishioners if the Post Office does something they don’t like,” she told the Times in 2014. “They have no compunction – I’ll roll up one Sunday and somebody will come and say something and I’ll say, ‘Look, would you mind just holding it till the end of the service?’” Vennells said her faith “influences my values and how I approach things”. She’s busy:

She is a Non-Executive Director of Morrisons Plc, a member of the government’s Financial Inclusion Policy Forum and of the Ethical Investment Advisory Group for the Church of England. She’s been a Trustee for the Hymns Ancient and Modern Group and a member of the Future High Street Forum. She served as a Non-Executive Board Member at the Cabinet Office between February 2019 and March 2020.

In the 2019 New Year Honours, Vennells was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) “for services to the Post Office and to charity”.

When she left her role, Post Office chairman Tim Parker said:

“Paula has served the Post Office with great distinction: under her leadership the business has been transformed from an organisation making substantial losses into one that is now fully profitable and on an upwards trajectory… In the course of radically improving the business, Paula has ensured that the Post Office values of care, challenge and commitment are deeply embedded in the business and we have remained true to our underlying mission as a commercial business with a social purpose. I would also like to say on a personal note, that Paula’s decisiveness, approachability and calm disposition have made her an excellent CEO to work with, and have won her many friends right across the business.”

Paul Vennells told the Times she suffers from claustrophobia. Innocent of all and any wrongdoing, she has, of course, never been locked inside a prison cell. Postmasters have. One ended up dead. Her name was Dawn O’Connell.

This is Ben Gordon QC’s statement to the court, via Post Office Central. Read it and weep:

“My Lord, Ms Dawn O’Connell is not here today, having passed away in September of last year. I myself never had the chance to meet Ms O’Connell. Her appeal against her conviction is advanced or continued in her son Matthew’s name. Matthew O’Connell and Dawn’s brother, Mark, as I understand it, my Lord, are present in court today, next door in the overflow court.

My Lord, in the years following her conviction in 2008, and the serving of her suspended sentence, Ms O’Connell’s health, both physical and mental, declined dramatically. According to her family and loved ones, her personality also changed, irrevocably. She became increasingly isolated, ultimately reclusive, as described by her family, and struggled desperately to deal with the stigma of her conviction.

She suffered, my Lord, with severe bouts of depression. She did receive treatment, medication and counseling, but she sunk inexorably into alcoholism. In her latter and final years, my Lord, I understand that Ms O’Connell made repeated attempts upon her own life. In September of last year, her body succumbed to the damage caused by her sustained abuse of alcohol and she died tragically at the age of 57.

My Lord, on behalf of her son, her brother, and all her surviving family members and friends, I feel compelled to tender to the court their sincere regret and deep anguish that Dawn is not here today to hear her case being argued.

My Lord, Mrs O’Connell’s conviction dates back to August of 2008 and Harrow Crown Court, where, upon her own pleas of guilty, she was convicted of five counts of false accounting. One further count alleging theft of approximately £45,470 was ordered to lie on the file on the usual terms and was not proceeded with. A pre-sentence report was ordered and, a month later, in September, Ms O’Connell was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment suspended for two years, with a requirement for the completion of 150 hours of unpaid work.

My Lord, between 2000 and 2008, Ms Dawn O’Connell worked as a branch manager, a Post Office branch manager in Northolt. My Lord, as with many others which are before the court today, and as my learned friend Mr Saxby did, where it is applicable to Mrs O’Connell’s case, if I may, I echo and commend to the court my learned friend Mr Moloney’s submissions. But Mrs O’Connell’s case was one in which the Horizon data was central, central to the prosecution and her conviction. The prosecution arose from an unexplained shortfall, or deficit on the system at her branch. When audited, Mrs O’Connell reported the shortfalls and indicated that she was unable to explain the anomaly. Initially, as she explained, she had hoped that the error would correct itself, but over the ensuing months it grew and accumulated.

Ultimately, my Lord, having admitted falsifying the accounts in an attempt to conceal the deficit in the hope of preserving her job, she pleaded guilty to the offences of false accounting. Throughout the audit, throughout the investigation and throughout the prosecution, Ms O’Connell repeatedly and strenuously denied theft. As I have said, this count was left to lie on the file.

My Lord, as conceded by the respondent in relation to her appeal, there was no evidence of theft or any actual loss at her branch, as opposed to a Horizon generated shortfall. There was no other evidence to corroborate the Horizon data. On the contrary, my Lord, evidence was collected from other employees which attested to Ms O’Connell’s honesty and probity.

As further conceded by the respondent in her case, no attempt was made by the Post Office, as private prosecutor, to obtain or interrogate the ARQ data. There was no investigation into the integrity of the Horizon figures, and it is recognised that the appellant herself was severely limited in her ability to challenge the Horizon evidence and therefore that it was incumbent upon the Post Office to ensure that the reliability of the evidence was properly investigated and, my Lord, this was not done.

The Post Office failed, in my respectful submission, in its duty as a private prosecutor both to investigate properly the reliability of the system by obtaining and examining the data, and to disclose to the appellant or the court the full and accurate position in relation to the reliability of the system. No disclosure was forthcoming in Ms O’Connell’s case, my Lord, in relation to any concern or enquiry raised into the functionality of the system.

Ms O’Connell’s case file demonstrates that the focus of the investigation in her case was on proving how the accounts were falsified, which of course she had admitted, rather than examining the root cause of the shortfall. In fact, as it seems, no effort was made to identify or discover the actual cause of the shortfall or deficit. During the internal audit process, and her interviews under caution, my Lord, Ms O’Connell raised the issues she had encountered with the system and its recurring anomalies. No investigation or disclosure followed.

Notwithstanding, and by reference to the balancing exercise which the court is required to undertake in a submission of this kind, Ms O’Connell was a lady of hitherto good character, about whom people were, it seems, lining up to attest to her honesty and integrity. My Lord, in the papers I have seen, I have counted somewhere in the region of 30 character statements, which I think were obtained on her behalf. My Lord, it is conceded by the respondent that for these reasons it was not possible for Mrs O’Connell’s trial to be a fair one, thereby amounting to first category of abuse of process.

However, as set out, only a short while ago by Mr Moloney on behalf of his clients, and as set out in our skeleton argument, dated 21 January, we would respectfully submit that for the same set of reasons, or in respect of the same failures in the investigative and disclosure exercises, the prosecution against Ms O’Connell was rendered unconscionable, and that bringing it was an affront to the national conscience. Accordingly, my Lord, on her son Matthew’s behalf, we respectfully invite the court to quash her conviction on both grounds, or both limbs of abuse of process. My Lord, unless I can assist you any further, those are my submissions on Ms O’Connell’s behalf.”

What next? And who knew?

Posted: 25th, March 2021 | In: Key Posts, Money, News Comment | TrackBack | Permalink