Postmasters who were wrongly convicted in the Post Office Horizon IT scandal will each receive up to £100,000 in interim compensation, funded by the Government.
It comes after the Court of Appeal cleared 12 more former subpostmasters earlier this week, bringing the total number of judgements overturned to 57 – with hundreds more hoping for similar decisions.
Ministers said the compensation will ensure those affected are not left out of pocket as they and the Post Office work toward full settlements for the ‘immense hardship’ they have faced.
Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of postmasters were sacked or prosecuted after money appeared to vanish from accounts at their branches.
But the disappearing funds were actually caused by the Fujitsu-developed Horizon computer system, which turned out to be flawed.
Former Post Office worker Janet Skinner (centre) hugs family members after having her conviction relating to the Horizon IT scandal overturned in April of this year
Some subpostmasters were imprisoned after being convicted of stealing money, while scores of lives were ruined – with one worker even taking his own life after being accused of taking £60,000.
Rather than admit the IT system was defective, the Post Office concealed evidence of the glitches and instead forced its own staff to plead guilty to crimes they knew they had not committed, lawyers representing a group of the postmasters previously told the Court of Appeal.
The Post Office is now contacting postmasters and will aim to make an offer for an interim payment within 28 days of receiving an application from those whose overturned convictions relied on Horizon evidence.
Postal Affairs minister Paul Scully said: ‘The suffering and distress these postmasters and their families have gone through cannot be overstated.
What was the Horizon computer system and how did it go wrong?
Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of postmasters were sacked or prosecuted after money appeared to go missing from their branch accounts (file image)
Horizon, an IT system developed by the Japanese company Fujitsu, was rolled out by the Post Office from 1999.
The system was used for tasks such as transactions, accounting and stocktaking. However, subpostmasters complained about defects after it reported shortfalls – some of which amounted to thousands of pounds.
Some subpostmasters attempted to plug the gap with their own money, even remortgaging their homes, in an attempt to correct an error.
Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of subpostmasters were sacked or prosecuted due to the glitches. The ex-workers blamed flaws in the IT system, Horizon, but the Post Office denied there was a problem.
In case after case the Post Office bullied postmasters into pleading guilty to crimes they knew they had not committed.
Many others who were not convicted were hounded out of their jobs or forced to pay back thousands of pounds of ‘missing’ money.
The Post Office spent £32million to deny any fault in their IT system, before capitulating.
However, the postmasters and postmistresses said the scandal ruined their lives as they had to cope with the impact of a conviction and imprisonment, some while they had been pregnant or had young children.
Marriages broke down, and courts have heard how some families believe the stress led to health conditions, addiction and premature deaths.
‘While nothing will make up for the years of pain they faced after this appalling injustice, I hope this initial step provides a measure of comfort.
‘The Post Office has started to turn a corner in terms of dealing with its past mistakes – and this Government will support them in doing so wherever possible.’
Post Office chief executive Nick Read said making compensation payments as quickly as possible was a ‘priority’.
He said: ‘I welcome the Government’s support to enable these interim payments that begin to provide some redress to people who were badly failed.
‘Whilst we cannot change the past, this is an important step towards meaningful compensation for victims and we will offer payments as soon as possible.’
Chi Onwurah, shadow business minister, branded the scandal ‘horrendous’ and said compensation was ‘long overdue’.
She said: ‘This is long overdue, and a victory for the sub-postmasters who have been fighting tooth and nail to secure justice for those affected in this horrendous scandal.
‘Today’s news is bittersweet. For those sub-postmasters who lost their jobs, homes, and reputations. For those who have still not had their convictions overturned and so will not be in scope, and for those who lost their lives, for whom this news comes too late.
‘We will look closely at the compensation Government is proposing, because it remains baffling that the issue of compensation has been excluded from the Horizon Scandal Inquiry’s terms of reference.
‘Labour will continue to press ministers to expand the inquiry’s remit.
‘The Government must uncover the truth about how this terrible miscarriage of justice can ever have happened and hold those involved accountable.’
The Post Office had spent £32million to deny any fault in Horizon before capitulating.
It has since paid a £58million settlement to 557 postmasters following an acrimonious High Court battle.
The Mail Online reported in April how as many as 736 sub-postmasters who were convicted could claim damages, further pushing the compensation bill into the hundreds of millions of pounds.
Many postmasters and postmistresses were prosecuted for theft, fraud and false accounting, while others were hounded out of work or forced to pay huge sums of ‘missing’ money, due to the scandal.
The scandal blighted their lives, as former staff lost their homes and marriages, and suffered ill health as a result.
One former postmaster, Martin Griffiths, killed himself after he was falsely suspected of stealing £60,000, while some have since died and ‘gone to their graves’ with convictions against their names.
In a landmark ruling at the Court of Appeal in April, Lord Justice Holroyde said the Post Office ‘knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon’ but ‘consistently asserted [it] was robust and reliable’, and ‘effectively steamrolled over any subpostmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy’.
The judge added: ‘POL knew that subpostmasters around the country had complained of inexplicable discrepancies in the accounts.
Vijay Parekh (centre) with wife Gita (left) and daughter Bhavisha after his conviction was overturned in April, joining dozens of others, who were all blamed for disappearing funds at their respective Post Office branches, which was later found to be due to a faulty computer system
‘POL knew that different bugs, defects and errors had been detected well beyond anything which might be regarded as a period of initial teething problems.
‘In short, POL knew that there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon.’
Lord Justice Holroyde continued: ‘Yet it does not appear that POL adequately considered or made relevant disclosure of problems with or concerns about Horizon in any of the cases at any point during that period.
‘On the contrary, it consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable.
‘Nor does it appear that any attempt was made to investigate the assertions of subpostmasters that there must be a problem with Horizon.
‘The consistent failure of POL to be open and honest about the issues affecting Horizon can, in our view, only be explained by a strong reluctance to say or do anything which might lead to other subpostmasters knowing about those issues.’
Source: Daily Mail