Plain Speaking, Politics, Technology

“Which office do I go to, to get my reputation back?”

Those words were famously spoken by Raymond Donovan, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Labor, after his 1987 acquittal on fraud and grand larceny charges in the State of New York.

Perhaps thirty-nine British sub-postmasters posed that question yesterday.  (Well not quite thirty-nine, because before some of them got the chance to inquire, they died–their families and themselves still daubed with the stain of criminality, from prosecutions and convictions from as much as twelve years ago.)

Still, I hope that the ones that are left are demanding to know.  And I hope they get a satisfactory answer.

A few months ago I wrote a post here which told the story of dozens of Britain’s sub-postmasters, and their ordeal as the target of a Royal Mail probe into their “theft” of hundreds of thousands of pounds from the Post Office till in their little enterprises.  To clarify a bit, and from my original post:

The Post Office in the UK operates differently than it does in the States, and there are over 11,000 of these “sub-post offices,” usually operating out of small general stores, chemist shops, or newsagents, dotted all over the country, often in out-of-the-way villages (think Agatha Christie mysteries) which would otherwise be under-served. The people who run them are contractors, not employees of the Royal Mail. And the post office itself is used for purposes unheard of in the US–you can go there to pay your utility bill, perform banking transactions, and get your welfare payments, as well as buy stamps and send off letters and packages.

After the installation of the Fujitsu Horizon state-of-the-art (oh, how that brings back memories of a phrase that covers a multitude of sins) point-of-sale computer system –they don’t call them POS for nothing–the postmasters, the Post Office, and the technical support employees at Fujitsu began noticing discrepancies in the end-of-day reconciliations, always with the deficits accruing against the postmasters, and sometimes involving thousands of pounds.  Over time, these discrepancies built up.

From my original post:

It wasn’t long before Seema [Misra] began to notice discrepancies in her end-of-day reconciliations, between what she thought should have been the total Post Office business done, and what the computer report spat out. In every case, the computer report indicated that there should have been more money applied to the account than indicated when Seema took the receipts and transaction history and totaled them up manually. Some days, the discrepancies were in the £100 range. Sometimes, thousands.

She reported this as a problem both to Horizon (Fujitsu) and to her supervisors at the Post Office. They advised her that she was liable for the discrepancies because she’d signed a contract promising to make good any losses. So she began feeding profits from her store into the Royal Mail system to make up the difference and balance the Post Office account. She kept reporting the problem. They kept insisting the trouble was with her.

Seema, and every other sub-postmaster in the same situation, ran into a brick wall.  The Post Office and Fujitsu insisted that each case was unique, that nothing was wrong with the system, and that no-one else was experiencing any such problem (they must have known this was false at the time).

Audits were run and cancelled, just before their reports were scheduled to be released.  Claims of errors in the software and bugs in the program were denied:

Investigative audits began to track errors in the software, including the fact that it wasn’t tracking certain transactions, was recording some transactions in duplicate, and was disadvantaged in some cases by old or inadequate equipment. The Post Office dismissed most of these claims, insisted that the problem was inadequate training, and that, instead, the bulk of the problem lay with the sub-postmasters and postmistresses who were, in a word, thieves.

Meanwhile, The Royal Mail launched an aggressive campaign against people reporting the discrepancies and difficulty balancing, and over the course of several years, hundreds were sent to jail. Hundreds were disgraced. Many were placed on suicide watch. At least one committed the act. Hundreds of singles and couples who’d taken on the Royal Mail commission as a fillip for their retirement income were embarrassed, humiliated, shamed, and disgraced. In many cases, they were jailed and permanently branded “thieves.”

Finally, in December of 2019, the tide began to turn.

In December of 2019, in a blistering 400-page ruling, a judge ruled that “bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system was the cause of the discrepancies which had ruined hundreds of people.” (550 of them were part of the class-action lawsuit which led to this ruling.) He also opened the door to the idea that the software defects should allow the defendants/convicted felons the right to petition to have their guilty verdicts overturned.

And the Royal Mail graciously conceded that it “would not contest” the efforts of people like Seema Misra to get what remains of their lives back.  Big of them.

On April 23, 2021, thirty-nine of the the redoubtable and the  incorruptible  who filed suit against “the machine” won their case as their convictions for theft, fraud, and false accounting were thrown out.

From the April 23, 2021 Telegraph article, which is behind a paywall, some of the stories:

Seema Misra says she “lost everything” when she was sentenced to 15 months in prison in 2010 after being found guilty of stealing £78,000 from the Surrey post office she ran.

She was sent to prison on the day of her son’s 10th birthday and was eight weeks’ pregnant at the time, later suffering the indignity of having her baby in hospital while wearing a tag.

Harjinder Butoy was declared bankrupt, lost his family home and was ostracised by his local community after being wrongfully convicted of  stealing more than £206,000 from the sub Post Office he had run for a year.

Despite denying any wrongdoing all the way through audits, investigations and a court trial he was found guilty in 2008 and served 18 months of a three-year and three month sentence for theft.

Since his conviction Mr Butoy has been unable to find work because of his criminal record and fears that even now it has been quashed his absence from the workforce will be difficult to explain to employers.

Julian Wison died from cancer four years ago as a convicted criminal, aged 67, having been forced to spend the last decade of his life fighting to restore his reputation.

It’s an appalling, heartbreaking, disgusting story. As well as a cautionary tale for any “civilized” countries who think such things “can’t happen here.”

And it’s not over yet.  Politicians, of course, are now jumping on the bandwagon from all sides amid calls to strip the Royal Mail’s former chief executive of her CBE honor (awarded for services to the Post Office), and to require her to pay back the millions of pounds she collected in bonuses while overseeing this travesty.  Several hundreds of the more than seven-hundred sub-postmasters who were prosecuted and in many cases jailed, are expected to be emboldened to appeal their own convictions, and the Great British taxpayer is expected, ultimately, to pay out hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation to those so unjustly treated.

From another Telegraph article:

In a damning ruling, three senior judges said the company had “steamrolled” subpostmasters in its pursuit of prosecutions, despite knowing there were serious questions over the reliability of Horizon.

The judges said: “Post Office Limited’s failures of investigation and disclosure were so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the ‘Horizon cases’ an affront to the conscience of the court.”

But those whose lives have been ruined by the wrongful prosecutions said that compensation was not enough to repair the damage.

The Communication Workers Union and MPs have backed lawyers in the call for Post Office officials who “maliciously ruined the lives of innocent people by prosecuting them in pursuit of profits” to be investigated. [Former Royal Mail CEO] Ms Vennells should be among those to face questions from police, it was said.

And the investigation has now turned to Fujitsu, and how the company and its employees may have manipulated the system, the data, and the facts:

The Metropolitan Police are conducting an ongoing investigation into Fujitsu workers after Mr Justice Fraser wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions expressing “grave concern” about the evidence provided in earlier court hearings. Fujitsu developed the Horizon system, which was was used for tasks such as transactions, accounting and stocktaking.

Noel Thomas and his wife, after the April 23, 2021 verdict was announced.

Brave little people.  These thirty-nine men and women are heroes.  Here are their names:

Josephine Hamilton, Hughie Thomas, Allison Henderson, Alison Hall, Gail Ward, Julian Wilson (deceased), Jacqueline McDonald, Tracy Felstead, Janet Skinner, Scott Darlington, Seema Misra, Della Robinson, Khayyam Ishaq, David Hedges, Peter Holmes (deceased), Rubina Shaheen, Damien Owen, Mohammed Rasul, Wendy Buffrey, Kashmir Gill, Barry Capon, Vijay Parekh, Lynette Hutchings, Dawn O’Connell (deceased), Carl Page, Lisa Brennan, William Graham, Siobhan Sayer, Tim Burgess, Pauline Thomson, Nicholas Clark, Margery Williams, Tahir Mahmood, Ian Warren, David Yates, Harjinder Butoy, Gillian Howard, David Blakey and Pamela Lock.

Harjinder Butoy and his family.

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