More than one million people have signed a petition calling for Paula Venells, the former Post Office chief executive to lose her CBE over the Post Office Horizon scandal. During Vennells’ time as CEO, the organisation repeatedly denied there were problems with its computer system, despite the wrongful convictions of hundreds of sub-postmasters.
Between 1999 and 2015, 736 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were prosecuted by the Post Office for alleged fraud, false accounting, and theft, based on information from the Fujitsu Horizon system.
A new ITV drama, Mr Bates vs. The Post Office, has raised awareness of the scandal, with 50 new potential victims contacting lawyers in its wake. Neil Hudgell, the executive chairman of Hudgells (one of the law firms acting for the claimants) told the BBC that the ITV drama has been significant in inspiring new cases to come forward.
After the ITV drama aired demands for the honours forfeiture committee to remove Vennells’ CBE have resurfaced . Former cabinet minister Sir David Davis told the BBC that the drama had fuelled the public’s response to the Horizon scandal: ‘There are now tens of millions of people who care about this – care a lot… They’re furious in many cases’.
Many sub-postmasters asserted their innocence, claiming they had frequently raised issues with Horizon, complaining about bugs in the system after it falsely reported shortfalls.
Hundreds of sub-postmasters received criminal records and punishments like community service, wearing electronic tags and being jailed. Following convictions, many struggled financially or became bankrupt. Those who were not convicted still struggled, because they had to use their own money to cover the non-existent shortfalls.
Victims and their families suffered immense stress, with at least 4 suicides linked to this scandal. In 2010, Seema Misra was pregnant with her second child when she was convicted of theft and sent to jail. She said that she had been ‘suffering’ for 15 years as a result of the saga.
This case has been described as one of the most widespread miscarriages of justice in British history.
Last Friday, the Met Police announced that the Post Office is under criminal investigation over potential fraud offences.
The Prime Minister said the government was also considering stripping the Post Office of its role in the appeal process. In England and Wales, the Post Office has the power to decide on bringing the original prosecutions and its appointed lawyers present the evidence in court.
As of now, 93 convictions have been overturned. According to the Post Office, around 54 cases have resulted in convictions being upheld, people being refused permission to appeal, or people withdrawing from the process.
However, there are concerns regarding compensation for the victims. Out of the 93 overturned convictions, only 30 people have agreed to full final settlements.
While the government previously announced that wrongly convicted Post Office workers are to be offered £600,000 each in compensation, the Post Office’s last annual report stated that it had halved the size of the compensation pot it had set aside.
An independent board overseeing compensation has since urged for all convictions to be overturned.
Alan Bates, on whose story the ITV Drama focuses, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The big hold up for the compensation is to speed the bureaucracy up which is holding up the payments to all these people’. He added that about 60 to 70 claimants had died before getting justice.