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    Exclusive: Post Office scandal victim demands ‘full, fair and final’ closure

    Former sub-postmistress Shazia Saddiq was wrongly accused of stealing from the Post Office. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

    Echoing the desperate plea of hundreds of other victims, former sub postmistress Shazia Saddiq is demanding a “full, fair and final” closure to the greatest miscarriage of justice in Britain’s history, a curious case in which a centuries-old government corporation allegedly exploited its might to intimidate, condemn, and financially ruin innocent lives.

    With ITV’s recent airing of Mr Bates vs the Post Office, anger and frustration is running high over highly corrupt and blatant scandal. However, for hundreds of sub post-masters caught in the middle of this, it has been an excruciatingly long, slow, humiliating and exhausting ongoing fight.

    Between 1999 and 2015, over 900 sub postmasters were prosecuted for theft, false accounting and fraud over shortfalls reflecting in their branch’s Horizon accounting software while about 230 were imprisoned.

    Some pleaded guilty in the hopes of not being given a custodial sentence (which was not always the case). Many paid the shortfall in the hope of avoiding legal complexity and to save their reputation and became financially burdened. Others put their hope in the British judicial system believing that the truth would come out.

    Over two decades, livelihoods and reputations were destroyed, families shattered, marriages broken, and savings lost. At least four, maybe more, committed suicide.

    In 2019, a group of 555 sub postmasters, led by former sub postmaster Alan Bates, won a group action brought in court against the Post Office, with the judge ruling that Horizon contained bugs, errors and defects. This contributed to the Court of Appeal quashing the convictions of 39 former sub postmasters in April 2021.

    Parallelly, in September 2020, the government established the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, chaired by retired judge Sir Wyn Williams, to investigate the implementation and failings of the Horizon system.

    Silencing and threatening

    Post office introduced Horizon, built by Japan’s Fujitsu, in 1999 to replace paper-based accounting. Soon after its installation, many branch managers complained, saying that Horizon wrongly showed some amount missing from Post Office accounts. However, they were all told that the system is completely fine.

    Problems ensued, resulting in sudden increase in the number of sub postmasters showing unexplained accounting shortfalls. Rather than investigating and fixing the problems, the Post Office held a defensive position that there was nothing wrong with Horizon and that the shortfalls were mainly due to sub postmasters’ incompetence or were simply fraud.

    “You’re the only one to have problems!”

    A witness of Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry Shahnaz Rashid, the former sub postmistress in South Yorkshire, was often told that the system would “sort itself out” and balance at the end of the month whenever she raised the issue of shortfall at the helpline. In 2012, she was forced to pay £3,500 in installments due to alleged shortfall. Three years later, she was again asked to pay £35,562, failing which she was terminated.

    The stress began to take its toll on her family life as they would spend evenings and weekends trying to make sense of the losses. She fell into depression, thinking that since she was the only one in this dire situation, it must be all her fault. The stress and tension eventually ended her marriage.

    As the shortfall cases increased, from 2009 to 2015-16, Post Office investigators allegedly horse traded with the sub postmaster, offering to drop the theft charge in return for an admission of false accounting.

    Exclusive: Post Office scandal victim demands 'full, fair and final' closure
    Fujitsu, the tech company at the heart of the UK’s Post Office scandal, has suffered a financial blow with a billion dollars (£768 million) wiped off its value within eight days of the ITV show ‘Mr. Bates vs The Post Office’. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

    Another witness Kamaljit Kooner Singh, former –sub postmaster of Narborough and Rugeley post office, stated in his statement to the inquiry that he often reported discrepancies to Horizon helpline where he was regularly advised to wait until the balance for correction notice. Whenever he pushed harder to dispute a shortfall, he was told that he was the only one facing this problem.

    During an audit, he was forced to sign a letter confirming that he had overinflated the figures. He did not get a chance to read the document thoroughly before signing it, not realizing that it would later be used against him, as told to the inquiry.

    Singh was suspended from both the branches and was forced to pay for the shortfalls, placing his family under huge financial pressure. His reputation in the community was tarnished, his marriage almost broke and he even contemplated ending his life.

    Another witness Vinod Sharma, former sub postmaster at Glasgow, was close to his retirement when he was told that Horizon was showing a shortfall of £28,845. As told to the inquiry, he was allegedly misled by Post Office union representatives George Thompson who coerced him to pay, saying otherwise the post office would be closed and he could be sued. Sharma was left with no choice but to make the repayment and at the end of the day, this came out of his retirement fund.

    Khayyam Ishaq, the former Sub-Postmaster of the Birkenshaw branch, was prosecuted for theft and was sentenced to 54 weeks of immediate imprisonment. After being released from prison, he struggled to find work and was very embarrassed about having to wear a prison tag. His conviction was overturned in April 2021 but the whole experience took a major toll on his overall life.

    Shazia Saddiq is one of the 555 sub postmasters who, led by Bates, who brought a civil case against the Post Office.

    Speaking to Asian Trader, Saddiq recalled how she faced regular problems with Horizon and often turned to its helpline centre for resolution.

    “I remember one time, just like you may recall seeing it in the ITV docuseries too, I was putting in some figures in Horizon regarding scratch cards that would be sold on the retail side. And I remember this very prominently that they told me to press some buttons, and the figure doubled right there in front of me. And when I said ‘look, the figures doubled in front of me’, the response from the helpline person was ‘best of British’.

    “I didn’t know what that meant at the time but now I know that it meant best of luck. At the time, I thought they were more knowledgeable about the system but now I’ve got to know that they were simply reading off the script, and sort of just telling us what being told,” she told Asian Trader.

    Saddiq, a single mother of two, was suspended without pay from Westgate Hill and Ryton branches in October 2016 and was informed that the total shortfall was £39,269.97. In later correspondence with the Post Office’s solicitor, the shortfall was mentioned as £41,097.37, but no explanation was offered as to how they have arrived at this increased figure.

    The post offices were closed, and she was given no access to either branch or her own retail businesses. The Post Office also took all the stock, fixtures and fittings of conservative value of £60,000 – £70,000.

    Exclusive: Post Office scandal victim demands 'full, fair and final' closure
    Former sub-postmistress Shazia Saddiq (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

    As the news spread in Ryton village, Saddiq started getting abused by the local community and had to leave her home soon after.

    “At the time my children were nine and four. One evening, when I was out with my children, I was called ‘thief’, assaulted in the street in front of my children and attacked with flour and eggs and even stoned. Because of this incident, I had to flee Ryton overnight like a refugee.

    “I went to my husband, who was living down south in Oxfordshire. I was already a divorcee with two children. I was sort of ostracized from Asian community and have been battling this on my own,” Saddiq said.

    During this time, she was constantly harassed by Post Office investigators to pay up or face consequences.

    Speaking to Asian Trader, Saddiq recalled how she was aggressively hounded by post office investigators including Stephen Bradshaw who was involved in the criminal investigation of several sub-postmasters and mistresses and was accused of behaving like “Mafia gangsters”.

    During one of such calls, Bradshaw used highly derogatory language, calling her a “bitch”, which she found extremely distressing.

    When the public inquiry resumed on Jan 11 for the first time since the ITV drama, Bradshaw denied Saddiq’s and similar other claims.

    Reacting to Bradshaw’s denial, Saddiq said, “When Stephen Bradshaw denied calling me profanities on the phone call made in October 2016, his denial didn’t come as any surprise to me. Bradshaw called me profanities and he hounded me. He was just a very nasty man to be fair. And it is not a surprise that he totally denied it!”

    Saddiq and many others like her were constantly made to believe that she had no other alternative but to pay the shortfall and that the Post Office had conducted a thorough and fair investigation and was determined that there was an outstanding payment.

    Also, like others, Saddiq was told that she was the only one facing such a problem. It was only in 2019 that she got to know about similar ordeals of her peers.

    “It is so naive, but it is only around 2019 that I came to know that about the scale of the scandal and that there were others too affected just like me. I honestly believed what the post office was telling me that I was the only one having these (shortfall) issues,” she told Asian Trader.

    Saddiq said throughout her interaction with Horizon and later too, she was never taken seriously owing to her Asian background.

    “If you did follow Bradshaw’s inquiry, while he was in the chair, he stated things like ‘they weren’t my equal, or this person was above me’. So I feel in his mind, he has notion or opinion of people being either above him or beneath him. And I definitely did feel at the time that he saw me beneath him,” she said.

    Exclusive: Post Office scandal victim demands 'full, fair and final' closure
    Former sub-postmistress Seema Misra (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

    It has also emerged that Post Office racially profiled sub postmasters into headings such as “negroid types”, “Chinese/Japanese types”, “dark skinned European types” and other categories, something which may have influenced the decision to prosecute.

    Not to forget the fact that the Post Office also sent people to prison reportedly to set an example and stop others from “jumping on the Horizon bashing bandwagon”. Among them was Seema Misra who was eight months pregnant at the time. She was one of the 39 who had their convictions quashed in 2021.

    Mend, Amend, Compensate

    Over the years, hundreds of sub post masters paid back hefty amounts in the name of shortfall to save themselves from legal actions.

    Mohammed Khalil paid approximately £85,860.47 worth of shortfalls from 2005 to September 2015.

    As told to the inquiry, “To save my face in the community, I kept bearing this financial burden that the Post Office had forced upon me.”

    Patel is demanding compensation by the Post Office, saying they are the people who made her life a living hell, and she needs financial support to clear her debts.

    Kooner Singh wants the Post Office to be held accountable and admit that they have done wrong.

    “For me compensation is not enough; I want the truth to come out and most importantly, I want to know how they are going to look after current sub postmasters because if nothing changes what is the point. Something has to change,” he said at the inquiry.

    In 2019, Post Office settled out-of-court for £58 million. However, £46m went on legal costs, leaving only about £20,000 for each claimant. The government says roughly £138m have so far been paid out to over 2,700 claimants across three separate Post Office compensation schemes. Still, many postmasters are yet to receive compensation or have their convictions quashed.

    Speaking to Asian Trader, Saddiq said that it is too difficult to put a compensation figure, expressing her strong disapproval at £75,000 figure.

    Exclusive: Post Office scandal victim demands 'full, fair and final' closure

    “At the post office, I have got fixtures installed and fittings. I lost my business, my livelihood. I lost everything. I would have to sit with some expert to put a financial value on everything that I have lost- I lost my pension, health insurance, life insurance, home, sanity, and reputation. How can one put a price on the loss of dignity and reputation? So, it is not a case of ‘oh, take £75,000 and go away’!” she said.

    Saddiq is seeking a wholesome and final closure to this painful chapter.

    “I could talk about this forever. But for now, I am putting forward the three F- ‘full, fair and final’. Full as in uncovering the whole crime that happened, fair as in look and compensate fairly each one of us who had to suffer for all these years and final as in just put an end to this once and for all; we all need to start healing,” she said.

    ITV drama has managed to rattle the country though it is still sad that it took a TV docuseries and social media uproar to wake up our MPs to the matter which has otherwise been going on for more than 20 years. Or, with the general elections just a few months away, is it just a matter of timing?

    Prime minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to bring in a new emergency law to exonerate postmasters caught up in this scandal after the ITV drama sparked outcry. Postmasters will have to sign a document saying they are innocent to get their £600,000 compensation, although they can opt to have their claims individually assessed.

    Though calls for mass exoneration have come from across the political divide, legal experts have raised concerns that it could interfere with the constitutional independence of courts and judges.

    There can be other way outs too. Sources in the judiciary have told Asian Media Group that the government did not need to bring in a blanket acquittal and the courts could clear the backlog by using the same mechanisms when dealing with terminally ill people who felt they had been wrongly convicted.

    Exclusive: Post Office scandal victim demands 'full, fair and final' closure
    Former subpostmasters celebrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, on April 23, 2021, following a court ruling clearing subpostmasters of convictions for theft and false accounting.(Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

    “It’s something judges have been doing for years,” said one civil court judge who asked not to be named.

    “If someone’s case needed to be expedited, a judge would look at the evidence in writing, and as long as the defendant, in this case the Post Office and Horizon, didn’t object, we could agree to a settlement and quash the conviction. If we used our common sense, we’d be able to complete all the cases before the general election.”

    The sudden peak of interest in the scandal has been welcomed by those who have been involved for years, but some questions continue to remain unanswered- What exactly caused account balance mismatches? Who was responsible for those errors? Who knew about them, but did nothing? And more importantly and rather an uglier one- was the system tweaked to favour some or someone in particular?

    The independent public inquiry is still gathering evidence from postal workers, the government, the Post Office, Fujitsu and others. The inquiry is expected to conclude later this year.

    Despite the setbacks and the lifelong trauma, Saddiq still believes in the British judicial system.

    “I trust the court and the current inquiry that’s happening headed by the retired judge Sir Wyn Williams. To be honest, when it was first announced, I thought it was just another whitewash, sticking a plaster over the top. I did not count on how integrity filled Sir Williams is.

    “Believe it or not, I still respect the British judicial system and have 100 per cent faith in it,” she said.

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