RUTH SUNDERLAND: Now hold the Post Office managers to account

RUTH SUNDERLAND: Now hold the Post Office managers responsible to account

They are 39 people whose names will go down in legal history. Along with six others whose convictions were overturned in December, the sub-postmasters whose sentences were quashed by the Court of Appeal yesterday collectively constitute Britain’s biggest ever miscarriage of justice.

They are also names that should be inscribed with shame in the annals of the Post Office.

Despite their innocence, these men and women suffered years of agony at the hands of its intransigent management, who refused to believe that the money that appeared to be vanishing from their tills was not due to their dishonesty, but to a fault in their IT system.

The sub-postmasters whose sentences were quashed by the Court of Appeal yesterday collectively constitute Britain’s biggest ever miscarriage of justice

Former Post Office bosses, primarily ex-chief executive Paula Vennells, pictured and staff at Fujitsu behind the error-prone Horizon IT system at the heart of the fiasco, must be made to answer for their conduct 

Tragically, the verdict came too late for three sub-postmasters – Julian Wilson, Peter Holmes and Dawn O’Connell – who died before they could be vindicated.

The affair is all the more disturbing because so far no one has been held responsible – a situation that must be rectified as quickly as possible. Former Post Office bosses, primarily ex-chief executive Paula Vennells, and staff at Fujitsu behind the error-prone Horizon IT system at the heart of the fiasco, must be made to answer for their conduct.

Because behind the roll-call are stories of almost unbearable human pain. Of a pregnant woman bundled off to jail, of the separation of a wrongly-imprisoned mother from her children, of upstanding men treated like pariahs. There were mental breakdowns, there were marriages that could not survive the strain.

In the face of such suffering and sadness, the court triumph is testament to the dogged bravery of the sub-postmasters who, with the backing of this newspaper, which repeatedly highlighted their plight, refused to surrender to bullying.

This is a devastating moment for the Post Office and its erstwhile bosses. When sub-postmasters approached it in good faith after discovering cash shortfalls caused by Horizon, they had a right to help and support. Instead, their employer unleashed the attack dogs. Such was the zeal to prosecute these blameless individuals that, in the words of the judges, any challenges to Horizon’s accuracy were simply ‘steamrollered’.

An inquiry led by retired High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams is looking into what went wrong. Some campaigners suspect it will be a whitewash. Previous inquiries, including the one into the downfall of banks in the financial crisis, took years and failed to inflict any meaningful punishment on those at the helm.

That cannot be allowed to happen in this case. So far, there is no sign that key players have paid a heavy price. Mrs Vennells, 62, who is also an Anglican priest, has won wealth and honours from her time at the Post Office, carting off £4.9million from her seven-year stint in the top job and a CBE to boot.

In the face of such suffering and sadness, the court triumph is testament to the dogged bravery of the sub-postmasters who, with the backing of this newspaper, which repeatedly highlighted their plight, refused to surrender to bullying

One aspect of yesterday’s decision that must be troubling for Mrs Vennells and her cohorts is the finding that the prosecutions were an ‘affront to the conscience’ of the court

Her well-cushioned life now includes seats on the boards of supermarket group Morrisons, where she earns £89,000 a year, and homeware retailer Dunelm, where she earns tens of thousands more. If she had a shred of decency she would have resigned from these posts months ago. Her presence puts both companies in an embarrassing position. One advisory firm has already called on shareholders in Dunelm to vote against her re-election to the board late last year.

She is not the only manager in the dock. Tim Parker, chairman of the Post Office since 2015, supported Mrs Vennells’ policy of pursuing postmasters through the courts. From 1999 to 2015 there were more than 700 prosecutions based on evidence from Horizon.

Last June, Parker and Moya Greene, chief executive of Royal Mail when it was part of the same empire as the Post Office, were accused of continuing to prosecute postmasters after directors were told Horizon could be to blame.

What is particularly chilling about this case is that it was perpetrated by one of our most trusted institutions in a wholesale betrayal of its own people.

In its relentless war against the sub-postmasters, the Post Office arbitrarily turned hundreds of hitherto unremarkable lives into Kafka-esque nightmares.

One aspect of yesterday’s decision that must be troubling for Mrs Vennells and her cohorts is the finding that the prosecutions were an ‘affront to the conscience’ of the court. Such damning words suggest a depth of bad faith that is shocking, even in these cynical times.

Ms Vennells’s former sub-postmasters deserve answers as to why she and her colleagues allowed their persecution to go on for so long, despite mounting evidence that Horizon was infested with bugs and defects. She had multiple opportunities to halt the victimisation yet chose not to do so. Instead, the Post Office continued with its mulish and obdurate approach, condemning hundreds of sub-postmasters to a terrible, seemingly interminable ordeal.

They and the public need to know how such an egregious abuse of power and trust could have been allowed to happen – and to be reassured it never will again.

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