Tony Greenstein | 05 April 2024 | Post Views:

Sean Hudson’ account of the role of the National Federation of Sub Postmasters

The Post Office Scandal with Sean Hudson of the CWU

The wrongful conviction between 1999 and 2015 of over 900 subpostmasters for theft and false accounting is rightly described as the worst case of miscarriage of justice in Britain. Except perhaps for the Irish cases such as the Birmingham 6 in the 70s and 80s.

Thanks to ITV’s Mr Bates vs The Post Office, which was broadcast in January this year, most people are aware of the conspiracy to frame the subpostmasters by the Board of the Post Office, Paula Vennells in particular, and Fujitsu, which was responsible for the Horizon computer system that so disastrously failed.

In fact the only people who seem unaware of what happened appear to be the Metropolitan Police who, as the BBC noted, have so far not only not charged anyone with any offence, but have interviewed just two people under caution. If they were climate protesters the Met would have been all over them.

The Lies of the Rev. Paula Vennels CEO of the Post Office

Potential offences should include conspiracy to pervert the cause of justice, obtaining monies by deception and perjury. It is of course understandable that the Met hasn’t yet got round to doing anything since they are more concerned with monitoring the speech of those protesting against genocide in Gaza and inspecting book covers to see whether or not they offend Zionists.

The first public airing of the scandal was in August 2015, Panorama’s Trouble at Post Office. This was followed up in 2020 by Panorama’s Scandal at the Post Office.

Like many people I was only dimly aware of what was happening, yet there were those in the legal profession and in the CPS who must have been aware, not least Britain’s liar-in-chief Sir Keir Starmer, who like in the case of Jimmy Saville, denied knowing anything.

There were about 983 prosecutions, 700 by the Post Office and the remainder by the CPS and associated bodies. Ed Davey, the leader of the Lib Dems, was Minister for the Post Office in 2012. In a letter to Alan Bates in 2010 Davey said that

The integrity of the Post Office Horizon system is an operational and contractual matter for POL [Post Office Ltd], whilst I do appreciate your concerns. I do not believe a meeting would serve any useful purpose.

The Lib Dems played a pivotal role in the scandalous privatisation of Royal Mail, from which the Post Office was hived off. Business Secretary Vince Cable undersold Royal Mail giving away billions of pounds to the City that had been paid for by the taxpayer.

Jo Swinson, a future leader of the Lib Dems was also a Post Office Minister and she was handed a briefing note about a ‘trickle’ of subpostmasters alleging miscarriages of justice and problems with Horizon. She not only chose to do nothing she has also refused to be interviewed over her role.

Swinson took over from Norman Lamb who succeeded Ed Davey, as Postal Affairs Minister. Swinson, a viciously anti-Corbyn MP, provided one of the highlights of the last election when she was defeated by the SNP. She backed up the position of the Post Office with a statement to the House of Commons that there was “absolutely no evidence of any systemic issues with the computer system”.

Like the other Lib Dem Ministers Swinson has subsequently said that she had been misled. But if she was misled by the Post Office that was because she was a willing victim. She chose to believe a large corporation against the little people it had been grinding down.

The National Federation of Subpostmasters

Another of the guilty parties was the National Federation of SubPostmasters to which all postmasters belong unless they take a decision to opt out. The NFSP was supposed to be the equivalent of the postmasters’ trade union but in reality it was a company union.

As Post Office trial observed it was a department of the Post Office. In return for a grant of over £2m a year it agreed not to do anything that displeased the Post Office. Far from supporting its members who were being prosecuted as part of the Horizon scandal it supported the Post Office right up to the bitter end. It signed a contract with the Post Office which meant that in the event of a conflict between the Post Office and its members it supported the former. Clauses included promises ‘not to engage in the following’:

5.3.1    undertaking any public activity which may prevent POL from implementing any of its initiatives, policies or strategies;

5.3.2    undertaking or inducing a third party to undertake media or political campaigns against POL;

5.3.3    organising or inducing a third party to organise public demonstrations, protests or petitions against POL;

5.3.4    organising or inducing a third party to organise boycotts of POL’s business;…

5.3.6    other activities or behaviour the effect of which may be materially detrimental to POL….

5.7 The NFSP shall (and shall use best endeavours to ensure that all Personnel of the NFSP shall):

5.7.1    not act dishonestly or negligently at any time and/or not act directly or indirectly to the detriment of any Annual Plan and/or any Approved Project; and …

5.8 The NFSP shall support POL and Post Office Operators in the rollout of the Network Transformation programme … and shall work closely with POL to ensure that the objectives and requirements of the Network Transformation programme are effectively and positively communicated to current and future Post Office Operators.

Throughout the scandal the NFSP told members who came to it that they were the only ones having problems with the Horizon computer software and that they should plead guilty. It was, uniquely, in a position to know that this was a lie.

Until 2014 they were registered as a trade union until an employment tribunal ruled that its members were not employees. Its income was derived almost exclusively from the Post Office. With this agreement the NFSP could not do anything that might upset the Post Office. This lapdog was severely criticised by Mr Justice Cox when a class action was brought against the Post Office in 2019.

In paragraph 36 of his judgement Cox observed that the agreement between the Post Office and the NFSP was only made public

after a lengthy period of pressure by someone using the Freedom of Information Act. There seems to be a culture of secrecy and excessive confidentiality generally within the Post Office, but particularly focused on Horizon.

In his judgment of 15 March 2019 in the case of Alan Bates and others –v- Post Office Ltd. Cox J was scathing about the Post Office’s claim that its case was strengthened by the fact that the NFSP supported it. In paragraph 596 he found that:

The NFSP is not an organisation independent of the Post Office, in the sense that the word “independent” is usually understood in the English language. It is not only dependent upon the Post Office for its funding, but that funding is subject to stringent and detailed conditions that enable the Post Office to restrict the activities of the NFSP. The Post Office effectively controls the NFSP. The agreement also enables the Post Office to seek repayment of funds already paid to the NFSP. The NFSP is a company limited by guarantee and there was no evidence that it had any other source of funding. It is not likely to be able to repay any funds “clawed back” by the Post Office and therefore its very existence depends upon it not giving the Post Office grounds to challenge its activities. There is also evidence before the court that the NFSP has, in the past, put its own interests and the funding of its future above the interests of its members, in the e mail to which I have referred. In those circumstances, the fact that the NFSP does not support the Claimants in this litigation is entirely to be expected.

Sean Hudson of the Post Office Workers branch of the CWU, gave a fascinating account of the SFSP to a meeting of the Labour Left Alliance. For brevity I have excised the questioners and just left Sean’s answers to the questions that were asked.

If you download the NFSP’s accounts then however hard you look you will see no detail as to who is funding the NFSP.

There is a section on the Horizon scandal on the NFSP website which does its best to play down its scandalous role during the Horizon scandal when it worked closely with the Post Office management.

Michael Rudkin and the Subpostmaster’s scandal

Indeed the NFSP penalised its own representative, Michael Rudkin, who stumbled on the fact that Fujitsu employees could access the individual accounts of postmasters. Computer Weekly reported that:

Former subpostmaster Michael Rudkin is certain he was singled out by the Post Office for asking difficult questions about remote access to Horizon. In August 2008, when he was chairman of the negotiating committee of the Federation of Subpostmasters, Rudkin visited a Fujitsu technology centre as part of a working group looking at how to improve bureau de change processes. During his visit, a Fujitsu employee demonstrated how he could make changes to subpostmaster branch accounts remotely, without the subpostmasters knowing.

Rudkin’s experience was confirmed in 2015 by former Fujitsu engineer Richard Roll. After contacting Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who led the fight for justice for subpostmasters, Roll blew the whistle on remote access.

The NFSP ‘explanation’ is that:

Under its current leadership, the NFSP has appraised its own role in the Horizon scandal. It is a source of considerable regret to the current CEO and Board that the former leadership of the NFSP did not take more assertive action over the Horizon dispute. The NFSP could and should have done more to support subpostmasters affected by the scandal. 

They claim that:

contrary to much of the public discourse on the issue, the NFSP challenged PO on numerous occasions about the reliability of the Horizon system. PO’s response was always that the system was reliable, and that user-error was the primary cause of the problems.  

What they don’t say is that they told their members they were the only individuals affected by the scandal. The fact that even now they won’t admit their wrongdoing should put any postmaster on notice that if anything goes wrong in the future they’ll be on their own.

Post Office Trial in NFSP crawls out from under its rock described the NFSP as

crawling towards the moral high ground like some sort of rotting, zombified Uriah Heep, wringing its hands and bleating that it has been wronged.

I emailed the NFSP two days ago to say that I was going to publish a blog on what had happened and did they have any response. They have not replied.

A good summary of the case is Justice Lost in the Post by Private Eye which can be downloaded here. The Communication Workers Union has a branch for subpostmasters and anyone who wants protection would be well advised to join them and leave the NFSP.

Others like Noel Thomas, who went to prison for a crime he did not commit, have suffered permanent psychological damage. Or Seema Misra who was gaoled whilst she was pregnant whilst her husband, Davindra, was attacked and abused by racist thugs on three occasions.

The question that hasn’t even been asked is how, over a period of 16 years, almost a thousand innocent people could be prosecuted for crimes that they did not commit, most of whom were convicted.

In January 2003 the NFSP had 6723 members. Even if we accept that over the 16 years of this scandal there were about 10,000 this still represents about 10% of all subpostmasters were prosecuted for fraud.

It beggars belief that no one in the legal world picked up on this high proportion of criminals that the world of subpostmasters were attracting. Given the type of person that became subpostmasters, respectable middle class this was an amazing statistic.

The responsibility for the Post Office in government during the Tory-Lib Dem coalition lay with the Lib-Dem Ministers; Vince Cable, Ed Davie, Norman Lamb and Jo Swinson. Did they have no subpostmasters as constituents who were being prosecuted.

Cable, Davey and Swinson, all of whom became leaders of the Lib Dems, demonstrated a total unconcern with the plight of the subpostmasters. They were content to accept the assurances of their civil servants and the Post Office. It was individual Conservative MPs such as James Arbuthnot and Andrew Brigden who took up the cases.

Was the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, whose CPS undertook around 200 prosecutions unaware of what was happening? Starmer of course accepts no responsibility for anything but it’s difficult to believe that he wasn’t aware of what was happening. If he didn’t know it was because he didn’t want to know. Or more likely, like the Lib Dems, he didn’t want to challenge corporate power.

And what about the judges? Almost to a man, and they are nearly all men, preferred to allow the Post Office claims of false accounting and theft to go unchallenged. Virtually none of them asked where the money that had allegedly been stolen had gone. None of them queried the ‘evidence’ that the Horizon computer system was reliable.

Prior to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 there was a long-standing common law principle that “mechanical instruments” should be assumed to be working properly – for example, that clocks can be relied on. Section 69 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 changed this requiring anyone introducing computer-generated evidence to show the system was operating correctly. However in 1999 section 69 of PACE was repealed by the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 that the Blair government introduced and the law reverted back to the common law principle.

It is a sign of the servility and their unquestioning acceptance of prosecution evidence that Crown Court judges refused to interpret these common law principles and demand proof that Horizon was fit for purpose. It should have been clear that there is a world of difference between a mechanical device like a clock or even a speedometer and a complex computer system like Horizon.

It is a well-known fact that these giant IT projects have always had an abundance of bugs and problems. Indeed Horizon itself was rejected by the DWP because of this.

In the case of Seema Misra the Judge N.A. Stewart refused defence requests for disclosure. See transcript Day 6. There was no justification for this apart from the judge’s belief that the jury would be capable of making up their mind from the technical evidence as to whether the defendant was guilty or not. An absurd decision.  

Karl Flinders in Computer Weekly quoted Stephen Mason, editor of the practitioner text for judges and lawyers, Electronic expressing surprise at the refusal of judges to order proper disclosure in cases involving technical evidence.

 “For some reason that I cannot understand, judges often refuse defence requests for relevant evidence. This happened in the case of Seema Misra. If the judges in Seema Misra’s case had ordered appropriate disclosure by the Post Office, the members of the jury might have reached a different conclusion about her guilt.”

Judge Stewart, despite the fact that Seema Misra was pregnant, despite the fact that she had suffered miscarriages, despite the fact that she had a clean record, sentenced her to 15 months imprisonment.  This was a vicious and vindictive sentence. The fact that she had chosen to plead not guilty, i.e. assert her innocence, contributed to the length of the sentence.

You can read the transcript of the sentencing hearing when Stewart completely disregarded Seema’s mitigation. If justice is to be served then Stewart should be kicked off the bench in order that he doesn’t preside over any further miscarriages of justice but of course that won’t happen. Indeed all the judges who handed out prison sentences should be given their marching orders.

Many defendants pleaded guilty to charges of false accounting in order that they did not face a more serious charge of theft, in the belief that they wouldn’t be sentenced to prison.

It should be a principle of law that no one pleads guilty to one offence for fear of being charged with another more serious one. This is blackmail yet our judicial system encourages it by offering a discount on sentence for those who plead guilty. It is legal intimidation and corruption.

The problem defendants face is that they lack recourse to expert witness evidence when confronted, as with the Post Office, with a corporation that has deep pockets. Without being able to go into Fujitsu’s offices in Bracknell with a search warrant and examine whether or not Post Office accounts could be accessed and changed remotely there was little that any defendant could do to challenge the prosecution evidence.

In short the system was stacked against them from the start and the last thing that judges are wont to do is to challenge the system. Their job is to uphold it.

What is clear is that there was a conspiracy extending from the Post Office to Fujitsu. Horizon was one of their few profitable software ventures and they wanted to keep it that way. Despite this there is no indication that the Police have even begun investigating the Fujitsu end of the scandal because the police are more concerned with defending corporations than investigating corporate malpractice.

We know from the refusal of the Police to even investigate the multiple breaches of COVID regulations by Boris Johnson, until threatened with a judicial review, that the Police see their job as protecting not challenging the Establishment. If they were seriously concerned with law breaking they would have investigated Boris Johnson obtaining by deception a grant of a £100,000 for his mistress Jennifer Arcuri when he was Mayor of London, despite the fact she was based in California not London.

Today as Rishi Sunak continues to aid and abet war crimes in Gaza by supplying the Israeli army with weaponry, a flagrant breach of the International Criminal Court Act 2000, the Police simply sit on their hands. However they are more than eager to prosecute and persecute activists for supporting Hamas against Israel’s genocidal army.

One other aspect of the scandal that needs remedying is the ability of the Post Office to mount its own prosecutions and to interview people under caution. This is an outrageous power for a private company, even one owned by the government and this power should be removed, not only from the Post Office but rail companies too.

Even getting into court to sue the Post Office was a struggle. It took more than 500 people to provide the basis of a class action. There was a time when such an action could have been mounted on legal aid but civil legal aid has been all but abolished. This makes the law a plaything of the rich with judges, the most socially exclusive profession in Britain, at its pinnacle.

Even when the Subpostmasters won their case the compensation they obtained was derisory. Of the £58 million they achieved in a settlement no less than £48m went to the legal profession. The 550 claimants had to divide the remaining £10m between them, about £20,000 each.

The Post Office, a government owned corporation had limitless money to spend, courtesy of the tax payer, and it deliberately sought to inflate the costs knowing that the claimants had limited means.

There is now a public inquiry, which has been put on a statutory footing. It is to be hoped that among its recommendations is ensuring that in the future, should such a case arise that there will be equality of arms between the victims and their persecutors.

Finally why is Paula Vennels a free woman? She was at the apex of the conspiracy. She knew about the defects in the Horizon system and she knew, despite the denials, that Fujitsu had remote access to individual subpostmasters’ accounts. She was shamed into returning her CBE (awarded in 2019 when knowledge of her role in the affair was known) because the government did not see fit to strip a fellow crook of her honours.

Vennels is still an ordained priest in the Church of England. Why?  Presumably because Archbishop Justin Welby was strongly pushing for her to become the next Bishop of London. After all what’s a little miscarriage of justice when you support Genocide in Gaza. Welby was quick to recognise a kindred spirit when he saw one.

Why has no one been prosecuted at Fujitsu? The old adage of one law for the rich and one law for the poor was never more true than in the case of the subpostmaster’s scandal.

The answer to some of these questions was provided by Sam Fowles in an article which told how Fujitsu

donated  money to both Labour and the Conservatives, paying around £26,000 every year to host “lounges” at each party’s conference. Simon Blagden, Fujitsu UK’s chair until 2019, is a long-term Conservative donor. He has been part of the exclusive “Leader’s Group”, where “members are invited to join [the party leader] and other senior figures… at dinners”.

This is the real reason why these people escape unscathed. They are part of a corrupt Establishment.

Tony Greenstein

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Tony Greenstein

1 Comment

  1. Michael Holmes on 18/04/2024 at 7:31am

    Well done again. You shine a light in some very dark places. Long may you do so.

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