Mr Bates tells the Post Office: compensate us before we die

Alan Bates has warned subpostmasters are dying while they wait for payments from the Horizon scandal compensation scheme, as he described the delays as “madness”.

The campaigner, whose fight for justice sparked a public outcry after it was depicted in the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, accused the fund of being “tied up in bureaucracy”.

His call came as Fujitsu faced demands to stump up “substantial” sums after an extraordinary admission that it had a moral duty to contribute to the mammoth £1bn bill.

The government has set aside the money for what Rishi Sunak described as “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history”.

Hundreds of subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting because of Fujitsu’s faulty computer system.

Hauled in front of MPs to explain their part in the scandal, the technology giant conceded for the first time that it should pay out.

Fujitsu’s Europe director Paul Patterson also apologised for what he said were “bugs and errors” in the firm’s system and for helping the Post Office prosecute subpostmasters.

It came as:

  • Mr Bates warned that it felt like a ‘financial gun’ had been held to the head of subpostmasters

  • Another victim, Jo Hamilton, accused the Post Office of ‘gaslighting’ her

  • Fujitsu admitted it had known of problems with the system as early as 2008

  • The Post Office admitted it still does not know where money paid by subpostmasters went

Giving evidence to the Commons Business and Trade committee, Mr Bates said there was no reason why subpostmasters should not have had full financial redress by now.

“It’s gone on for far too long. People are suffering, they’re dying, we’re losing numbers along the way,” he said. “And it just seems to be tied up in bureaucracy.”

He was still “waiting for my first offer” more than 66 days after making his application, he added.

The scandal left postmasters feeling like there was a “financial gun” to their head, he said.

“When you take on a post office, you actually invest a large amount of money in that business. As happened in my case, when they fell out with me, they walked off with that amount of money. A lot of people feel there’s a financial gun held to their head if they start kicking off or start raising too many problems with the Post Office.”

Another former subpostmaster, Jo Hamilton, said that Post Office lawyers convinced her the losses were her fault.

“It just makes me so angry that they’d literally gaslit me for about three years and turned me into a basket case,” she said.

Alan Bates said the Post Office had ‘walked off’ with the money postmasters such as him had invested in their businesses (Getty)
Alan Bates said the Post Office had ‘walked off’ with the money postmasters such as him had invested in their businesses (Getty)

In an evidence session that was tetchy at times, Post Office chief executive Nick Read said his organisation did not know where the money subpostmasters paid went.

The company had not “got to the bottom of the nub of” that, he said.

Some of the money may have gone to Post Office executives, he conceded, but auditors had “struggled” to tell because of the low quality of data available.

Mr Read also suggested the organisation would not carry out private prosecutions in future, following criticism of their role in the fiasco.

“I’ve been very clear on my watch they won’t and I see no reason why they should continue to do so,” he told MPs.

Meanwhile, the official inquiry into the Horizon scandal heard that Fujitsu executives knew of faults with the system as early as 2008.

In an email presented as evidence to the inquiry, a Fujitsu executive said: “If we do not fix this problem our spreadsheets presented in court are liable to be brought into doubt.”

In a 2008 email under the heading “benefits and risks”, another Fujitsu executive said: “If we cannot better identify where data integrity can or cannot be guaranteed then we are in breach of contract and may be fined heavily.”

Campaigners called on Fujitsu to pay a considerable amount of money towards the final bill.

Fujitsu has apologised to postmasters wrongfully convicted and admitted it had a moral duty to help with compensation (PA)
Fujitsu has apologised to postmasters wrongfully convicted and admitted it had a moral duty to help with compensation (PA)

Former Labour minister Kevan Jones said: “I welcome the news that Fujitsu are prepared to contribute to the scheme and I think negotiations need to start, but it is going to have to be a substantial amount.”

Campaigning Tory peer Lord Arbuthnot said: “It needs to be a substantial proportion of the final overall costs, whatever they may turn out to be.”

Those whose convictions are quashed are eligible for a £600,000 compensation payment, or potentially more.

Rishi Sunak announced earlier this month that MPs will pass a new law to exonerate those convicted because of Horizon.

There will also be a new upfront payment of £75,000 to those who were not convicted but were affected by the scandal.

However, No 10 has already admitted that it expects only around a third of the postmasters forced to shell out huge sums over the debacle to accept the £75,000 payment, and that many will push for more.

The Post Office has already conceded it owes compensation to thousands of subpostmasters who were not convicted but were forced to pay back incorrect shortfalls – with 2,700 people so far offered an average of around £44,000 in compensation.

Lawyers have also said that hundreds more victims who were caught up in the scandal could now come forward.

In response to the Fujitsu official’s comments, Mr Sunak’s spokesman said: “We agree that those who are found to be responsible must be held accountable, whether that’s legally or financially.”

But the No 10 official declined to “put numbers on it” when asked how much Fujitsu may end up contributing to compensation.