Post Office’s secret decision to sack forensic accountants branded ‘disgusting’

Post Office’s secret decision to sack forensic accountants branded ‘disgusting’

A campaigner fighting for justice in the Horizon scandal has branded the Post Office’s secret decision to sack independent forensic accountants who found bugs in their IT system as “disgusting”.

Former subpostmistress Jo Hamilton said the move, uncovered in documents seen by the BBC, was like “tipping the board up when you’re losing” a game of Monopoly.

The decision was unearthed in minutes from a Post Office board sub-committee meeting in April 2014, named Project Sparrow, which the broadcaster said was with the full knowledge of Government.

Ms Hamilton, who was wrongfully convicted in 2008 of stealing thousands of pounds from a village shop in Hampshire, described it as a “massive cover-up”, adding: “We knew the Government were in it up to their necks.”

The BBC said minutes from a meeting on April 9, 2014, showed the sub-committee asking for a paper to be prepared on the independent forensic accountants who were from a firm called Second Sight.

The sub-committee also asked for “options to support them or reduce their role”.

Second Sight submitted a report in July 2013 which identified bugs that raised concerns over the reliability of Horizon data used to prosecute subpostmasters.

The Post Office was warned it was in breach of its legal duties as prosecuted subpostmasters should have been told about the bugs, but the board later expressed concern the review from the forensic accountants exposed them to wrongful conviction claims.

Three weeks after the first meeting, the sub-committee took the decision to bring the investigation of subpostmasters’ cases “within the control of the Post Office” and removed Second Sight from its role of investigating the cases independently, the BBC said.

Ms Hamilton said “it’s so wicked” that the documents showed the Post Office planned to pay a total of only £1 million in “token payments” to subpostmasters.

Heavily-redacted versions of the documents were made public in 2021 but the BBC has now seen the minutes of the meetings without redactions.

Reacting to the unearthed minutes from the 2014 meeting, Ms Hamilton told the PA news agency: “It just confirms everything we know.

“We knew the Government were in it up to their necks. We just knew, I knew Project Sparrow and we never had the names, but you can kind of guess who’s on it.

“You can then say to all the business ministers ‘who didn’t know about this, honestly?’ because everyone has to have known – right up to the top, I believe.

“It just confirms what we’ve kind of known – you get a feeling that these kind of shenanigans were going on … and now we’ve got it in black and white.

“You can put it on the television and say ‘go on, explain that’.”

Speaking about the sacking of independent forensic accountants, Ms Hamilton said: “It doesn’t surprise me… I mean, it is disgusting.

“The Government are in this up to their necks and they’ve clearly thought ‘oh my god, quick’ – it’s like Monopoly, isn’t it, tipping the board up when you’re losing.

“They know there’s nowhere else to go and they’ve got to do something crazy.

“It was the true independence that meant they had to go, because they weren’t going to toe the party line.

“It’s a massive cover-up.”

Addressing the Post Office’s attempt to pay subpostmasters “token payments”, Ms Hamilton told PA: “It’s disgusting, isn’t it?

“They stole £60,000 of my money – so how on earth they thought taking people’s houses and everything else, they thought £1 million between us was going to actually cut it – I mean, seriously, what were they thinking?

“People have gone to prison, we’d all had criminal records and people had lost everything, and they thought that kind of money cuts it – it’s an absolute insult.

“People had that in bonuses … it’s just disgusting, it’s so wicked.”

More than 700 branch managers were prosecuted by the Post Office after Fujitsu’s faulty accounting software Horizon made it look as though money was missing from their shops.

The saga prompted an outcry across the country after it was dramatised in the ITV series Mr Bates vs The Post Office earlier this month.

Hundreds of subpostmasters are awaiting compensation despite the Government announcing that those who have had convictions quashed are eligible for £600,000 payouts.

A Post Office spokesman said: “It is not appropriate for the Post Office to comment on allegations being made outside of the inquiry, whose role it is to consider all of the evidence on the issues it is examining and independently reach conclusions.

“We fully share the public inquiry’s aims to get to the truth of what happened in the past and accountability.”

A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said Number 10 was taking the “those reports extremely seriously”.

She added: “It is right that we have an inquiry to look into this.

“And for that reason, with that ongoing, I won’t comment on matters of potential interest to the inquiry, particularly also given it relates to a previous administration.”

The PM’s spokeswoman said Number 10 are waiting for the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry to conclude and will “act accordingly” after being asked whether further compensation could be offered if it is found the Government was aware of attempts to cover-up issues relating to Horizon.

The Department for Business and Trade declined to comment.