Sunak warned Post Office compensation not enough as hundreds of victims fall through cracks

Rishi Sunak has been told his government may have to stump up more than the £1bn already set aside to address the Post Office scandal, amid warnings that hundreds more victims may have fallen through the cracks.

Lawyers told The Independent that hundreds of subpostmasters who have yet to make claims may be too “traumatised” to come forward because of mistrust in the government and Post Office.

It came as No 10 admitted that only around one-third of the postmasters forced to shell out huge sums over the Horizon IT debacle will accept the £75,000 payment now offered by the government.

Campaigners insist that it is not nearly enough for the thousands of Post Office branch managers who lost out financially by repaying fake shortfalls, even if they were not among the victims given criminal convictions during the saga.

Terry Wilcox of the Hudgells Solicitors firm representing former subpostmasters said around 2,700 had made compensation claims, but many more victims were yet to come forward.

He told The Independent: “We’ve been approached by more than 150 new clients since the ITV drama aired. There could well be hundreds more. There are people who paid the shortfall and disappeared. We just have no idea where the bottom line is.”

Rishi Sunak gives an update on the Post Office scandal at PMQs on Wednesday (AP)
Rishi Sunak gives an update on the Post Office scandal at PMQs on Wednesday (AP)

Mr Wilcox said the government needed to provide “adequate compensation”, whatever the cost.

The law firm is pushing for a new, independent figurehead to deal with compensation claims – someone able to demand that the Post Office contacts all former sub-postmasters to say they may be eligible.

“People are traumatised and cynical. We need someone independent of government to reach out to people and help them find the inner-strength,” said Mr Wilcox.

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

Campaigning Tory peer James Arbuthnot said there was “no doubt about it at all” that there were more victims. He added: “I would expect it will be hundreds, but I would be surprised if it was thousands.”

Asked if the £1bn Downing Street confirmed on Thursday it had set aside to pay compensation was enough, Lord Arbuthnot said: “It may be or it may not be. But this will cost what it will cost. It is a British debt to the subpostmasters and the UK must pay. And the extent to which it gets it back from Fujitsu is a secondary matter.”

Labour MP Kevan Jones said: “It is quite clear in the last week that more people are coming forward. I would urge anyone who has been affected by Horizon, or indeed the pre-Horizon [pilot] scheme, to come forward.”

Those whose convictions are quashed are eligible for a £600,000 compensation payment, or potentially more. There will also be a new upfront payment of £75,000 to those not convicted but affected by the scandal.

Alan Bates, the campaigning subpostmaster who inspired the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, has warned that those with larger claims – above the £75,000 on offer – still had to have their case resolved.

One former subpostmistress in Newcastle, who lost her life savings when she repaid a fake shortfall, gave an emotional interview on Thursday warning that the government’s new offer of £75,000 “just doesn’t cut it”.

Sarah Burgess-Boyd, who was acquitted of theft at a trial in 2011, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I have lost everything. I’ve lost my business, all my savings.

“I haven’t got a penny to my name,” she said, her voice strained with emotion as she fought back tears. “I’m not future-proofed. I’m nearly 60, I have no pension provision. I’ve lost my reputation – l lost everything.”

No 10 admitted on Thursday that a “significant number” of the subpostmasters involved in legal action against the Post Office will not accept the £75,000 offered by the government.

The prime minister’s spokesperson told reporters: “We would estimate that around a third of individuals would take that … We recognise that there will be a significant number for whom £75,000 is not sufficient. That’s entirely understandable.”

Asked about the process for seeking a higher figure, the No 10 spokesperson said an independent panel would review the claim with no involvement by the Post Office.