Former postmasters describe 'nightmare' clearing their names in Post Office scandal

Watch the special report by ITV News Meridian's Charlotte Briere-Edney

Former sub-postmasters and mistresses, convicted of stealing from the Post Office, have been telling ITV News Meridian of the 'nightmare' they've faced over the last 20 years trying to clear their names.

From the early 2000s, over a period of 15 years, hundreds were accused of theft and fraud - but during those years a faulty computer system was causing money to disappear from accounts.

The Post Office has paid out, in a multi-million-pound settlement, but the scandal has not ended yet.

A Government review should have got underway this month but has been delayed, and the battle to have convictions quashed is still with the Court of Appeal.

Pauline Thomson had 25 years of experience in Post Offices when she moved to Matfield in Kent to become the village's sub-postmistress.

However, her business and reputation came crashing down around her when the company accused her of false accounting and theft.

Pauline Thomson Credit: ITV News Meridian

Pauline says: "It was an alien world of courts, lawyers, police. I've never ever gone through anything like that. I've never been involved with anything like that. It was dreadful. Just really really dreadful."

The sum of £36,000 had gone missing from Pauline's branch.

Post Office was adamant Pauline had taken the cash, and Pauline was convicted and served a 180 hour community sentence. 

She says: "I wasn't eating, I wasn't sleeping. I've never felt like that in all my life. I just really did feel suicidal. I wouldn't let them ruin my life but they've gone a good way towards it. It was 12 years ago and it feels like yesterday."

Vipinchandra Patel was accused of stealing £75,000. Credit: ITV News Meridian

In Oxfordshire, Vipinchandra Patel was accused of stealing £75,000, and received a fine and a suspended prison sentence.

He says: "I knew if I was to stand up against them they would finish me off. So long before I went to court or went and saw the solicitor, I decided to plead guilty, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to stand up to them."

Hundreds of other postmasters around the country were having similar experiences.

It's likely that the reason behind much of it was that the Post Office IT system, called Horizon, had glitches.

The Horizon computer system was first installed into Post Offices back in 1999. However, by the early 2000's, money had started disappearing from accounts.

Over the next 15 years, around 900 postmasters and mistresses were charged with fraud and theft, with some jailed.

Recently, some 550 of them fought back, banding together and taking the Post Office to court.

In December 2019, after a lengthy legal battle, Post Office paid out in a £58 million pound settlement.

Some postmasters are now having their convictions reviewed, and they hope they will be overturned.

Post Office exterior Credit: ITV News Meridian

There had been high hopes a public inquiry would get to the bottom of what went on and who was to blame. But, earlier this year, that was changed to a government review. 

Critics of the review say it lacks the scope to apportion blame and sidesteps any examination of the government's own responsibility.

Lord James Arbuthnot, Former Hampshire MP and long-term campaigner for sub-postmasters, says: "So far I have no reason to trust the government, because instead of instigating the independent inquiry that the Prime Minister promised us, they've talked about an anaemic review which doesn't get to the bottom of the questions."

That review was supposed to begin by September, but a chair hasn't yet been appointed.

The government said it didn't want to be interviewed for this report, however the Department for Business, which is running the review, says it will "provide a public summary of the failings at Post Office Limited and assess whether they have learned the necessary lessons from this dispute and acted upon them. Given the very serious impacts on many individual postmasters, we need to be sure that concrete changes have taken place at Post Office Limited to ensure that this situation will never be repeated.”'.

A Post Office spokesperson said: "The Post Office sincerely apologises to postmasters affected by historical events and has taken determined action to provide both redress for the past and fundamental reform for the future. We are also making strenuous efforts regarding postmasters with past criminal convictions that may be affected. The Government has announced a review and we will engage with this meaningfully and transparently."