Post Office Horizon IT scandal has hallmarks of Putin’s Russia as Officials Secret Act used against innocent postmasters – Tom Richmond

NO words can do justice to the mounting catastrophe in Ukraine. The bloodshed in cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv remains a global injustice like no other at present after the invasion of Russian forces on Vladimir Putin’s orders.

Yet, while MPs expressed Britain’s revulsion by giving a spontaneous standing ovation to Ukraine’s ambassador to Britain, Vadym Prystaiko, at Prime Minister’s Questions, it’s important not to overlook the UK’s burning injustices.

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Specifically, the Post Office Horizon IT scandal that saw hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters handed criminal convictions and jail sentences in some cases; the misuse of the Official Secrets Act and the suppression of the truth for two decades in a cover-up that would not have been out of place in Putin’s Russia.

Former postmaster Chris Tropusdale with his children Isaac and Peter. Photo: John Kenny Photography.

This is the only conclusion from the harrowing stories that have already come out at the inquiry’s human impact hearings – and which will continue in Leeds next week. Yet, while every case is unique, Chris Trousdale’s experience is emblematic of Britain’s most far-reaching miscarriage of justice ever.

He was just 19 when he took over the post office in the North York Moors village of Lealholm in July 2002. It had been run by his family for 150 years. Asked what it meant to his family that he was upholding this tradition, he told the inquiry last week “I think proud would be the word” before fighting back tears.

One of the country’s youngest ever postmasters, he says training in the IT accounting system was “next to nothing” – a supervisor said “you are lucky you’ve had me for as long as you’ve had” – and he made 188 calls over 15 months to a Post Office helpline that became known as “the hell line”.

Postmasters outside the Royal Courts of Justice in their protracted fight for justice.

However he told the hearing that six calls appeared to have been deleted from the record and he believes these to be occurrences where he was, effectively, told to falsify the accounts in order to balance the books, and that he wasn’t the only postmaster instructed to do so.

Yet his dream job was already becoming a living nightmare when his post office was raided on September 16 2003, by auditors who claimed £8,000 was missing. As they turned the branch upside down, Trousdale says he was sworn to secrecy: “They firmly reminded me that I had signed the Official Secrets Act which terrified me.”

It was to get worse. The branch was stripped of all paperwork – including evidence that might have proved his innocence. “They started asking about docket fraud. I didn’t know what was docket fraud. I was 19... ‘Have you a nice big car?’ ‘I didn’t have a driving licence’. ‘Have you had a holiday?’ ‘I’ve just come out of university and started work for you’. ‘Do you gamble? Do you drink?’ ‘No, what’s this got to do with the computer system’.”

Trousdale was among those victims to be diagnosed with PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – and which was common at the time amongst US service personnel injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Postmasters outside the Royal Courts of Justice in their protracted fight for justice.

Yet, while he says he was medically unfit to be questioned, he had to go to Whitby Police Station once it became impossible for the Post Office to interview him in Lealholm because of the village’s intermittent power system. He says that the police, and CPS, intimated to him that they were not responsible for the integrity of Post Office prosecutions.

Almost inevitably, Trousdale was charged with false accounting. “I was going to plead not guilty up to the first court hearing at Whitby Magistrates.” Yet he says the Post Office then warned him: “If you don’t plead guilty, we will add a theft charge, escalate it to Crown Court and you could be facing seven years in jail.” A kangaroo court in all bar name.

In March 2004, he was sentenced to a community punishment order – and the holder of a criminal record – until his conviction was quashed in December 2019. He had to borrow £19,000 to clear his debts and has been left out of pocket by the cost of the legal fight in a war to establish the truth. Asked to summarise his burden, he added: “I didn’t think you will speak to a person in this inquiry that it won’t be with them for ever.”

For. Ever. Let those words hang there. They were spoken by Chris Trousdale, a proud man, whose visceral emotion in reveals what it is like for an innocent person to live a life sentence effectively imposed in the name of the British state. He’s also not alone. He’s one of thousands.

Former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells CBE (left) has been accused of not doing enough to prevent the Post Office IT scandal.

It’s also important to acknowledge that this is not Boris Johnson’s fault – it just happens to fall to his Government to establish how the Post Office came to be above the law, ensure relevant individuals are punished (including being stripped of honours) and ensure postmasters are compensated for the ‘Putin-esque’ misery inflicted on them.

After all, democracy – as well as transparency, scrutiny and accountability – have never been more important. Just ask the people of Ukraine as they fight with their lives for the very freedoms that Britain abuses at its peril.

Tom Richmond is Comment Editor of The Yorkshire Post. He tweets via OpinionYP.

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