Horizon scandal: 'Post Office spent 23 years trying to discredit me'

Former subpostmaster Alan Bates had his contract terminated by the Post Office in 2003 after refusing to accept liability for shortfalls in accounts.

Campaigner Alan Bates tells Horizon IT inquiry Post Office ‘spent 23 years trying to discredit me’ iStock

Lead campaigner and former subpostmaster Alan Bates has told the Horizon IT inquiry the Post Office spent 23 years “attempting to discredit and silence me”.

Mr Bates gave evidence from the witness box at the probe on Tuesday, where he said his campaign for justice for subpostmasters was “something you couldn’t put down”.

The inquiry was shown a presentation prepared by former Post Office managing director of branch accounting Dave Smith, in which he said Mr Bates was “dismissed because he became unmanageable”.

He said he was “quite positive” when the scandal-hit Horizon system was introduced, but soon became “frustrated” after finding “many shortcomings in the system”.

The Post Office has come under fire since the airing of the ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, which put the Horizon IT scandal under the spotlight.

More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

Mr Bates had his contract terminated by the Post Office in 2003 after refusing to accept liability for shortfalls in the accounts at his Llandudno branch in North Wales.

He submitted a 58-page witness statement to the inquiry, in which he said the relationship between subpostmasters and the Post Office was “very one-sided”.

He told the inquiry: “I had been led to believe that subpostmasters were working in partnership with the Post Office, and if the Post Office wanted me to measure up to the standards they required, I expected them to do the same for me.

“However, over time, it soon became evident that the ‘partnership’ was very one-sided, and it really was a question of ‘you will do as you are told and if you don’t like it, you can’t complain and there is no redress on this, and you just get on and keep your mouth closed’ — that’s how it works.”

Questioned on whether it was ever explained to him that he became “unmanageable”, Mr Bates smiled and said: “No, not at all.”

Mr Smith’s presentation also said the campaigner “clearly struggled with accounting and despite copious support did not follow instructions.”

Lead counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC asked: “First of all, did you struggle with accounting?”

Mr Bates said: “No, not at all.”

Mr Beer continued: “Were you given copious support?”

Mr Bates laughed and said: “No.”

He added: “Prior to and since my termination from the branch, I have spent the last 23 years campaigning to expose the truth, and justice, not just for myself, but for the entire group of wrongly treated/wrongly convicted subpostmasters.

“I have dedicated this period of my life to this cause which, sadly, has been necessary since Post Office Limited has spent this entire period denying, lying, defending, and attempting to discredit and silence me and the group of SPMs that the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) represents.”

Mr Bates told the probe he first raised issues with the Horizon system in 2000, and on one day in December of that year, he called the Post Office helpline seven times, with one call lasting around an hour.

Mr Beer asked: “Were they of any assistance at all in those seven calls?”

Mr Bates replied: “Not really.”

He chuckled before adding: “Stating the bleeding obvious, I think, really, is one description I might use – but it was all things that I’d tried.”

Addressing his campaign for justice for subpostmasters, Mr Bates said: “As you got to meet people and realised it wasn’t just yourself, and saw the harm and justice that had been descended upon them, it was something you felt you had to deal with. It’s something you couldn’t put down.”

The campaigner was called to give evidence as part of phases five and six of the inquiry, which will also see former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells, who led the organisation at the height of the scandal, face questions from the probe’s counsel.

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

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