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Wretched villains of the Post Office scandal should be made to pay

VILLAGE HUB: Tatsfield Post Office

As most people who have lived in a small rural village will know, the essential meeting places are the pub, the parish church and the village infants’ school. 


Thus it was when we moved to Tatsfield, high up on the North Downs in 1973; our very young daughters went first to the toddler group in a former gospel hall and later to the 80-pupil infants’ school set in a field where cows grazed. Not surprisingly I opted for the pub The Old Ship where I quickly made friends who included the rector (the church element). It was that sort of village and we were quickly absorbed into its community.

 

But there was (and still is) an even more vital hub for everyone of all ages and classes. The village store and Post Office. That was the real centre of Tatsfield life for its 1,500 residents in an era free of cash machines and a once an hour bus service. 


It is also used as one of the settings for ITV’s painfully brilliant and thankfully game-changing drama Mr Bates v The Post Office. When we lived there for 35 years a delightful woman called Linda Dance was the sub postmaster and she was probably the most admired person in the village; she knew everybody and we all knew her.

 

Of course this was pre-Horizon computer days when the takings and outgoings were reconciled by her and not a £1 billion rogue Fujitsu system and her bosses who ran Post Office Ltd were not the self-serving, lying, duplicitous bastards who came later.

 

What I am sure of, however, is that had she been a victim of the greatest miscarriage of justice yet seen in this country, her customers would never have doubted her honesty and we all would have fought her case in exactly the way that Jo Hamilton’s customers did in the Hampshire village of South Warnborough where she ran the post office store. It is Tatsfield that doubled for South Warnborough in the series.

 

Mrs Hamilton is one of 700 sub postmasters wrongfully prosecuted and convicted for theft, fraud and false accounting over the years from 1999 to 2016 and her case was one of the terrible highlights of the tv series. Rightfully she is portrayed as a hero along with the indefatigable Alan Bates and many others.

 

But for every hero there is a villain and chief among those are a wretched line-up of executives from Post Office Ltd, all of whom were paid millions to try to bury bad news by lying not just to their employees who had sunk their life savings into buying their small businesses but later to a select committee of MPs investigating this scandal.

 

We all know who they are; successive Coalition era postal affairs ministers, including three who became Lib Dem leaders, Ed Davey, Vince Cable and Jo Swinson; Post Office chief executives Adam Crozier and the venal hypocrite-in-chief,  former Anglican priest Paula Vennells. She claimed her faith and conscience were her key driving forces (at which point a bolt of lightning should have swallowed her in flames.)

 

One politician did not spin Alan Bates and his heroic band the line that the Horizon system was flawless and he is James Arbuthnot, Jo Hamilton’s MP who championed her case and that of her fellow victims and stayed with them to this day. Rightly he is now in the House of Lords.

 

Predictably all parties are saying the right thing but a decade or more too late. Rishi Sunak, his Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and Justice Secretary Alex Chalk promise to speed up the compensation programme and hands are being wrung throughout Westminster. The Press has suddenly taken up the cause with the Mail predictably saying it has led the way. it hasn’t; it was Computer Weekly which first exposed the deepening despair of honest sub postmasters in 2009 followed by Private Eye. To the shame of Fleet Street it took a TV drama series to expose the full extent of this terrible affair.

 

The Sunday Times gives comprehensive coverage but it is a reader, one Carroll Barry-Walsh who writes in the comments under the lead story a series of instant reforms which strike me as entirely justifiable and doable. They are:

 

 

Carroll Barry-Walsh, a lawyer and specialised financial investigator, should be congratulated on such a comprehensive and wise list. And if the government tries to tell us that the country can’t afford it, the answer must be: This is the UK not Russia or some tinpot African or South American dictatorship. Get the money from Post Office Ltd it wholly owns.

 

It could start with recovering the billions it wasted on Covid PPE fraud. Or the £300 million paid to Rwanda for a scheme that will never get off the ground (no pun intended.)

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 I mentioned The Old Ship as Tatsfield’s only pub though quite what the origin of the name is baffles me as the nearest stretch of coast is probably 30 miles distant. But it was also served Tatsfield resident Donald Maclean and his chum Guy Burgess their last pint of decent beer on the evening of May 25, 1951 when the pair scarpered to their grim-faced comrades in Moscow.  

 

Bad news for Britain but decidedly good for The Ship’s landlord. He told me that the resultant invasion by Fleet Street’s finest meant that takings over that one week matched the previous three months.


ALAN FRAME


8 January 2024