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A TV show & an erring software that sent people to UK jails – Times of India

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LONDON: Seema Misra was pregnant when she was wrongfully found guilty of stealing from the Post Office she ran in a small town south-west of London. Seven months later, including four spent in jail, she gave birth in the hospital wearing an ankle tag used to monitor released criminals.
Misra is among the victims of arguably the biggest scandal in British legal history.Between 2000 and 2014 the Post Office, the taxpayer-owned provider of unfashionable services that still make an economy tick – think postage stamps and pension payments – accused thousands of its storekeepers of stealing. It secured more than 900 convictions of sub-postmasters, as they are known. Most lost their businesses, many were bankrupted. At least four died by suicide.
After a two-decade struggle for national attention, it was a New Year drama by broadcaster ITV, watched by almost 11 million people, that finally prompted the government to promise a swift end to the saga in favour of the victims. PM Rishi Sunak has promised that Post Office convictions would be quashed by Parliament within weeks, and said the government aims to complete compensation payments by the summer.
Until this week, hundreds of sub-postmasters had been left in limbo even after a court ruling in 2019 blew open the scandal and ordered the Post Office to pay compensation. They became inadvertently the victims of a flawed software, a 1990s state contract worth an initial £1 billion to modernize the Post Office’s accounting system. There’s now intense pressure on Japanese IT company Fujitsu Ltd to set out what it knew and when about errors that led to sub-postmasters’ books showing up shortfalls that weren’t real.
Using a star-studded cast with credits including The Crown and The Hunger Games, the four-part Mr Bates vs the Post Office tracks a real-life campaign against the Post Office led by Alan Bates on behalf of wrongly accused sub-postmasters. Paul Marshall, a barrister who represented a group of sub-postmasters who had their convictions quashed at the Court of Appeal in 2021, said the drama “hit a nerve” with the public in a way that “reading any number of law reports or journals or articles was simply incapable of effectively conveying.”
With the UK on the hook for millions of pounds of compensation, ministers say the company should pay its share, too. “If they made big mistakes, then frankly we need to know how they have had the temerity to carry on taking public contracts,” said Liam Byrne, chair of the House of Commons business and trade committee, who has summoned Fujitsu’s Europe CEO Paul Patterson to testify in Parliament next week.
Fujitsu’s entry into the UK came via its purchase of British IT supplier International Computers, which won the contract to develop a new digital system for 17,000 Post Office branches. There were issues with Horizon Software from the start and the Post Office doubted its reliability. In 1999, the project was scrapped. But the government stuck with the software. Almost immediately after the Horizon terminals were installed, some sub-postmasters began finding discrepancies between the amount of cash held and how much Horizon said there should be. At Misra’s branch in West Byfleet, it was £75,000. They began calling a designated Horizon hotline in a panic, according to witness statements.
The Post Office accused some sub-postmasters of stealing and took them to court. They were forced to dip into savings and borrow to make-up the shortfalls. The Post Office was effectively saying that the new computer system had unearthed a secret crime wave. That premise was shot down at the High Court trial in 2019, when 555 sub-postmasters sued the Post Office for compensation. The judgment set out the bugs in the software and said Fujitsu employees knew about them.Bloomberg





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