Postmasters’ lives ruined by false fraud claims from computer glitch

Seema Misra was eight weeks pregnant when she was sentenced to 15 months in jail for stealing from the Post Office branch she ran.

Protesting her innocence throughout her nine-day trial at Guildford Crown Court in 2010, the sub-postmistress from Surrey said she couldn’t explain how £74,609 had gone ‘missing’ from her West Byfleet branch.

An expert from Fujitsu, the Japanese firm which runs the Post Office’s computer system — not to mention several other key government IT systems — poured scorn on her belief that the lost sum of cash was due to a computer glitch with the system, known as Horizon.

Seema Misra (pictured) was eight weeks pregnant when she was sentenced to 15 months in jail for stealing from the Post Office branch she ran

His argument was a crucial factor in the jury’s decision to find her guilty.

Mrs Misra was one of dozens of sub-postmasters wrongly convicted of stealing from their own branches between 2003 and 2015. 

Many were sacked, jailed and given criminal records they still have today. It wasn’t until December last year that a High Court ruling finally exposed Horizon’s failings.

As the fall-out from what has been dubbed the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history continues, the Post Office announced last month that it wouldn’t stand in the way of appeals launched by wrongfully convicted sub-postmasters. 

The hearing to overturn or uphold convictions will be held in March next year.

But last week the Metropolitan Police launched a criminal investigation into claims that Fujitsu knew about IT problems as far back as 21 years ago, yet its experts failed to disclose them at trials. 

Lee Castleton, (pictured) a postmaster from Bridlington in East Yorkshire, was made bankrupt after the Post Office pursued him through the civil courts over a £25,000 shortfall in his accounts

Lee Castleton, (pictured) a postmaster from Bridlington in East Yorkshire, was made bankrupt after the Post Office pursued him through the civil courts over a £25,000 shortfall in his accounts

It comes after a judge raised the possibility that there ‘may have been offences of perjury’ committed by staff at the firm. 

High Court Judge Peter Fraser suggested that some staff had been protecting Fujitsu rather than giving correct information, and questioned whether the company had been accurate in its reporting to the Post Office.

Declaring that he would be writing to the Director of Public Prosecutions, he said: ‘I have grave concerns regarding the veracity of evidence given by Fujitsu employees to other courts in previous proceedings about the known existence of bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system.’

In a letter to the DPP, which was made public this week, Mr Justice Fraser said: ‘I consider important evidence given both to the Crown Court and the High Court on previous occasions, in other cases, was not true, and was known not to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, at the time it was given.

Grandmother Anne Chambers, 63, (pictured) is a system specialist who worked in the Horizon support centre

Grandmother Anne Chambers, 63, (pictured) is a system specialist who worked in the Horizon support centre 

‘The documents… clearly show that Fujitsu knew about the existence of bugs, errors and defects in Horizon from a very early stage in the life of the system… the earliest bugs occurred and were known about in 1999.’

Given that Fujitsu holds contracts worth billions with HMRC, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions, the investigation is alarming indeed. 

The names of the two now-retired Fujitsu staff at the heart of the investigation were made public this week — Gareth Jenkins, 68, and Anne Chambers, 63.

A more seemingly upstanding pair of professionals it would be hard to find.

The Mail can reveal that Cambridge maths graduate Mr Jenkins is a church treasurer and bowls player from Bracknell in Berkshire. 

Having started working for ICL, which later became Fujitsu, straight after university, the married father-of-two was given the honorific job title of ‘distinguished engineer’ by his Japanese bosses, and was involved in the Horizon project from the start.

Grandmother Anne Chambers, meanwhile, is a system specialist who worked in the Horizon support centre. 

The names of the two now-retired Fujitsu staff at the heart of the investigation were made public this week including Gareth Jenkins, 68 (pictured)

The names of the two now-retired Fujitsu staff at the heart of the investigation were made public this week including Gareth Jenkins, 68 (pictured) 

She is a keen hiker and she and her husband, who met at university in Wales, sold their £550,000 17th-century Oxfordshire cottage in 2016 and moved to Pembrokeshire.

The IT specialists declined to speak to the Mail this week about their involvement in the Post Office scandal, although Mrs Chambers’ husband Ian said: ‘My wife hasn’t been interviewed by the police and I don’t expect her to be.’

Speaking after the criminal investigation was announced last week, Seema Misra, now 44, told the Mail: ‘It’s been a long time, but maybe now justice will be done.’

Her 2010 trial was just one of several at which Gareth Jenkins appeared as an expert witness on behalf of the prosecution.

Anne Chambers, meanwhile, appeared at the High Court during the case of Lee Castleton, a postmaster from Bridlington in East Yorkshire. 

He was made bankrupt after the Post Office pursued him through the civil courts over a £25,000 shortfall in his accounts.

His claim that the Horizon system had caused the discrepancies was brushed aside. ‘The truth still needs to come out,’ he told the Mail this week. 

‘So many people have suffered. So many lives have been ruined.’

The roots of Fujitsu’s relationship with the Post Office stretch all the way back to 1996 and the Pathway Project — one of the then Conservative government’s early ‘private finance initiatives’, involving the Post Office and UK computer company ICL, a subsidiary of Fujitsu.

The project was unveiled by the then Social Security minister, Peter Lilley, when he announced that an automated benefits payment system would replace giro cheques with electronic smart cards, wiping out £150 million in benefits fraud.

But after three years of delays, the project was abandoned. From the wreckage came Horizon, an electronic point-of-sale system for recording transactions and keeping accounts. 

Shortly after its 1999 roll-out, however, some sub-postmasters began to notice discrepancies in their automated accounts.

Numerous Post Office workers made multiple calls to the Horizon helpline, but still found themselves accused of fraud and embezzlement (file image)

 Numerous Post Office workers made multiple calls to the Horizon helpline, but still found themselves accused of fraud and embezzlement (file image)

Numerous Post Office workers made multiple calls to the Horizon helpline, but still found themselves accused of fraud and embezzlement. 

Many, like Seema Misra, used their own savings and borrowed money to plunge back into the business and make up the inexplicable shortfalls. As a result, she and others were also accused of false accounting.

More than 1,000 cases were brought by the Post Office against its sub-postmasters between the introduction of Horizon and 2014. 

Many early cases were dealt with by private prosecutions. 

Lee Castleton, who bought his Bridlington branch in 2003, was taken to court despite the fact that he had called the Horizon helpline nearly every day for three months and had spent hours going over his accounts.

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