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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Daniel Boffey Chief reporter

Alan Bates tells Post Office inquiry ministers tried to sabotage his claim

Alan Bates, the lead campaigner in the Post Office scandal, has accused ministers of being vindictive over his own compensation claim as a catalogue of attempts to sabotage his two-decade fight were disclosed at a public inquiry.

The persecution of post office operators has been described as the nation’s worst miscarriage of justice but Bates, whose battle was highlighted in the celebrated ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office, said Whitehall appeared to believe there had been no value in his work.

He told the inquiry that he had received a “derisory” offer after putting in a claim in October last year for redress over the treatment meted out by his former employer whom he accused of spending two decades “denying, lying, defending and attempting to discredit and silence me”.

“I have no doubt that there’s a bit of vindictiveness coming in from the [business] department and the Post Office,” Bates told the inquiry in Aldwych House in central London in relation to the rejection of his full claim for redress. “The reason I say that is quite simple. They don’t think there is any worth to any of the work I have done over the years.”

The inquiry, chaired by the retired high court judge Sir Wyn Williams, had earlier seen internal government and Post Office emails in which Bates was variously described behind his back by Post Office lawyers and staff as being “naive” and “loose with the truth” while civil servants sought to manage him as a PR risk.

A briefing note drawn up by civil servants for Ed Davey, the former Post Office minister, noted that there could be bad publicity if he failed to meet Bates at a time when Channel 4 was planning a documentary over the scandal.

Bates described the conduct of Davey, who now leads the Liberal Democrats, as “disappointing and offensive”. He recalled that nothing positive had come from the meeting with the minister despite the government being the sole shareholder in the Post Office.

The inquiry further heard that despite the government having told Bates that it had a “hands off” relationship with the company, there was in fact back-channel communication between the two parties, which they sought to keep from the justice campaigner.

“[The government] should have been involved far earlier,” Bates said, describing Post Office officials as “thugs in suits”.

In his first appearance at a public inquiry into the scandal, Bates, 69, laid out the events that led to his campaign, including the termination of his own contract in 2003.

Bates, who took over his Post Office branch in Llandudno, north Wales in 1998, told how he had repeatedly complained during his tenure that the Horizon accounting system could not be relied upon and that it was wrong that operators were being obliged to make good on shortfalls.

His contract was terminated without any reason being given in November 2003.

To laughter in the inquiry room, Bates was then shown internal documents unearthed by the inquiry’s lawyers in which Bates’ termination was said to be due to him being “unmanageable” and he was referred to as someone who “struggled with accounting”.

Speaking at an inquiry session, Bates responded: “It’s just they decided they were going to make a lesson of me.” He added that his determination to uncover the faults of the Horizon scandal was due to “stubbornness” and a sense of injustice after learning that hundreds of others had also been affected.

“I didn’t set out to spend 20 years doing this,” Bates said. “Once I’d started my individual little campaign, we found others along the way, and eventually we all joined up. It has required dedication, but secondly, it is a cause.

“I mean, as you got to meet people, and realise it wasn’t just yourself. And you saw the harm, the injustice that had been descended upon them, it was something that you felt you had to deal with.”

Between 1999 and 2015 many hundreds of post office operators were accused and in some cases convicted of negligence or crimes relating to theft, false accounting and fraud, based on faulty information from the Horizon computer system, which erroneously suggested that money had gone missing from branch accounts.

Bates’ own experience began just three months after the system had been installed in his branch, when a £6,000 shortfall emerged. Bates discovered the fault that could account for much of the money but there remained a £1,041.86 loss. The Post Office agreed to write that sum off but a line manager complained when Bates refused to make good on further paper losses.

Bates said he did not trust the Horizon system and that he was not able to interrogate the system himself to find where the faults lay. He launched a campaign with other victims but for years their calls for an inquiry were ignored by government.

Davey, who was Post Office minister between 2010 and 2012, initially refused to meet Bates. When Davey responded to a second letter on the advice of civil servants, he was told to avoid making any “substantive comments”.

“Demonstrate you’re prepared to hear their side of the story,” a civil servant wrote. “But make it clear you’re not in a position to offer substantive comment and avoid committing to setting up an independent or external review of Horizon.”

Bates said nothing positive came from the discussion.

A Liberal Democrat spokesperson said: “Ed has said that he’s sorry he didn’t see through the Post Office’s lies, and that it took him five months to meet Mr Bates.

“The Liberal Democrats are calling on the government to ensure postmasters get full and fair compensation urgently, and Post Office executives who lied for decades are held properly to account.”

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