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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jane Croft

Post office operator wrongly jailed while pregnant rejects executive’s apology

Seema Misra, sitting at a table with hands clasped, wearing a badge reading 'The great post office scandal'
Seema Misra was locked up on her son’s 10th birthday while eight weeks pregnant. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty

A post office operator who was wrongly prosecuted while pregnant has rejected a Post Office executive’s apology for having sent an email celebrating her conviction as “brilliant news”.

The inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal heard that David Smith, who was managing director of the Post Office for seven months during 2010, sent the email to his team after learning that Seema Misra had been convicted.

She was later sentenced to 15 months in prison for theft and locked up on her son’s 10th birthday while eight weeks pregnant. She was put on suicide watch after collapsing in court. Her case was among those overturned by the court of appeal in 2021.

The inquiry is looking into the wrongful prosecution of hundreds of post office operators who were hounded for more than a decade because of shortfalls in their branch accounts that were due to bugs in the Post Office’s Horizon IT system.

It was told on Thursday that Smith had sent the email on 21 October 2010. It read: “Brilliant news. Well done. Please pass on my thanks to the team.”

He said the message was “intended to be a congratulatory email to the team, knowing that they had worked hard on the case” and because he thought it was “brilliant” that the Horizon IT system was seen to be robust in the prosecution of Misra, which was regarded as a “test case”.

Smith told the hearing that his email wording was “really poorly thought through and I do apologise” to Misra, as the email had caused her and her family “substantial upset”.

In his witness statement he added: “Even if this had been a correct conviction, I would absolutely never think that it was ‘brilliant news’ for a pregnant woman to go to prison.”

Misra rejected Smith’s apology, telling Sky News: “They are apologising now but they missed so many chances before. We had my conviction overturned, nobody came at that time to apologise.”

Smith told the hearing that at the time he sent the email he and the board were focused on the upcoming separation of Royal Mail and the Post Office ahead of Royal Mail’s flotation in 2013 as well as “new policies coming in from government and we needed to refinance the business”. He acknowledged that senior executives were not “as focused as we could and should have been on the Horizon issues”.

Smith said the Post Office had sought an independent inquiry into Horizon from Fujitsu, which developed the accounting system, after the new version had problems with accounts freezing, which he said affected post office operators’ ability to trade. However, he said he had felt more reassured after holding a call with Fujitsu executives.

He said that when concerns were brought to light around the Horizon IT System he requested a review, which was carried out by another colleague, Rod Ismay, “which was unequivocal in its answer” that Horizon was “robust”.

“We were never provided with any suggestion that the Horizon IT System could be tampered with and always reassured of the opposite,” he said in his witness statement. “Had we known that this was not true, we would have approached things differently.”

Flora Page, a barrister representing a number of post office operators, put it to Smith that “you deliberately had your team produce a report for you to cover up the fact you knew and everyone in your senior leadership team knew that Horizon’s integrity was very much in doubt.” He replied: “No, absolutely not.”

More than 900 post office operators were convicted using evidence from the Horizon computer system, including 700 convictions secured by the Post Office between 1999 and 2015; 103 convictions have been overturned so far.

The UK government has introduced legislation that will exonerate post office operators who were prosecuted between September 1996 and December 2018. The new law is expected to come into force by late July.

The public inquiry continues.

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