Scandals come and scandals go, and both as a former barrister and as a new Member of this House, it is all too easy when we see a raft of paperwork coming across our desks to scan through the details and forget that each of these scandals is made up of individual cases—individual human stories—so I beg the indulgence of the House and ask to reprise the story of Siobhan Sayer, a constituent of mine who 14 years ago was a sub-postmistress and had trouble balancing accounts. She did not hide this issue; she highlighted it and asked for help—indeed, she asked for help from the Post Office. Eventually, that help came, in the form of three auditors. They did not assist her in balancing the books. Instead, they suspended her, they accused her of theft, they searched her house, asking her where she had hidden the money, and then they interrogated her to such an extent that it stopped only when she physically collapsed. But it did not end there: they took the further step of prosecuting her, both for theft and for false accounting.
That young lady was pressurised to plead guilty to the lesser charge of false accounting in order to avoid a prison sentence for theft. As a former barrister, I can understand why, in the face of the seemingly impenetrable evidence of a robust system in the form of Horizon, that advice might have been given. Having pleaded guilty, she was sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment, suspended for two years, and 200 hours of community service. That is terrible. That is a true scandal. But it is worse than that, because she was shamed in her community, she was ostracised by her friends, and her mental and emotional health was hit to such an extent that she was unable to leave her home for two years. That is the consequence of the actions and inactions of the Post Office and its servant, Fujitsu.
Why did that happen? Undoubtedly, it happened because the Post Office did not care to believe in the honesty of its own staff. It refused to believe that the system could be wrong, despite its own evidence mounting up to the contrary.