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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Lucy Allan on securing the debate. I will keep my offering reasonably brief, because I hope to speak in greater detail during the Backbench Business debate on Thursday
It is worth reminding Members present of the points I made in this very Chamber during a debate in December 2014. They are credible evidence that the Post Office knew about the flaws in the Horizon system throughout the whole time it was prosecuting sub-postmasters, and that it tried to suppress evidence and the investigation that we, as a group of MPs with the help of Second Sight, were running into the activities and efficacy of the Horizon system. They illustrate why these convictions are unsafe and should be quashed.
This whole issue first came to my attention because of the plight of one of my constituents, a Mr Michael Rudkin, who for 15 years was a sub-postmaster. He had served as the most senior member on the national executive of the NFSP and as chairman of the federation’s negotiating committee, where he was responsible for negotiating with Post Office Ltd and Royal Mail Group. He is an experienced sub-postmaster who was very much on the side of the sub-postmasters. I will share his experience, because he was well aware of problems in the Horizon system.
Mr Rudkin’s story really starts on Tuesday
On his arrival that Tuesday morning, my constituent signed the visitors’ book in reception and waited for his chaperone, a Mr Martin Rolfe. Mr Rolfe took him to the second or third floor, and they entered a suite where Mr Rudkin recognised Horizon equipment on display on the benches. There was only one other person in the room, a male of approximately 30 to 35 years old, who was reluctant to engage in conversation when he realised that Mr Rudkin was a representative of the sub-postmasters. Mr Rolfe asked Mr Rudkin to follow him through a number of pass-protected security doors and down some stairs. They went down to the ground floor and entered the boiler room. Mr Rudkin states that a number of men dressed in casual office wear were standing around the doorway. They became very uncomfortable about Mr Rudkin’s presence and left.
Having entered the boiler room, Mr Rudkin instantly recognised two Horizon terminals. There were data on both screens, and an operative was sitting in front of one of them, on which the pure feed for the Horizon system came into the building. Mr Rudkin asked if what he could see were real-time data available on the system. Mr Rolfe said, “Yes. I can actually alter a bureau de change figure to demonstrate that this is live.” He was going to alter a figure on a sub-postmaster’s computer remotely. Mr Rolfe then laughed and said, “I’ll have to put it back. Otherwise, the sub-postmaster’s account will be short tonight.”
The Post Office, throughout its prosecutions, relied on what it stated in court and in evidence to the panel of MPs six or seven years ago, that there was no remote access from its headquarters to individual sub-postmasters’ computers. The moment that we established that, years ago, every single one of those convictions was unsafe and the Post Office knew it.
Mr Rudkin obviously raised his concern in 2008. He had been told the same as everyone else, that no one could access the computers remotely and any shortfall was therefore bound to be down to the sub-postmaster. When they realised who he was, he was escorted from the building very quickly. He was taken to reception and told to leave.
Mysteriously, and ominously, the next day, Wednesday
Mr Rudkin was absolved of all knowledge of the loss by Post Office Ltd, but he was ordered to pay the money back. He paid it at a rate of £1,000 a month from his salary. As we have heard, the sub-postmaster is completely liable under the contract for all losses. As he points out, why would someone steal money from themselves when they know that they will have to pay it back?
After Mr Rudkin had paid £13,000 back to Post Office Ltd, the Post Office started proceedings against his wife for false accounting. We have heard it all before. It also applied for a confiscation order on his property and had his bank account frozen under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Mr Rudkin has since cleared all his debts to Post Office Ltd, but in the process, he has lost his business, his reputation, his position as a magistrate, some property and his good name, and he has been unable to work since. His wife was prosecuted and had to complete community service having been warned that she could face a prison sentence unless she pleaded guilty.