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Post Office ‘lied’ to subpostmasters when forced to meet them, says former federation representative

A former subpostmaster forced senior Post Office executives to meet him to discuss his unexplained shortfall, but they then “lied” to him about the ability to remotely access and manipulate branch accounts, says former subpostmaster representative.

During questioning of former Post Office senior executive Angela van den Bogerd over her knowledge of remote access, the Post Office Horizon scandal inquiry was drawn to the dispute between the Post Office and former subpostmasters Val Athwall and his wife Rachpal Athwall.

When investigating an unexplained shortfall at their branch in Ferndown, Dorset, the subpostmasters suspected that their accounts had been changed through remote access to Horizon.

In 2011, Mr Athwall demanded a meeting with a senior Post Office executive, but was refused until he forced the Post Office’s hand, according to Mark Baker, a former National Federation of Subpostmasters representative.

Baker, who represented Athwall, said: “We only got the meeting because Mr Athwall closed his branch [in protest] with a load of passport applications locked in the safe. Customers were in panic they would have their travel plans ruined.

“Post Office head of retail Kevin Gilliland phoned me at home late on a Friday night to beg me to get the subpostmaster to release the passport applications.”

A meeting took place in 2011 and Athwall pressed the executives – Gilliland, Van den Bogerd and Post Office auditor Helen Rose – on remote access.

They told him that the Post Office could not remotely access subpostmaster accounts, but failed to tell him that Fujitsu, which provided the Horizon software, could.

Baker, who later became chair of the subpostmaster branch of the Communications Workers Union, said he left the meeting “feeling very uneasy”.

“I felt they had lied to us, but I couldn’t prove otherwise. Knowing what I know now, I believe we were lied to by Post Office’s Gilliland, Van den Bogerd and Helen Rose, who were all at this meeting.” He added that he believes they fabricated documents that were shown to them to him and Mr Athwal.

In his role as a subpostmaster and union representative, over the years Baker has been a vocal campaigner for justice for subpostmasters affected by Horizon errors. He was described by High Court judge Peter Fraser as “redoubtable” in his High Court judgment after a court battle between subpostmasters and the Post Office in 2019.

Notes from the recorded meeting, revealed in the hearing, show Athwall repeatedly asked whether the Post Office could remotely access and make changes to Horizon. The Post Office said it couldn’t, but failed to mention that Fujitsu could do both these things. Van den Bogerd herself reassured Athwal that it was not possible.

During the inquiry hearing, the omission was described as  an “inaccurate answer” by inquiry barrister Inquiry KC Jason Beer.

Van den Bogerd told the inquiry the answer was accurate because he asked if the Post Office could access the accounts, not Fujitsu.  

Beer KC said the Post Office was not open about Fujitsu’s access. “Come on, are you saying that what you said overall there is accurate? It was inaccurate by not being a full account, wasn’t it?”

He said the open and transparent thing to say would be, “Nobody in the Post Office can access [accounts], but we have found out that people in Fujitsu can.”

Van den Bogerd said that she had only stepped into the conversation between Mr Athwal and Gilliland to calm things down as they were getting heated, adding: “But what I said was accurate because nobody at Post Office had access.”

Van den Bogerd is a central figure in the Post Office Horizon scandal. During a 2019 High Court trial where subpostmasters were suing the Post Office, High Court judge Peter Fraser criticised Van der Bogerd’s evidence for the Post Office’s defence, saying she sought to mislead him. 

An inquiry hearing on 25 April 2024 heard evidence that she also misled the High Court when she claimed the first she knew of the ability for subpostmaster accounts accessed and changed to be by IT supplier Fujitsu was in 2018. But the inquiry was shown evidence that she was told this was the case in three separate emails form 2010, 2011 and 2014.

Last year, the public inquiry was told Fujitsu had no control over its staff in one of its tech support teams accessing Post Office branch accounts remotely to make changes without the subpostmasters’ knowledge.

The Post Office scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to accounting software (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal below).

Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal

Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story

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