This week, Sir Wyn Williams’ inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT Scandal comes to Northern Ireland, to hear directly from postmasters whose lives were profoundly affected by this scandal.
We at the Post Office know that their testimony will make for uncomfortable listening, but if we are serious about righting the wrongs of the past, we must hear it.
I recognise how difficult it will be for affected postmasters to give this evidence. 22 postmasters in Northern Ireland were convicted, and others’ lives affected.
They have already endured much and there will be deeply distressing memories to raise. There will be emotionally troubling accounts on the impacts on their lives and their loved ones. Ultimately, we will hear how the Post Office was historically too insular and too remote. We got things wrong and we failed far too many of our dedicated postmasters. As chief executive, I am sorry and I am determined to put this right.
The Post Office is rooted in the 480 communities we serve across Northern Ireland, often in small towns and villages where people rely on our services. We must begin to rebuild trust with our postmasters and the general public in those communities.
The Post Office continues to work closely with Sir Wyn Williams’ inquiry to ensure it gets to the bottom of what happened. The inquiry is a watershed moment and we must seize the opportunity to get it right.
We have made good progress to offer redress to those affected by this scandal. The overwhelming majority of the 73 people across the UK who have had their convictions overturned have now each received interim compensation payments of £100,000.
Compensation is also being paid for historical shortfalls related to previous versions of Horizon — with a third of applicants already receiving their offer. We aim to have made nearly all offers by the end of the year as the independent panel assessing each case accelerates its important work. We must ensure that all compensation is full, fair and final for those who have already suffered too much.
Last month, it was announced that a new compensation scheme will be established to ensure those postmasters who brought group legal action to the High Court will receive the same level of compensation as those who claimed through the Historical Shortfall Scheme.
I hope that Sir Wyn’s inquiry coming to Northern Ireland will encourage any wronged postmasters who have not yet come forward to do so, and get redress through one of these routes. But more than just righting the wrongs of the past, I have a responsibility to ensure that such things never happen again. We have made significant changes to the way the business works.
We now have two Non-Executive Director postmasters, elected by other postmasters, on the Post Office Board. Their input is invaluable as we continue to ensure we respond effectively to the needs of our customers.
Throughout the Covid crisis we remained largely open — in excess of 90% of UK branches remained open for business, as our postmasters embody the word community and I thank them for their outstanding efforts.
Over the past year, we have worked in full partnership with banks. In the local Post Office in Millisle, we made it easier for people to do their banking from the Post Office, and offered local small businesses a service to deposit their takings and order and collect floats, regardless of who they bank with. And after hearing from small businesses that managing the small change was an issue in cash transactions, we piloted an easy to use solution that allowed retailers to give customers their change on a card or mobile app, instead of in coins. This is the kind of local access and service, driven by what customers and business want on the ground, that the Post Office can uniquely deliver.
Whilst I am pleased we have made progress, I recognise that there is still much to do and this weeks’ Northern Ireland hearing is a moment for reflection. This scandal cannot be allowed to happen again and, as chief executive, my commitment is twofold; to right the wrongs of the past and to ensure that the Post Office serves every community in Northern Ireland.