Numbers prove former subpostmaster federation boss’s ignorance over Post Office scandal

The former National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP) boss has downplayed the volume of prosecutions of subpostmasters after the Horizon system was introduced, but the numbers say otherwise.

During his appearance at the Post Office scandal public inquiry, George Thomson, NFSP general secretary from 2007 to 2018, was in denial over the Post Office Horizon scandal, which unfolded during his watch.

The man who headed up the federation, tasked with protecting the interests of subpostmasters, still believes prosecutions and suspensions after Horizon’s introduction were no different to those before.

“I’ve been around a long time: suspensions have always taken place, prosecutions have always taken place, under the manual system as well, hundreds of subpostmasters suspended,” he told the inquiry.

But, according to Post Office figures, in the seven years between 1991 and the year before Horizon’s introduction in 1999, there was an average of six subpostmasters convicted a year, compared with an average of 52 a year in the next 13 years up until the Post Office stopped prosecuting in 2013, apart from four convictions in 2015.

From 1999 to 2012, yearly convictions ranged from 38 to 78.

Recently knighted former subpostmaster and campaigner Alan Bates said: “I knew he was always deaf to the concerns of subpostmasters, but until his performance at the inquiry, I didn’t realise how ignorant he was of the facts about Horizon.”

Flat-Earthers

During the inquiry hearing, Thomson also stated his belief that the Horizon system was robust while he headed up the NFSP. In his witness statement, he wrote:“The sheer volume of transactions against the small percentage of claims proves beyond any doubt that the system was robust.”

This is despite subpostmasters contacting him directly on numerous occasions explaining the difficulties they were having with the system, and a landmark High Court judgement by Justice Fraser in 2019 that found the Horizon system was not robust.

Thomson told the inquiry hearing he still believes the Horizon system was “systemically strong”.

In his judgement, Justice Fraser said the Post Office claims that Horizon was robust were like the claims made by flat-Earthers. In his judgment, he said the Post Office had exhibited “a simple institutional obstinacy or refusal to consider any possible alternatives to their view of Horizon, which was maintained regardless of the weight of factual evidence to the contrary. 

“That approach by the Post Office was continued, even though now there is also considerable expert evidence to the contrary as well, and much of it agreed expert evidence on the existence of numerous bugs,” he said.

“This approach by the Post Office has amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat.”

When Thomson ended his evidence to the inquiry he wanted to say a few words, which triggered a mass exodus from the room.

Former subpostmistress Jo Hamilton, who was wrongly prosecuted for false accounting, said: “In spite of court judgements and inquiry evidence to the contrary, George Thomson still believes Horizon is robust and the postmasters were at fault. This is staggering for the very person who was supposed to represent his union members,” she added. “We never stood a chance.”

Current NFSP CEO Calum Greenhow said: “The NFSP of today has been shocked by the evidence of its former General Secretary, given today. This is especially so given the number of people who suffered as a result of the Horizon scandal and the clear evidence at the inquiry which shows that Horizon was not ‘robust’.

“It is clear that more could and should have been done for them and for others. Sadly, due to Mr Thomson’s position on Horizon during his time as General Secretary, this did not happen, and for that we are truly sorry.”

During Thomson’s appearance evidence was heard about the close relationship between the NFSP and its paymaster, the Post Office. Press responses to questions about the Horizon system were coordinated between the NFSP and former Post Office PR boss Mark Davies.

Bates asked: “Is the NFSP still being funded by Post Office and is that funding still dependent upon not speaking out or taking action against Post Office?”

The Post Office scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters – including Alan Bates – and the problems they suffered due to accounting software. It’s one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history (see below for timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal, since 2009).

• 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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