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Post Office scandal: I was a pillar of the community and then I became a pariah

22 Dec 2019, 04:50

Post Office scandal: I was a pillar of the community and then I became a pariah

Post Office scandal: I was a pillar of the community and then I became a pariah
The company is paying £58m to sub-postmasters falsely accused of stealing. One reveals how he was vilified by his community

It was meant to be one of the proudest days of Vipinchandra Patel’s life. He and his wife, Jayshree, were going to see their daughter graduate with a first-class degree in chemistry from York University.

His pride was overshadowed by having an electronic tag round his ankle. Weeks earlier he had been forced to plead guilty to false accounting and fraud at the village post office and shop that he ran in Horspath, which is in Boris Johnson’s former Henley constituency.

“It robbed the day of any joy and happiness,” he said.

Vipinchandra, who had worked for the Post Office since 1987, is among the hundreds of sub-postmasters whose lives and careers have been wrecked.

The Post Office blamed its subpostmasters — people who run a shop, typically selling food, newspapers and other everyday items, that also has one or two Post Office counters — for stealing money from the till. Many, like Vipinchandra, were prosecuted. Some were even jailed. Many were left bankrupt.

The scandal rumbled on for nearly 20 years — only for the truth to emerge this month that they had done nothing wrong. Far from being thieves, they were themselves the victims of a glitch in the Post Office’s IT system, Horizon, which was installed between 1999 and 2000. The Post Office agreed last week to pay 550 ex-workers £58m to settle the claims.

Campaigners, who are pushing for a public inquiry, have rounded on Paula Vennells, an Anglican curate who was chief executive of the Post Office from 2012 until she stepped down in April. She earned a total of almost £5m in that time.

The settlement will bring no end to Vipinchandra’s nightmare, however. He is among the 34 people to be left with criminal records after the Post Office pursued them through the courts. It means he has been unable to secure a loan to help his children onto the housing ladder. “Not being able to do anything for my children was heartbreaking,” he said.

He and his wife were forced to sell her gold jewellery, which she had inherited from her family, to pay back the money that the Post Office insisted they had stolen. Vipinchandra estimates he paid back about £39,000 in “discrepancies”.

The final straw came when he was told there was a further shortfall of £36,000. He was handed an 18-week suspended sentence and a two-month curfew and told to pay £200 costs in 2011. His curfew ran from 10pm to 5am, so he needed to get a special dispensation to attend his daughter’s graduation.

To make matters worse, Vipinchandra’s conviction was reported in the local media. “One minute I was a pillar of the community and the next I was a pariah,” he said. “I came from the green fields of Uganda to a leafy village in Oxfordshire to be called a thief and a fraudster.”

He said he became a burden to his wife, who had to run the shop alone: “My health was deteriorating; my wife was running the shop and was facing insults from customers, and I got a criminal record, which meant I couldn’t get a job.

“I couldn’t eat or drink because of the stress and my body started to deteriorate. I lost the zest for life and became suicidal.”

The Post Office said it accepted that it had “got things wrong” and apologised to those affected, but would not comment on Vipinchandra’s case.

His conviction is now being reviewed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission as a possible miscarriage of justice. He is clear on who caused his suffering. “I personally hold the whole [Post Office] board responsible,” he said.


Additional reporting: Tony Farag

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