Orkney and Shetland MP, Alistair Carmichael, has today led a debate in Parliament on the administration of the Historic Shortfall Scheme, set up by the Post Office to compensate those victimised by the Horizon scandal. Mr Carmichael raised serious concerns about the way the scheme was being run and the opportunities for compensation for those affected, and in particular raised the serious challenges faced by the late Elena Kimmett, formerly postmistress in Stromness. Following the debate the minister responding agreed to write to Mr Carmichael to respond to the issues raised.
Speaking in Parliament, Mr Carmichael said:
“I have a number of specific concerns about the Post Office’s administration of the historical shortfall scheme but if the Minister takes nothing else away from the debate, I want him to take this: it has become apparent to me that the culture in the Post Office leaves a great deal to be desired. It is now a universally accepted truth that what happened in relation to the Horizon scandal was allowed to happen because of the culture in the Post Office.
“If the culture is still not right, such a scandal could happen again. Ministers can and should insist on seeing that there has been a demonstrable change of culture. I had a recent lengthy discussion with the National Federation of SubPostmasters. The federation put it in the following terms:
“’The culture of the Post Office of today and tomorrow must be significantly different to that of the past. In a recent survey of Postmasters conducted by the NFSP, only 29% believe they are being listened to by Post Office today. In terms of resetting the relationship between Post Office and the network, Postmasters gave Post Office a score of 5 out of 10 for their progress so far.’”
Mr Carmichael went on to discuss the specific case of Orkney postmistress Elena Kimmett:
“The question of public money being used to defend the indefensible goes to the heart of the way in which the historical shortfall scheme is being administered. That hit me like a bolt of lightning on 23 November, when I was part of the meeting with representatives from the legal firm acting for the Post Office.
“The meeting involved me and Anne Robertson, principal of JEP Robertson & Son solicitors in Orkney. Incidentally, as someone instructed to administer an estate, she has gone above and beyond anything that anybody could reasonably expect of a solicitor in that situation. Her client is in fact now the estate of the late Elena Kimmett, the postmistress in Stromness from 31 July 1989 until she resigned in October 2008, essentially because she could take no more. I first had contact with Elena in my early days as a Member of Parliament. I started talking about post offices and she got in touch and said, “Well, if you’re interested, come in and see me and I’ll tell you what it’s really like.” And she did.
“We all talk about the role of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. Elena Kimmett was somebody who instinctively took enormous pride in the fact that she was part of the Post Office, which allowed her to help so many people, including older people, within the community. She was caught in the Horizon scandal and was absolutely devastated by the apparent disappearance of cash within the new computerised system. She had a long sequence of relatively small losses, which gradually increased, and caused her enormous anxiety.
“I have spoken to Elena’s sons about it. They tell me she balanced her books every Wednesday; they well remember the gradual change in her. She went from being a happy, competent, outgoing mother to somebody who was withdrawn, quiet and reserved. On Wednesday night, the balancing night for the post office, instead of coming home for the usual family meal, she started not to want to take part and would instead just eat a few biscuits and have a glass of wine. That is the change that the situation she was going through wrought in her. She was making up the losses from the Horizon system from her own pocket. She asked the Post Office on many occasions for help, but she was always told that the system was infallible and that if money was going missing and it was not her, then it must be her staff. Her staff had all worked for her for long periods of time, and included her mother and husband.
“In May 2002, matters came to a head when there was a shortfall of £3,000. She contacted the Post Office again and was told, again, that the system was infallible. She inquired whether other offices were experiencing similar difficulties. She was told no, there were no others and that it was her problem and her responsibility. That was a significant amount of money for Elena and her husband to take from their own savings to put into the business.
“Elena eventually gave up the post office in 2008. One year ago today, on 13 December 2020, just six months after she had made an application to the historical shortfall scheme, she died. Her two sons and her former employees have no doubt that Elena’s life was badly affected by the actions of the Post Office. She was devastated, and felt she could not continue in the job that she loved.
Mr Carmichael discussed problems with the administration of the compensation scheme:
“My concerns begin with the composition of what is called an application form. The wording of the questions is clearly slanted towards fault and questions actions by employees that are completely unrelated to the employment. The wording actively discourages and gives no space or invitation to specify what the experience of the applicants has been or the effect that it had on them.
“The question then arises of consequential loss. There is nothing in the form that would allow for the sort of compensation that Elena should, in law, have been entitled to. There is no reference to compensation for anguish, upset or distress caused by its action. There is no reference in the form to any payment. In correspondence to me on 22 October 2021, the Post Office was sympathetic and apologised, but it could not extend the offer on the basis of the information available “at this stage”. Those are the significant words. Having subsequently given it information about Elena Kimmett’s loss, I would have expected it to entertain that, but there appears to be no opportunity for it to do so.
“I will finish with this one final nugget from that good faith meeting on 23 November. When we indicated at the end that we were not content with what we had been told and would not accept the offer, the representative of the solicitors acting for the Post Office turned round and said, “Be aware that if you go to the next stage, it is possible that the sum offered could be reduced or withdrawn completely.” If ever there was a point when we understood the lack of respect that still pertains between the Post Office, its representatives and the sub-postmasters whom we represent, that was it. That was the disgrace. That is why it has to change.”