Noel Thomas (pictured) was among more than 550 sub-postmasters who brought a group legal action against the Post Office
A postmaster who was accused of stealing £48,000 from the Post Office has described his ‘nightmare’ at being ‘wrongly’ jailed over the alleged crime.
Noel Thomas was among more than 550 sub-postmasters who brought a group legal action against the Post Office over its use of Horizon – an IT system which was said to have caused shortfalls in their financial accounts and even led to some of them being jailed.
The claimants said the Post Office had failed to provide adequate training in the use of the system and to investigate the cause of alleged shortfalls.
The Post Office initially said that the system worked properly, but the firm eventually agreed to a settlement package with hundreds of claimants – £58m in total.
Mr Thomas worked for the Post Office for 42 years, first as a postman and then helping his wife Eira at the post office in Gaerwen on Anglesey for a decade.
But his life was turned upside down when he was jailed for nine months in 2006 after being accused of taking £48,000.
Although he pleaded guilty to false accounting, he said he did this to escape a more serious charge of theft.
‘I found myself at Walton prison in Liverpool. It was horrible as I knew I had never done anything wrong’, he said. ‘I felt terrible for my family as I was stuck in prison and they had to face people. Mud sticks.’
The claimants said the Post Office had failed to provide adequate training in the use of IT system Horizon and to investigate the cause of alleged shortfalls
Mr Thomas, who worked for the Post Office for 42 years, described the experience as a ‘nightmare’
‘After 10 days, I was transferred to an open prison in Kirkham, Blackpool, where I spent 12 weeks, but that was better as everyone was given a job and I worked in the greenhouses.’
Mr Thomas had to wear a tag following his release, and said he received knocks on his door at 2.30am when it stopped working properly.
‘It was a nightmare,’ he said. ‘What got me through was my family and friends, and we got a lot of support from our local community.
‘But we did have experiences of people crossing the street to avoid me.’
After years of battling to clear his name, Mr Thomas finally got the news he’d been waiting for this week.
As the Post Office agreed to pay a total of £58m in compensation to the sub-postmasters, chairman Tim Parker said: ‘We accept that, in the past, we got things wrong in our dealings with a number of postmasters.
Pictured: Former chief executive of the Post Office Paula Vennells
‘We look forward to moving ahead now, with our new chief executive currently leading a major overhaul of our engagement and relationship with postmasters.’
Mr Thomas, who now works at a garden centre, said: ‘It’s not about the compensation. I just want a letter from the Post Office saying I didn’t do it.’
Earlier this week, sub-postmasters demanded an apology from former Post Office boss Paula Vennells over the £32million legal case in which staff were branded crooks.
They said the executive – who earned £3.7million during her six-year tenure – should also pay back her bonuses over the debacle.
Miss Vennells, who was replaced as chief executive by Nick Read earlier this year, presided over the decision to go to court to challenge hundreds of postmasters who said they had been falsely accused of stealing from the till.
In January, the ordained priest was awarded a CBE for services to the Post Office and to charity, and a month later she was appointed as a non-executive board member to the Cabinet Office. She is now also chairman of Imperial Health NHS Trust.
Michael Hill, 79, who ran a branch in Sheffield from 1994 to 2001 and was left £200,000 out of pocket, demanded she apologise for her role in the Horizon IT system debacle.
He said: ‘Paula Vennells should stand up and in public and say, ‘I’m so sorry. It has been proved that terrible life-changing mistakes were made and I was at the helm when we decided to fight these people, and I apologise’. She won’t of course.’
Mother-of-two Seema Misra, 44, who was sentenced to 15 months in jail while she was eight weeks pregnant, said: ‘Paula Vennells should definitely apologise and give back some of her bonuses.
‘We have been through so much pain, pain she can not imagine. I can’t find the words – how can they compensate what we’ve been through? Everyone at the Post Office who was involved in this case should apologise individually.’
Three years before the case went to court, the Post Office ignored a report by independent forensic accountants, who said there was ‘only limited evidence’ for charges of theft.
Miss Vennells told MPs investigating the Horizon IT system in 2015: ‘[The buck] does stop with me… As chief executive, I am responsible for the reputation of and what happens for the Post Office.’
It has also emerged that ‘hundreds’ more former postmasters, who missed the deadline for the group action, are considering making a claim. It could mean the Post Office, which has only returned to profit in recent years, could pay out millions more in compensation. The £83million paid out in compensation and legal fees is already double the amount of profit the Government-owned company made last year.
Mark Baker, branch secretary for the Communication Workers’ Union, said: ‘There are hundreds more that I’ve spoken to and personally referred to go on a secondary list of claimants.
‘Their ability to claim is as good as those in the current litigation. The union will assist people who want to bring individual cases against the Post Office. I’d like to see a full apology from Paula Vennells. They presided over this and now we have to ask what they think they were doing.’
The Post Office still denies its Horizon IT system could be faulty. The settlement is a victory for the Daily Mail, which has repeatedly highlighted the scandal and campaigned to save village post offices.