In 2003, Anthony Gant arrived in Powys ready to start a new life.
Leaving his career as a London stockbroker behind him, Anthony, who was in his early thirties at the time, began a new chapter running the local Post Office in Nantoer, just outside of Newtown.
Like the thousands of other subpostmasters responsible for running Post Office branches across the UK, Anthony was a pillar of his local community.
However, like many of these fellow subpostmasters, Anthony and his Post Office would also go on to find themselves in the midst of one of the biggest scandals to hit the UK this century.
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In 2005, just two years after his arrival in Wales, Anthony began noticing problems. For reasons he couldn’t fathom, his branch’s accounts were regularly showing shortfalls.
“No matter what I did the accounts were always short,” said Anthony.
“There was money going missing that we couldn’t account for.”
Confused about what was going on and how it was happening, Anthony began trying to make things right by himself.
“I thought I must be doing something wrong so I borrowed money from wherever I could to make up the shortfall, putting thousands of my own money in at one point,” he said.
“I couldn’t keep getting the money though and the accounts kept showing us to be thousands short.”
By this time, Anthony explained, there was around £10,000 missing.
He added: “We made good the loss thinking it would come back but it never did.”
No longer able to put his own money into the accounts, and with no signs of the problem going away, it was a frightening time for Anthony. This was all in spite of the fact that he was in touch with the Post Office about the issue.
“We phoned the Post Office and they were no help at all,” said Anthony. “It was horrendous. It was so worrying and I was too frightened to tell anyone because it simply couldn’t be explained.
“There was a lot of pressure. You’re wondering where this money’s going, you know. I was looking and looking and I couldn’t account for it.”
Anthony Gant, 51, and wife Kirsty
(Image: Anthony Gant)
After two years of unsuccessfully trying to balance the branch’s books, and still none the wiser to what was going on, Anthony was paid a visit. Auditors from the Post Office arrived in Nantoer in April 2007, finding a deficit of £14,550.
For Anthony, it was almost a relief just to have someone acknowledge there was an issue.
“I was suspended and I was told there were going to be criminal proceedings against me,” he said.
Believing Anthony to be responsible for the shortfall, the Post Office pushed for conviction. At no point was the possibility raised by the Post Office that anything else could be responsible for the error, including technical issues. In addition to that, Anthony said he was led to believe that his was the only branch facing this issue.
“Like almost everybody else I was told there was no issue with the computer system and that I was the only one,” said Anthony.
The period leading up to the trial was an anxious one, exacerbated by the fact that it was taking him away from his family at a difficult time.
“My son was very ill, he had juvenile arthritis. He was in and out of hospital in Birmingham,” said Anthony.
Worried he would be sent to prison, Anthony did what he thought was necessary to stop that from happening.
“I was told to plead guilty to false accounting to have a charge of theft dropped.”
Appearing at Shrewsbury and North Shropshire Magistrates Court, Anthony followed this advice and pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of false accouning to avoid the more serious charge of theft. He was handed a six months suspended sentence and 100 hours community service, while also being made to repay the outstanding shortfall.
However, unbeknownst to Anthony at the time, he was just one of many individuals from across the UK in a similar position.
Between 2000 and 2015, more than 900 subpostmasters were prosecuted after money appeared to vanish from Post Office branch accounts all over the UK.
Many of them faced time behind bars and all had their lives brought crashing down around them, unable to explain where things had gone wrong.
However, some had been able to sniff out the trail of breadcrumbs leading to the root of the issue, and it was only a matter of time before the truth behind what was happening started to slowly unravel.
Aside from their livelihoods, the subpostmasters accused of theft all had one major factor in common – the computer programme used to keep track of money going in and out of their Post Office branches.
In 1999, the Post Office installed software called Horizon as a means of digitising transactions and accounts. Shortly after, across the UK, the number of Post Office branches seeing discrepancies in accounts increased, as did the number of prosecutions made by the Post Office against subpostmasters like Anthony.
Some of them began to grow suspicious that Horizon was somehow faulty, one of whom was another Welsh postmaster, Alan Bates.
After reporting discrepancies to the Post Office in 2000, Mr Bates, who ran the Craig-y-Don branch near Llandudno, was let go by the company. But this didn’t deter him from looking into the issue further and, in 2009, he was instrumental in establishing campaign group Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA).
This organisation, made up of former subpostmasters, then began a legal battle against the Post Office that would last years.
Alan Bates at the High Court in London in 2019
Another subpostmaster caught up in the scandal was Noel Thomas, who ran a small village Post Office on Anglesey and who was accused of being responsible for around £48,000 going missing from his accounts.
Like Anthony, he was instructed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of false accounting to avoid a more serious charge of theft, with the hope it would avoid prison time. But this plan backfired, and Noel was sentenced to nine months in prison, where he would spend his sixtieth birthday.
“I fell from grace,” said Noel, speaking to WalesOnline earlier this year.
In 2017, the JFSA and 555 former employees brought a civil claim against the Post Office. They were eventually paid £57.75 million in damages in 2019, when a High Court judgement said that the Horizon system contained “bugs, error and defects” and that discrepancies in branch accounts had been caused by the faulty system.
This was a major milestone, but for the former subpostmasters, the battle to clear their names was far from over.
In 2020, the cases of 42 former subpostmasters were referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) to the court of appeal, and it would take another 12 months for the names of 40 of these subpostmasters, including Noel Thomas, to be cleared.
For Anthony, it was seeing a BBC Panorama special about the issue in June 2020 that spurred him into taking action.
“It was hard for me to even begin this process of challenging my conviction as in many ways I had buried all the hurt and pain it caused for so long deep down in my memory. I almost didn’t want to look back and dig it all up again,” he said.
“However, the turning point for me was when I saw a documentary on television about all the failings in the Horizon system being exposed, and how it had happened to so many other people, just like me. I then read about solicitors promising to challenge the unsafe convictions and I thought I had to do something.”
Anthony subsequently sought legal advice, and went on to fight his conviction in court, a battle which he eventually won earlier this week. On November 18, 14 years after his original trial, he was exonerated of any wrongdoing, officially walking out of Southwark Crown Court an innocent man.
“I feel like a massive weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” said Anthony, speaking after Thursday’s verdict.
“We knew the verdict was coming but to actually hear it in court is something different. I’ve got a spring in my step today.”
Earlier this week, the Post Office also agreed to broadly waive legal privilege at next year’s public inquiry, which is the legal protection allowing it to withhold evidence relating to previously confidential communications between its staff and internal legal advisers, barristers and solicitors’ firms.
This means that years of documents relating to Horizon and the prosecutions of hundreds of former subpostmasters should now form part of the inquiry.
Anthony Gant, wife Kirsty and step-daughter Megan pictured after the quashing of Anthony’s conviction
(Image: Anthony Gant)
However, although he is keen to see those responsible for the Horizon scandal held to account, Anthony explained that the lasting damage caused by the ordeal is something he fears he will live with indefinitely.
“I had worked so hard to train to be a stockbroker, so that ended right there and then when I was a convicted criminal. I’d also coached children in rugby for many years and that ended too. Big parts of your life are taken from you,” he said.
“You go from being a pillar of the community to being called a thief and a fraudster.”
He added: “That is always going to stick no matter what.”
Now, Anthony is encouraging any other former subpostmasters affected by the scandal to challenge their convictions.
“I know some people probably can’t face the prospect of being let down again, and I know how they feel because there was a time when I thought we had no hope of clearing our names,” he said after Thursday’s verdict.
“However, the many people that have come together to fight for justice, and to bring it all to this point where we are today did give me hope. Today they have given me justice. Everyone deserves to feel like I do today.”
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