• Monday, March 04, 2024

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Former British Asian Post Office operator alleges racial bias in theft accusations

During the lead-up to her trial in 1997, Kuldeep Kaur Atwal recalled being pressured by auditors who implied that her cultural background might have influenced her to steal

A Post Office sign next to the venue for the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry at Aldwych House on January 11, 2024, in London, England – Representative Image (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

By: Kimberly Rodrigues

Kuldeep Kaur Atwal, a former post office operator, has shared a distressing account of her experience with the Post Office, alleging that she was unjustly accused of theft and faced discrimination due to her British Asian heritage.

Atwal, then 46, and 73 now, was charged with stealing £30,000 from her post office branch, a claim for which she was later cleared.

During the lead-up to her trial in 1997, Atwal recalled being pressured by auditors who implied that her cultural background might have influenced her to steal, she told The Guardian in an exclusive interview.

They insinuated that as a British Asian woman, she might have been coerced into stealing and suggested she admit to the crime to avoid a harsher sentence.

Following a directive from Judge Richard Cole to the jury at Coventry crown court, Atwal was declared not guilty owing to insufficient evidence, but the Post Office continued to insist that she reimburse the funds she was wrongly charged with stealing.

The ordeal took a significant toll on Atwal, who was a mother of three and married to Gurpal Singh Atwal, a teacher. Though she felt angry, she was powerless to respond.

Faced with the responsibility of covering the alleged shortfall, she was forced to sell her branch at a substantial loss.

Last year, the Post Office issued an apology following the revelation of a document that racially categorised operators into groups such as “negroid types,” “Chinese/Japanese types,” and “dark-skinned European types.”

This discovery bolstered claims from other individuals who alleged that racial biases influenced their prosecutions.

One individual reported being told by a Post Office staff member, “all Indians are doing it,” suggesting a racially motivated accusation.

Reflecting on her experience, Atwal said, “Looking back, I feel like saying they were bullies, to be honest. I lost my job and everybody judges you. The Post Office was so strong – everybody feared them. I felt for my husband more than anything with all the staff, all the students, looking down on him.”

The accounting software in use at Atwal’s branch in Coventry was predecessor to the infamous Horizon IT software developed by Fujitsu. The faulty returns of this system led to the wrongful conviction of over 900 individuals.

Internal documents revealed to the Guardian indicate that the Post Office was aware of significant issues with the previous system, known as Capture, which had affected a large number of offices due to data corruption problems.

Kevan Jones, a Labour MP active in advocating for post office operators, expressed frustration that the Post Office had knowledge of these software issues but failed to disclose them.

“What makes me angry is that the Post Office knew all along about the problems with Horizon, and now they are not coming clean about the pre-Horizon system. The Capture system was full of bugs and errors,” Jones said.

The Post Office, in response, acknowledged the seriousness of these concerns and committed to investigating, including examining specific cases that have been highlighted.

Atwal faced allegations of stealing funds during a period stretching from July 1995 to November 1996. These accusations were made when Post Office auditors conducted a surprise inspection of her branch one morning in 1995.

Atwal, remembers the auditors abruptly closing her branch for the day, questioning her about any accounting issues, which she denied, except for minor discrepancies years earlier.

They informed her of a £30,000 shortfall and implied her responsibility.

An auditor suggested that, as an Asian woman, she might be culturally pressured to secretly steal, which Atwal dismissed as absurd, though it angered her.

Despite her longstanding, incident-free management since 1989 and trust in her staff, she was continuously probed about family involvement and advised that admitting fault could lessen her punishment.

During her interview with Post Office investigators, Atwal faced continuous accusations and pressure to plead guilty, with promises of leniency contrasted against threats of imprisonment.

Atwal, maintaining her innocence, refused to admit guilt.

In her 1997 trial at Coventry crown court, the judge concluded after three days that the Post Office had not substantiated its claims of financial discrepancies, as evidenced by the lack of complaints from agencies and clients.

Despite her acquittal, the Post Office persisted in demanding repayment of the allegedly stolen funds. “They all said they had no complaints,” Atwal said. “But after the case the Post Office still wanted the money. I had no choice.”

Eastern Eye

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