A sub-postmaster convicted of false accounting in 2002 says he blamed himself for years and felt like a failure until the ITV drama gave him confidence to challenge his criminal record.

Keith Bell said watching ‘Mr Bates v The Post Office’ was like seeing his own life unfold on his TV.

Keith says he began to experience shortfalls in his accounts shortly after the faulty Horizon IT system was installed at the Bishopton Road Post Office he had successfully ran in Stockton since 1985.

Keith says he rang Post Office helplines but was given little support, and when the books didn’t balance he made up shortfalls from his own pocket, and in an act of desperation delayed some transactions to ‘make the books look right’.

When auditors noticed discrepancies, he blamed himself and admitted a charge of false accounting in 2002.

He says auditors told him other sub-postmasters had not had issues with Horizon.

Keith says he has spent 20 years thinking what happened was his own fault, but the ITV drama has given him confidence to speak out.

Mr Bell, now 75, said: “I blamed myself and thought I’d made a mess of things and committed a crime. They shut the Post Office down and I felt a sense of shame and failure.

“I kept putting my own money in to balance the books. I must have put around £12,000 in before I couldn’t do any more and then I did falsify the accounts in panic, so in my mind, I was in the wrong.

“There seemed to be no other explanation other than it being my fault,

“I watched the drama, and it was like watching my own life in front of me. Then, in the days that followed, and seeing the public reaction, it was huge in lifting the shame and the embarrassment I’ve always felt. It gave me the confidence to step forward.”

In 2002 he admitted to a charge of false accounting over a shortfall of £3,000 at Teesside Magistrates’ Court, giving him a criminal record.

He retrained as a driving instructor only to be told months later he couldn’t continue due to his conviction.

He will now challenge that criminal record which has hung over him for 22 years.

He is one of 52 sub-postmasters, not among the original 555 who took the Post Office to court and won in 2019 over bugs and errors with the Horizon system, who have come forward since the drama aired earlier this month.

The Northern Echo:

“For me it’s not about the compensation,” he added.

“I want my name cleared.

“I’m an honest person who has been labelled a criminal for 20 years, and the impact of that is huge. Life has been tough at times and the conviction has always hung over me.

“It feels like the landscape has changed. It is right that it is all now coming out into the open, and that people know what happened to us. Sub-postmasters are all a certain type of person. We’re not thieves, we are people who throw ourselves into our communities to help.

“We were all made to feel shame, and that is why people like myself have never come forward until now. 

“I want to make sure nothing like this happens again. This should never have happened to one person, never mind hundreds as it did.

“I think we need to collectively step forward now, and make sure every aspect of what happened is unearthed.”

Hundreds of sub-postmasters were convicted for offences including theft, fraud and false accounting between 1999 and 2015.

Some went to prison and others took their own lives.

Among those, two victims thought to be the oldest and youngest hail from the North East.

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Betty Brown, 91, ran the Annfield Plain branch, near Stanley, with her late husband, Oswall, during a successful 35-year career, but problems arose in her meticulous ledgers when the discredited Horizon system was installed in 2000.

The grandmother-of-three was told she was ‘too old’ to understand how the computer system worked and was hounded into retirement. She was forced to sell the business for less than it was worth in 2003 having spent hard-earned savings trying to balance the books.

Last week she slammed Post Office bosses, saying: “You have destroyed every day of my retirement and every day that my husband survived for the 13 months.”

Christopher Head was 18 when he took over a branch of the Post Office in West Boldon, near Sunderland, in 2006 but nine years later found himself the subject of a criminal investigation over an alleged shortfall of £88,000.

He spent years campaigning for justice and in December 2019 he was among hundreds of sub-postmasters who finally won their case against the Post Office in a £50 million settlement over the IT system.

Solicitor Neil Hudgell from law firm Hudgell Solicitors said: “We are obviously delighted that more victims of this scandal like Mr Bell are feeling confident enough to come forward. There have been some big promises made by Government over the past couple of weeks, and it is our role to ensure they follow these through and ensure everyone is fully and fairly compensated for their suffering, as quickly as possible.”