Raj Patel is a familiar face at New Covent Garden Market, having owned and run the Market’s Post Office for the past 33 years. In May this year Raj took on a new role, becoming one of 12 directors of the National Federation of Sub Post Masters and we asked him more about the challenges ahead
“The National Federation of Sub Post Masters is the equivalent of a trade union and I’m representing colleagues across the entire Greater London area to protect their rights,” explains Raj. It works with Post Office Ltd - a government agency regulating the UK’s Post Offices - and represents Post Office workers across the UK. “I’m lucky that I’ve got five branch secretaries under me and I use them to help me with a lot of the work,” says Raj, highlighting the size of the undertaking he’s committed to.
The biggest issue Raj faces is known as the ‘Post Office scandal’, a now proven miscarriage of justice involving the wrongful civil and criminal prosecutions of an unknown number of sub-postmasters (SPMs) for theft and false accounting, spanning a period of more than 20 years. Currently there has been no resolution to the scandal regarded as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in British legal history. The official government enquiry is ongoing.
“The Post Office scandal is the biggest single issue for our members and that’s taking a lot of my time as a director,” explains Raj. “It goes back years and relates to individual Post Masters across the country who were accused of frauds that were subsequently found to be a result of computer errors.”
The issue has had serious consequences to Post Masters, with jail sentences and even suicides the result of the false charges. “There’s a lot that I can’t say due to ongoing legal issues but it’s a topic I feel very strongly about,” says Raj, who attends meetings most days after he closes the Market’s Post Office and visited the Houses of Parliament in June to lobby on behalf of his colleagues.
“Recently I met with a group of MPs from Richmond and Twickenham to ask for their support and promote our cause. The aim is to get past reparations – compensation – for our members who were affected. We’re also looking for an admission of wrongdoing from the government and for someone to take responsibility for the scandal. We’re fighting for justice for our members, especially as some of them are no longer with us as they took their own lives.”
So how did Raj get involved with supporting the biggest Post Office region in the country with an issue of such importance? “It’s because of my knowledge and experience that I stood for election to the Director role,” he explains. “I was chosen from a field of 18 candidates and had to go through a series of hustings where you convince people to vote for you.”
Finding time for his new role alongside running a busy Post Office isn’t going to be easy, but Raj says he’ll find a way to make it work. “My son originally said he’d help me in the Post Office while I was away. Then he got promoted at work and had to move away, so he’s not available! It’s a huge commitment becoming a director, but I owe it to everyone who voted for me.
“Although I’m working more hours than before, with lots of evening engagements, I’m really energised by this role and I’m looking forward to making a difference. Meeting new people such as MPs and visiting Parliament is a new challenge for me but I’m spurred on by what’s happened in the past.
"The more I become involved, the more I want to achieve a resolution for everyone affected by the scandal. I feel proud and honoured to work with my colleagues to try and achieve our overall goals. I hope that we can get justice.”
The background to Raj's biggest challenge
In 2020 the government initiated an independent inquiry into the Post Office scandal, led by retired judge Wyn Williams. It became a public inquiry in June 2021 after two initial hearings. In November 2021 the government held a preliminary ‘List of Issues Hearing’ and in February 2022 started ‘Human Impact Hearings’, investigating whether the Post Office and their software supplier knew about the faults in the IT system.
A number of Sub Post Masters have successfully sued the Post Office. By 2022, 736 prosecutions had been identified, 83 convictions had been overturned and more were expected to be quashed.
Part of the Market furniture!
After 33 years as New Covent Garden Market’s Post Master, Raj is an intrinsic part of the market. “Growing up, my family were Post Masters and I always helped out as a young boy alongside my brothers. After the first 10 years working here in Nine Elms, I became part of the furniture. Now, after so many years, this is my Market and the guys who work here are my friends and family. I love my customers and will bend over backwards for them, opening early and closing late to help the needs of their businesses. I’ve been to weddings, funerals and have seen generations of people grow up. It’s in my blood.”
The Market’s Post Office has even won a prestigious award after it was selected as 2022’s Post Office of the Year for South London, following a Mystery Shopper visit to all the branches across the region. What’s more, the Market Post Office has become an unofficial information bureau, with Raj always happy to help with people’s questions. “We have people visiting the Market from all over the world and I’m always signposting people to different businesses so they can find what they’re looking for.”