The news of the Post Office scandal has been prominent in the last few weeks, following the release of the ITV drama, ‘Mr Bates vs the Post Office’, at the beginning of the year. The short series delves into the tragic misjustices that has a timeline of over 20 years. Since 1999, over 900 sub-postmasters have been prosecuted for accountancy errors that were claimed to be made by them, but were really by the faulty Horizon IT system rolled out by the Post Office 25 years ago. These were ordinary people who had their livelihoods and finances ruined. The Post Office had prosecution powers and, between 1999 and 2015, it prosecuted 700 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses based on the information from the Horizon system. A further 238 cases were brought by other bodies such as the Crown Court Prosecution Service. Some went to prison for false accounting and theft despite repeatedly highlighting problems with the software. There have been four known suicides linked to the scandal. The series also looks at the IT company Fujitsu, who were the creators of the Horizon system. A scene depicts how people at this company were able to change the sub-postmasters numbers without their knowledge, which is fraud in its own right.
The series follows through the years as a team of sub-postmasters come together to share their story. They decide to take the Post Office to court in the hopes that convictions will be overturned and compensation would be delivered. To date, only a mere 93 convictions have been overturned. There is hope for this number to be expanded as victims will be able to sign a form to claim their innocence to overturn their convictions under government plans.
In regards to compensation, schemes have just been set up for the sub-postmasters to claim money for the wrongdoings put onto them. More than 4,000 people in total have been told they are eligible for compensation, and there are three separate schemes operating. However, those who have still not had their criminal convictions quashed are unable to claim compensation.
The ITV series has no doubt cause public outrage, with multiple petitions regarding the scandal gaining millions of signatures. The petition calling for Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennels to be stripped of her CBE in was incredibly effective, with over 1 million people signing, resulting in her giving up the title. Even though this is a small victory in itself, it has to be asked whether this punishment is harsh enough. Innocent people were convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, and Vennels failed to provide evidence to bring justice for these people. Her role in this scandal surely deserves more consequences than just taking away her CBE. Some agree with this statement, calling for Vennels to return £2.93million in performance-related perks and payments in lieu of pension.
Furthermore, a number of politicians need to take responsibility for their lack of action during this 20-year scandal. Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrats leader who was the postal affairs minister between 2010 and 2012, has been called out for his lack of action. Davey initially refused to meet Alan Bates (the lead sub-postmaster of the cause) when he was the postal affairs minister, turning down a request in 2010, stating: “I don’t believe a meeting would serve any purpose.” They did end up meeting later that year, but Davey’s initial reaction demonstrates that he did not take the issue seriously enough. Perhaps if he had made an effort sooner, the cause may have had a better chance of being resolved. Davey has refused to apologise and instead lays the blame on senior Post Office managers for unleashing a “conspiracy of lies” against successive ministers.
If all of this was made aware to Blair at the time it was occurring, why did the former Prime Minister not take action?
The Conservative and Labour parties also have some answering to do. In 2020, Boris Johnson had committed to “getting to the bottom of the matter” through an independent inquiry, but its progress has been repeatedly halted by obstacles, many put in place by the Post Office itself. The question of why the inquiry wasn’t pushed harder arises here, as well as how the Post Office was able to restrict progress in the first place. Moreover, the Horizon system was introduced during the Labour government of Tony Blair. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions at the time, Harriet Harman, had written as far back as 1998 to Blair, warning him of the risk that the project would fail to achieve its objectives. Blair also received a Treasury briefing the following year outlining a series of failures. If all of this was made aware to Blair at the time it was occurring, why did the former Prime Minister not take action? If Blair had taken the information seriously and delved into the matter, perhaps many tragic cases could have been prevented.
[Fujitsu] donates to both Labour and the Conservatives, paying roughly £26,000 every year to host “lounges” at each party’s conferences.
As for Fujitsu, the company that provided the faulty Horizon system, consequences unfortunately seem unlikely. The company is incredibly embedded in the public sector. It donates to both Labour and the Conservatives, paying roughly £26,000 every year to host “lounges” at each party’s conferences. Furthermore, its technology is still being used in the Ministries of Defence and Justice, HMRC and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, among many others. Their heavy involvement shamefully means that any repercussions for their role in the scandal seems far away.
Many of the sub-postmasters are still campaigning for better compensation and for those who took part in the scandal to own up to what they did and face consequences. Petitions are still circulating in support of the sub-postmasters. The spark of this scandal being reignited by the ITV drama shows how a story can impact the public domain and bring people together in outrage to serve justice.