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17 January 2024

From Windrush to the Post Office, I find a Britain losing its faith in fair play

At the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry I met Mark Kelly, who has lost everything he worked for.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Mark Kelly is a 45-year-old Welshman with floppy strawberry-blond hair, tired blue eyes and a mini-Yorkie called Gizmo. He ran the local post office, as his parents did before him, in the suburban neighbourhood of Brondeg, Swansea, until he was forced to resign 14 years ago.

The flawed Horizon accounting system, made by the Japanese IT firm Fujitsu, had been registering erroneous shortfalls since it was installed at his branch in 2003. Trying to fix the discrepancies, he would call the helpline five times a week, and paid in more than £3,000 of his own money to balance the books. In the summer of 2006, he was accused of stealing £13,000 and taken to the police station. He doesn’t remember what happened; he broke down and was hospitalised. Mark Kelly has since contemplated suicide. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he hasn’t worked since his arrest.

We met not in his once-natural environment – behind the till in the old family corner shop of granite-grey stone and pebbledash, which he lived above – but on a sterile sofa in a central London waiting room. The Post Office Horizon IT scandal inquiry is being held in a low-ceilinged, windowless space with carpets and upholstery the colour of dust on the fifth floor of a West End office block. The room is rented by WeWork, a multinational co-working space provider, so weary postmasters must spell out their names at reception over the buzz of a coffee machine hoicking up flat whites and the thump of fussball. Visitors receive a lanyard decorated with a jaunty cartoon dinosaur. Britain is a country where judge-led inquiries are hosted by Californian start-ups, and a Japanese conglomerate runs tills in semi-rural Wales.

Kelly told me how he lost his health, his £145,000 house, and £982,800 of salary – his earnings had he worked until retirement. He lost his dream of starting a family, and his reputation: he and his wife had to move as “people were saying we stole from the pensioners”. He also lost his faith in British fair play. “I don’t trust institutions now,” he told me. “I won’t put my name on anything. I don’t claim disability benefits even though I could. And I used to be optimistic about politics; I was never someone who thought, ‘They’re all the same.’ I thought if you voted, say, Labour, you’d get a different outcome. Now I’d just vote for the Loony Party.”

Mark Kelly isn’t alone. A quiet murmur is rumbling across the country, muttered at car radios on the drive to work, sighed to neighbours across potholed streets, and tutted at GP surgeries. Angry beads of sweat are gathering on the nation’s stiff upper lip.

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“The British public has a sixth sense for things that are going wrong; they can smell this rising risk of corruption a mile away,” said Liam Byrne, the Labour MP who, as the Business Select Committee chair, is leading the official inquisition of Post Office and Fujitsu bosses.

When Gwyneth Hughes began writing ITV’s hit drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, she didn’t “see it as a state-of-the-nation piece. I just thought it was a really sad and interesting and terrible story about this group of lovely British people who I really like,” she told the BBC. “As three years have passed, it’s become more and more obvious that we’re actually writing a microcosm of Britain… We just don’t feel like our government and institutions are working for us any more.”

Other major miscarriages of justice tell a similar story. Jason Evans, 34, from Coventry, who lost his father to Aids in the infected blood scandal, is struck after a decade of fighting for compensation by “how much power the state has – ministers come and go, and the government changes, but the advice from civil servants who have been there for years never changes. That really gets to the heart of the problem.”

That is why injustice drags on: it’s often “those who made the decisions in the first place charged with righting the wrongs”, according to a Whitehall source familiar with such processes – a distant bureaucracy incentivised to save both money and face. The Post Office was prosecuting Horizon cases as recently as 2015. As late as last summer, three Grenfell families remained in temporary accommodation, waiting to be rehoused by Kensington and Chelsea Council after the 2017 fire. Members of the Windrush generation who were stripped of their jobs, detained and deported, still can’t access the Home Office compensation scheme after six years. “Politics has no respect for us – no matter what we vote, our voice is ignored,” said Janet McKay, a 63-year-old children’s worker in Edmonton, north London, whose husband lost his job as a painter-decorator during the Windrush scandal. “What they did to the Post Office workers is disgusting – they’ll take it up now and then forget about it two weeks later, like they did to us.”

Suspect Covid contracts, the hypocrisy of partygate and poor conduct in public office under recent Conservative governments are compounding this sense, but it’s not party-political. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has identified public “apathy” as its biggest hurdle. “The British public is still rightly obsessed with fairness,” as a member of his top team said.

But any politician promising greater respect for people, as Starmer does, risks simply running the same machine – stuck in its centralised-globalised muddle of shoddy outsourcing, false economies and groupthink. “There is no desire to be accountable, or really learn and work to change the culture,” said a government insider who has worked on compensation schemes. “Why does justice take so long? I can’t help feeling they’re just waiting for people to die.”

[See also: A very British scandal]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge