As a miscarriage of justice, it is perhaps unrivalled in British history. Between 1999 and 2015, at least 3,500 sub-postmasters were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting by the Post Office. The fault lay with the defective Horizon IT system, which incorrectly suggested that there were financial shortfalls where none existed.
Trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare, workers protested their innocence, but this did not stop them being trampled upon. More than 700 sub-postmasters received criminal convictions and 236 were imprisoned. Others were forced to pay back tens of thousands of pounds and suffered financial ruin. Family homes were lost and marriages destroyed. At least four victims are thought to have taken their lives as a consequence.
For years, this story has played out in the background of British public life. In 2019, a group of campaigners led by Alan Bates – the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance – won a major legal victory when the High Court found that the Fujitsu-developed Horizon system contained “bugs, errors and defects”, and that there was a “material risk” that financial shortfalls in branches were caused by it. Dozens of Post Office workers subsequently had their convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal in 2021. A police investigation and an independent public inquiry into the scandal were also launched during this period.
But it has taken a TV show – Mr Bates vs The Post Office – to give the affair the political prominence it deserves. The four-part series, which was broadcast on ITV at the start of this year, is testimony to the power of drama. As Anna Leszkiewicz writes in her review on page 50, it gives a human face to a labyrinthine and opaque story.
The long denial of justice to postmasters is now a matter of national outrage. By the end of 2023, only 93 convictions had been overturned and just 27 former Post Office staff had agreed “full and final” settlements. Last month, the Post Office halved the amount set aside for compensation (from £487m to £244m) after fewer branch managers than expected won or brought appeals.
Sympathy for those whose lives were ruined – dozens died before they were able to secure justice – has been combined with anger at those responsible. The former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells, who led the organisation as postmasters were hounded, has rightly returned the CBE that she was awarded in 2019 for “services to the Post Office and to charity”. Such an honour exemplifies a system in which mismanagement is all too often rewarded rather than punished.
Government ministers, both past and present, are also under renewed scrutiny. Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, who served as postal affairs minister between 2010 and 2012, has been singled out for neglecting the victims of the scandal. But the sudden focus on Mr Davey owes as much to the electoral threat his party poses to the Conservatives as it does to his role in the story. As Mr Bates himself remarked in an interview with Newsnight: “I’m not picking on Ed Davey – I think you would find that with most of the ministers that have been in post… they were briefed by officials.”
Beyond Whitehall, Fujitsu, the Japanese-owned multinational, has yet to contribute a penny of compensation. Two of its former employees are under police investigation in this country for alleged perjury and perverting the course of justice. But this has not prevented Fujitsu from winning nearly 200 public contracts worth around £6.7bn over the past decade. Once again, ministers must explain the enduring cult of rewarding failure.
The malaise that the Post Office scandal has exposed in British life is that of unaccountable power. Its executives obfuscated and denied errors despite being confronted by innumerable injustices. Institutions such as the Post Office and the Royal Mail – diminished by its botched privatisation – should exemplify the common good. All too often they become self-serving bureaucracies, with customers and workers bamboozled should they complain.
Yet this affair is also a reminder of the best of public life: crusading journalists and MPs (such as staff at Computer Weekly and the Conservative peer James Arbuthnot); gifted screenwriters and actors; and, most of all, tenacious campaigners such as Mr Bates who will not cease until justice is done.
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously