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11 January 2024

The Post Office scandal is infecting all parties

The blame for what happened lies with the whole political establishment.

By Freddie Hayward

When Rishi Sunak was asked about the Post Office scandal by an audience on Monday, he expressed sympathy with the victims, horror at the injustice and a desire to put things right. But that was it. Which left some of his MPs befuddled. Here was an obvious opportunity to put distance between him and an apparently corrupt establishment, side with the nation and speak about something other than inflation. And yet, he let that opportunity pass.

Until yesterday, when the government announced legislation that would exonerate those convicted with faulty evidence and provide them with £600,000 of compensation. Alan Bates, the man who led the campaign, told the Times: “It’s about time, this was the decent thing to do. We’ve got the whole country behind us now.” The papers have hailed the move. “Justice!” proclaims the Daily Express. “Deliverance,” said the Times.

But problems persist. Several senior lawyers have written to the Times to warn that a mass exoneration brought by an act of parliament would threaten judicial due process. One rejoinder to this argument is that parliament is the highest court in the land and that the separation of powers is a myth of the British constitution. Bates has also expressed concern to the Mirror that the £75,000 offered to those without convictions is insufficient.

While progress may have been belatedly made, the scandal indicts all political parties. Seventeen ministers have been responsible for the Post Office since Horizon went online in 1999, according to the Financial Times, including Labour’s Pat McFadden and Stephen Timms. Some postmasters were taken to court while Keir Starmer led the Crown Prosecution Service (he says he wasn’t aware of the cases).

Paul Scully wrote to a select committee in 2020, when he was a Tory minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to say that the “preliminary conclusion of [the Swift Review that was commissioned by the Post Office]… finds no systematic problem with the Horizon system”. This week he told the FT that “all three political parties had a role to play”. It took an ITV series to bring about enough public outrage for the government to expedite the compensation process for victims. Blame, therefore, lies with the political establishment.

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This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: “The next Post Office scandal”: How HMRC persecutes the victims of fraud]

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