A very British Scandal

The Post Office did not quite get away with it. They almost did. You may think it could never happen to you – or to someone you love … you would be wrong. It happened to me

Mention the words Postmaster or PostMistress and what spring to mind is someone at the heart of their community, especially rural communities, providing essential services: selling stamps, sending parcels, issuing driving licenses, cashing giro cheques, paying out weekly pensions, and ensuring your photo will pass muster at the Passport Office, and that you haven’t accidentally spelled your own son’s name wrong on the form (cough).

Not many of us would hear the words subpostmaster and automatically think “master criminal, out to defraud the country and the tax-payer”. But that is exactly what executives at the Post Office thought for years.

One of the biggest miscarriages of justice of modern times is still ongoing. Hundreds of lives have been ruined. People have lost their livelihoods their homes, their families and, in the most extreme cases, their lives. And no-one has yet been found accountable.

I’m talking about how a business that is 100% owned by the government systematically hounded some of its employees – some to their deaths – because of problems with a computer system. A computer system that was forced upon the subpostmasters with little, if any, training, and that had bugs right from the get-go. Over the course of 14 years, between 2000 and 2014,  736 subpostmasters and postmistresses were prosecuted for theft, fraud and false accounting in their branches. Yet they had done nothing wrong. Nothing. Zip. Nada. Zero. It was all down to bugs and faults with the Horizon computer system, designed by Fujitsu.

There has, finally, been a lot written about this scandal, and it still being written as the part of the enquiry that deals with the system is ongoing. On many, many, many occasions, the Horizon system believed that there should be more money in the branch till at the end of the day than there actually was.

One of the things the enquiry heard yesterday was that a former Fujitsu engineer stated if they couldn’t find a fault with the system where there were such discrepancies  then it was recorded as ‘no fault found’, and that that was then used as a basis for prosecution. Prosecution of upstanding members of the community, of people who were having to use their own money to make up the differences, in the hope that it would all get sorted out. People who got into debt, borrowed money from family, from friends, to try and get the books to balance.

Yet any clinician, research scientist or GP knows that the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. Just because you can’t find a fault, doesn’t mean it’s not there. I can’t tell you how many times cars of mine have gone back to the garage because they can’t find whatever is wrong with it, yet it keeps going wrong.

When the same issues were being reported by hundreds of people using Horizon over the years, at no point did anyone in Post Office management think, hmm, maybe there’s a link with all these problems. Maybe the common link is the system. Instead, it was easier and more politically expedient to blame the subpostmasters and subpostmistresses, assuming theft and criminality.  The overwhelming attitude of the Post Office Executives, and those at Fujitsu – and yes, those in Government whose role it has been to oversee the Post Office, was ‘Not on my watch’. Push through and patch up and to hell with what happens to the little guy.

It is an utter scandal. One for which no heads have rolled.  Paula Vennells, CEO of the Post Office received a CBE for ‘services to the Post Office and to charity’, a year before the first group of subpostmasters were awarded compensation for their false prosecution.

The awarding of compensation is also part of this scandal. Dozens of the accused have died before they could recover compensation. Thus far those that have done have seen it all swallowed up in legal fees. Why? Partly because the Post Office tactics were to obfuscate, delay, decline to issue legally requested documentation, in order to string the court cases out, in the hope that the claimants would give up.

Praise has to go to Rebecca Thompson of Computer Weekly, Private Eye, BBC Panorama and journalist Nick Wallis for pushing the story from the beginning, as well as some of the victims themselves, such as Alan Bates of Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance,  and Seema Misra (quoted above). There’s a very, very good book on the subject, by Wallis, called The Great Post Office Scandal. It’s long, but well worth the effort, though, you may find yourselves, like me, alternatively crying, screaming in anger and throwing it across the room in frustration at the way those poor people were treated. And at the lies they were being constantly told – that they were the only people with discrepancies. That no-one else in the entire country had a problem with Horizon. Lies. Lies. Lies.

As Libby Purves in the Times on Monday  put it, this was a case of “people in good jobs not doing them properly and not being expected to answer for it. “, and that “the lordly Post Office preferred to believe an unlikely and snobbish idea: that hundreds of tradespeople, previously vetted, had suddenly at the arrival of the system decided to take to crime. Easier to trust Big Tech than small traders.”

The fabulous Marina Hyde of The Guardian  yesterday also pointed out that one of the reasons it has taken so long for this scandal to get to the top of the news agenda is that it’s simply not sexy enough. “The key stages of the Post Office scandal have had far less coverage and garnered far fewer social media clicks than various comments by, say, Jeremy Clarkson or Gary Lineker.”

As we near the Coronation weekend, a few days where the pomp and ceremony and celebration is designed to make us feel proud to be British, this scandal does the very opposite. The people who were responsible for this should be made to pay, whether that’s with money, with prison sentences and definitely with their stupid Honours (Fred Goodwin lost his Knighthood when Halifax went bust remember). Alas, I have a feeling that they won’t. And that makes me angry. Very angry. And not at all proud.


post office scandal


Update: This is worth a read from today’s proceedings (May 4) https://www.postofficescandal.uk/post/ecce-chambers/  The enquiry heard that one of the senior engineers at Fujitsu took one hour 16 minutes to go from picking up the investigation to concluding that there was no problem with the Horizon system, and that the issue lay with the subpostmaster, despite evidence to the contrary. I’ve got washing machine cycles that take more time and care than that.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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