Last week many of us were shocked to learn the full extent of the Post Office scandal, which is said to be the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.
In total, 39 sub-postmasters had convictions of theft, fraud and false accounting overturned by the Court of Appeal. They battled for 20 years to get their names cleared, having been put in the dock by their own employer.
How on earth did this nightmare become reality? It all started in 1999 when the Post Office introduced a £1 billion IT system titled Horizon, created by Fujitsu, to manage tasks including transactions, accounting and stocktaking.
From the offset, the system had bugs in it – indeed, that same year the Post Office board of directors noted that there were “[s]erious doubts over the reliability of the software” – leading to shortfalls in many thousands of pounds. Sub-postmasters reported the errors they’d seen and, as they became more noticeable, some of them tried to pay for the shortfalls with huge amounts of their own money.
However, instead of Post Office directors pausing the whole system, and admitting something was very, very wrong, they went on the offensive. Between 2000 and 2014, the Post Office prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters for the aforementioned decisions.
It’s hard to underestimate the amount of misery the Post Office inflicted because of its decision to press ahead. Some people spent months in prison (Seema Misra, one of the accused, went to jail while pregnant with her second child); marriages broke up; people’s mental health suffered, with one man taking his own life after £60,000 was “stolen”; and people were ostracised and unable to find work. They learnt that their pleas of innocence meant nothing.
How do you make up for that? The Post Office paid out £58 million to 550 postmasters in 2019, but no amount of money will ever be enough to repair what happened. It’s impossible to quantify the extent of the damage done to people’s lives.
Richard Brooks and Nick Wallis, two journalists from Private Eye, compiled one of the most extensive reports into each stage of the Post Office saga. It is a jaw-dropping read, which highlights a systematic cover up in the organisation from the top down.
While there were “obvious computer errors and glitches going back nearly 20 years and featuring a ‘bug table’ listing 23 serious software faults”, senior executives’ main focus appeared to have been getting the Post Office’s finances on track – and no inconvenient truth was going to get in the way of that.
The name that has been most singled out to blame is Paula Vennells, who was Chief Executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, and reportedly “preoccupied with the Post Office’s financial bottom line.” Even in 2014, she insisted to James Arbuthnot, then the MP for North East Hampshire, that “no fault in the system has been identified.”
Another name Private Eye puts in its “Post Office Hall of Shame” is Tim Parker, who became chairman of the Post Office in 2015 – with no evidence that he questioned the approach to the Horizon scandal.
Several politicians were condemned for their inaction, such as Ed Davey, Norman Lamb and Jo Swinson, who Private Eye said had “failed to properly examine the unfurling public scandal while holding the postal services brief”. Others come off much better (Andrew Bridgen, who called the Post Office’s mediation service a “sham” in 2014, and stood up for a long-suffering constituent).
What happens next? There are calls for Vennells to be stripped of her CBE (awarded in 2019 for services to the Post Office) and to repay bonuses of more than £2.2 million that she received during her seven-year tenure. There will be growing compensation cases, paid for by the taxpayer (as the Government owns 100 per cent of the shares in the company), a Government enquiry, and the Metropolitan Police has reportedly been looking into Fujtisu workers, regarding the evidence they gave in court.
People may have questions about the judicial system. It’s interesting to note that the judge presiding over Misra’s verdict gave a strong warning to the jury about the lack of evidence in her trial.
At the moment everyone will simply be quite gobsmacked that this has happened (what else is going on out there that we don’t know about? You have to wonder). Clearly it will take years to thrash out this absolutely tragic case, which is less about technological fault – more about human greed and arrogance. ConservativeHome can only extend its wholehearted sympathy to the victims, and say that this must never, ever happen again.