Post facto

January 14, 2024

The post office scandal illustrates how Tory Britain really works

Post facto

Dear All,


ver two decades, more than 3,000 Post Office operators in the UK were accused by the Post Office of fraud and embezzlement. Hundreds of these postmasters ended up with criminal records and punishments, including imprisonment. Lives were destroyed, families ruined, the stress caused ill health and was linked to at least four suicides. All along, the accused postmasters protested their innocence, saying they had not embezzled any money. Even though they repeatedly raised concerns about the new software system the Post Office had introduced, the Post Office refused to accept this and continued to hound these postmasters. The computer system the Post Office introduced was actually faulty; it had been acquired despite concerns about various glitches in it.

A new TV drama (on ITV), retelling the story of this miscarriage of justice, has served to focus public attention on this sad saga of injustice and persecution. Many of the accused have been able to clear their name and have been promised compensation. For some families, this has come too late; individuals have died or been ruined, lost their reputations, livelihoods, families, houses, etc. But the public outrage about how these people were treated has led to renewed calls for justice and accountability.

The crux of the story is that the problem was caused by a system called Horizon bought and installed by the Post Office. This electronic till system replaced the old paper-based system, but the technology was faulty and the Post Office installed it despite all the bugs identified during its trial phase. The system would freeze often and create accounting discrepancies. Despite these problems, the Post Office bought the system from Fujitsu. It then spent years insisting that the system was fine and prosecuting post office operators, in some cases even forcing them to ‘repay’ the ‘missing’ amount.’

The managers who made these decisions thrived, received bonuses and built up their CVs while they destroyed the lives of ordinary, hard-working employees. In the light of recent revelations, one minister has termed the Post Office’s actions ‘malevolent.’ Post Office executives and tech/ Fujitsu executives covered for each other. Now it is likely that they will be investigated and possibly charged with perjury. This whole story reflects the state and structure of Tory Britain: privileged managerial staff make questionable decisions to enter into multi-million-pound contracts with large companies where they possibly have good contacts; people at the top thrive, prosper and make money; people at the bottom suffer, are demonised and prosecuted and must bear the brunt of the mess made by those ‘in charge.’

Post facto

Luckily for the victims of the Post Office scandal victims, the court found in favour of some of them. Despite this, the Post Office fought back aggressively, losing on appeals. It is this intransigence and obduracy on the part of the group that has been so shocking; they have been entirely unmindful of the terrible human cost extracted by this fight, in some cases, the consequences have been truly heart-breaking. And even though some of the victims will receive some form of justice now, many have died after having spent their last years disgraced, impoverished and broken.

At least the focus is now on bringing these executives to account. Paula Vennells was chief executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, during which time the organisation denied there were any problems with the Horizon system. During her tenure, she collected more than £4.5 million in pay and more than £2 million in performance-related bonuses. She was also awarded a CBE for “services to the Post Office.” Recently, more than a million people in Britain signed a petition demanding that Vennels be stripped of this honour, and last week, she said she would be returning the CBE.

Now that the public pressure is on, the prime minister has also announced a plan to pass a law quashing wrongful convictions. But, as the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied – and for many families and victims, the clearing of their names cannot erase the pain of two decades.

To some extent, the Post Office scandal also illustrates the failure of mainstream media journalism. The only publication that stuck to the story – investigating, understanding and reporting it was the magazine Private Eye. ITV’s drama (Mr Bates vs the Post Office) has bought the story to a wider audience, illustrating the impact of good storytelling. The story has struck a chord with the public. In the postmasters, the public see themselves: trodden on, maligned and punished by a ruling class which is raking in the big bucks, concerned only with themselves and their cronies, disdainful of underlings, integrity or truth.

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

Post facto