At the time of writing, 1,021,490 people have signed a petition to strip ex-Post Office boss, Paula Vennells, of her CBE, writes Mike Stanton. The petition had been going for nearly three years, but until last week only about 1,000 people had signed. Then ITV broadcast a four-part drama, Mr Bates versus the Post Office, which told the true story of how Horizon, a flawed computer system, caused accounting errors that were blamed on the postmasters in local post offices around the country. The Post Office refused to accept that the Fujitsu created system was faulty. Instead they went after the local postmasters. Over 700 were prosecuted for fraud, theft or false accounting. Two hundred and thirty six innocent people went to  prison and hundreds were sacked and driven into bankruptcy. Four were driven to suicide.

The drama tells the true story of Alan Bates, one of the postmasters who refused to be intimidated and led a campaign that eventually resulted in a successful court case which overturned what has been called, “the greatest miscarriage of justice in UK history” and forced the Post Office into agreeing a compensation package of £58 million. The scandal occurred under Paula Vennells’ leadership as CEO, and, while the court case was in progress, she was awarded her CBE in 2019, ‘for services to the post office’!

The drama was not just about Mr Bates versus Paula Vennells. Responsibility rightly lies with her, and she should be stripped of her CBE. But she did not act alone — a moribund police investigation into potential offences of perjury and perverting the course of justice in relation to investigations and prosecutions carried out by the Post Office has made little progress. Two people have been interviewed under caution, but nobody has been arrested since the investigation was launched in January 2020. Now ITV reports that Scotland Yard is “investigating potential fraud offences arising out of these prosecutions”, for example, “monies recovered from sub-postmasters as a result of prosecutions or civil actions”.

ITV is to be applauded for commissioning the drama series, which shocked and outraged millions of viewers, this writer included, even though I thought I knew the story. The most likely outcome is that the Government, in an election year, will try to draw a line under the scandal by speeding up the payment of compensation (some people have died without receiving a penny) and simplifying the process by which the wrongly convicted postmasters can have their convictions quashed.

It will try to ignore the wider issues. The corporate culture that allowed the Post Office to bully and destroy the lives of so many employees, while lying to them and obstructing independent investigations, was not an unfortunate exception. It is the rule. Paula Vennells did not just get a CBE; she moved effortlessly into a new role as chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. She also became a non-executive board member of the Cabinet Office. Vennells stepped down from both these roles in the fall-out from the court judgement in favour of the postmasters; but anyone carrying out due diligence prior to her appointment must have known about her involvement in the Post Office scandal and just let it ride.

Then there is Ed Davey, Lib Dem leader, who has recently made a speech about citizens feeling powerless in a system that “makes it impossible to hold those in power properly to account”. The last time the Lib Dems were in power was in coalition with the Tories, and Davey was minister for postal affairs. He ignored Alan Bates, choosing to believe the Post Office. Now he is playing the victim, claiming he was lied to by the Post Office. Yes he was. Yet he chose to believe them and dismissed Alan Bates as a liar.

So, while we at Creating Socialism fully support the petition to strip Vennells of her CBE, it should not detract from the more urgent need to strip Vennells, Davey and the rest of the ruling class from their power over the powerless. The Post Office succeeded against the postmasters for so long because they were isolated, each on the end of a phone line to their persecutors, who told them, “You are the only one. It is not the system at fault. It is you.” And they all believed this until they came together and shared their stories. Then they stayed together. They fought together and they won. We can learn from the postmasters: Solidarity in Struggle, not compromise with our oppressors — that is the way to win.


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