When the Post Office scandal turned from private tragedy to public outrage, courtesy of ITV, many people were shocked at what it seemed to say about the type of people in the higher reaches of the Post Office. Outrage quickly focused on two individuals – Paula Vennells, the Post Office CEO who lied to parliament, and Ed Davey, the current Lib Dem leader, who had been the Minister with responsibility for the Post Office during the ConLib coalition government. Davey chose to believe the lying Post Office rather than the truth-telling sub-postmasters.
Justice was seen to be done when, following a massive petition, Vennells was forced to hand back her CBE and the government, in a blatant act of damage limitation, rushed through legislation allowing wrongly accused and convicted sub-postmasters to be compensated for the money the Post Office had ‘stolen’ from them. It remains to be seen whether the government will make good on its pledges to quash all the convictions and provide adequate financial compensation for all the surviving sub-postmasters. And what about the families of those who are dead? Their lives were ripped apart by this scandal as well.
At the same time other names were pulled into the scandal, as the BBC revealed that Post Office lawyers had made threats and lied to them to suppress information as part of a 2015 Panorama investigation. Vince Cable, who, as President of the Board of Trade, was Ed Davies’ boss at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, has so far escaped censure, as has Keir Starmer, who was Director of Public Prosecutions at the time. Although these were private prosecutions carried out by the Post Office using powers granted to it by the government, the Crown Prosecution Service, of which Starmer was head, has the power to take over and even quash private prosecutions if it has reason to believe this is in the public interest. If hundreds of sub-postmasters with years of unblemished service are suddenly the victims of private prosecutions by the Post Office on charges of theft and false accounting, how is that not in the public interest?
Going further back, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, who preceded Vince Cable as President of the Board of Trade, were shown to have received a warning that the Horizon system at the centre of the scandal was not fit for purpose but had commissioned it anyway. This came after a different IT system called Capture had been tried and failed in the 1990s, but not before other sub-postmasters had been prosecuted in cases with striking similarities to the Horizon scandal. They are coming forward now in what promises to be a fresh scandal that happened under New Labour. Will we have to wait for a new TV drama series before there are calls for Lord Mandelson’s honour to be rescinded?
For many people this is a story of how ‘little folk’ were thrown to the wolves by big business. But it is much more than that. This story is horrendous because the innocent victims were ordinary people, 236 of whom were sent to prison. A few of them fought against the system, but it is fair to say the sub-postmasters were not revolutionaries. Most of them quite probably were what we tend to describe as middle class. Not only would they not be on picket lines, a fair proportion of them would have had little sympathy for those who were. Many would have been socially conservative. They were people who had played by the rules, who believed that if they told the truth justice would be done. Hence their shock when they found out that, when the rules could be so easily changed, truth was not enough. Their courage and tenacity has revealed that this story is not just about Fujitsu lying to protect its brand, or senior management in the post office being too quick to condemn their own workers, or even politicians who seemed incapable of carrying out due diligence.
This story is, in microcosm, a parable of our times. It tells the story of a system that is rotten to its core. A system so corrupted that everybody who touches it becomes corrupted (and that includes all of us). Capitalism now embraces the entire global system of trade, and it is impossible to avoid its clutches. The sub-postmasters were unlucky enough to become its victims in the most dramatic of fashions, but lucky enough (in the case of those who survived long enough) to be cleared by the court of public opinion, thanks to the power of television.
Whilst the sub-postmasters suffered in a particularly heinous manner, the fact is that the circumstances that led to this grave miscarriage of justice are known to many of us. Who has not had the experience of using software that fails to do what it is designed for? And who has not talked to a helpline in which, often unsaid, the assumption is that you must be the problem rather than the poorly designed software? For most of us these software issues are mere inconveniences. In the case of Horizon, they were life-changing for the victims who were lied to and told they were the only one having trouble. Isn’t this a common tech response when we seek help: you are the only one?
In this case the deliberate attempt to isolate each person ringing the helpline was a calculated policy of ensuring that nobody should realise what is now obvious. Fujitsu had sold the Post Office software that was full of bugs.
The massive investment involved had to be defended. It was carried out under the guise of ‘modernisation’. There are plenty of candidates for the most inane and meaningless management phrases, but ‘modernisation’ must surely rank as one of most vacuous. The drive to replace human labour with so-called artificial intelligence has little to do with ‘modernisation’ and everything to do with extracting the last ounce of profit out of every situation, including the provision of vital public services, from postal services to education to health.
Conservative politicians have long looked with envy at our once efficient public services and seen not a vital service but an opportunity for a small number of people to extract dividends. And while Thatcher may have put privatisation on steroids, the groundwork was done by the Labour government of Jim Callaghan and, shamefully, taken up with gusto by Blair in 1997.
Thatcher and Blair both understood that in a globalised economy anything that interfered with the flow of profits had to be removed. In this case it meant that unions had to be shackled. Thatcher took on and beat the printers and the miners, and those defeats paved the way for a raft of anti-union legislation, not one piece of which was repealed during 15 years of Labour government. The party that had been formed by the unions was instrumental in neutering them.
Why is that important for the Horizon scandal? Unions do more than negotiate pay increases; they scrutinise the workplace on behalf of their members. In many ways the National Federation of Sub-postmasters is typical of the modern union. Far more interested in self-preservation than fighting for their members, the Federation abandoned their members at the first sign of trouble. A union rep who was invited to Fujitsu to assuage his fears became one of the victims in the ITV series. Fujitsu was duplicitous, but the union must have known that more than one member had contacted them. How could they fail to realise that their individual members were being targeted as criminals to cover up Fujitsu’s inability to provide software capable of doing the job they claimed it could?
In a world where the only thing that matters is the bottom line corporations work on the assumption that nobody can be trusted. The public sector is repeatedly told to be more like the private sector. But the private sector is where the fewest number of workers are unionised making it easy to pick off workers one at a time. Efficiency is not about providing an efficient service for the public but about maximising the dividends for shareholders. Of course, the Post Office was not privatised when Horizon was first introduced. Blair had wanted to privatise it but was persuaded that he could not break a manifesto pledge. Instead Mandelson was allowed to increase its commercial freedom. It was a costly fudge. The Treasury would lose part of its revenue stream without gaining any of the proceeds of a privatisation. Senior managers were recruited from the private sector to ensure maximum profitability. In the greater scheme of things sub-postmasters were becoming surplus to requirements.
The whole idea of subsidising village post offices had become anathema to the new disciples of efficiency. By 2015 plans were well-developed to close 2,500 post offices of precisely the type that were involved in the Horizon scandal. To be clear, the closure programme was some time after Horizon was introduced, but the way in which Post Office management treated these workers was indicated by their contempt for the service they provided. Because service is nothing. All that matters is profit.
And what of the law? Over nine hundred innocent women and men were convicted. Their defence was that the software provided by the Post Office was faulty. When they notified the Post Office, it ignored their claims and investigated them for theft, fraud and false accounting. Sub-postmasters were pillars of their communities. They believed in the law. As one of the sub-postmasters in the ITV drama said, “All I have to do is tell the truth”. But the law let them down. Partly it was because the judges and the magistrates involved did not understand the technology. They believed the statements of Post Office witnesses that the system could not be at fault, backed up by data files supplied by Horizon’s manufacturer, Fujitsu. Many of the sub-postmasters had little or no legal representation and came up against high-powered barristers hired by the Post Office to discredit their testimony. Hundreds were persuaded to plead guilty in order to avoid jail terms. Now we know that witness statements were tampered with, evidence that the Post Office knew about the faults in Horizon was withheld from the defence and prosecution witness are being investigated for perjury.
So much for the legal system when you are little people taking on a massive corporation with deep pockets and shallow morals. In just one case the Post Office spent over £320,000 on a civil court action to retrieve £26,000 in unexplained shortfalls from Lee Castleton, a sub postmaster in Bridlington, North Yorkshire.
Now there are calls for individuals in the post office to stand trial for their role in this gross miscarriage of justice. But Fujitsu seems to have escaped the wrath of the media and continues to obtain lucrative government contracts. Computer Weekly, which, along with Private Eye, has investigated this story for years, starting in 2008 reports: “Fujitsu has won nearly 200 contracts from the UK public sector with a combined value of £6.78bn – the Post Office Horizon contract remains its biggest, valued at nearly £2.4bn including a £36m extension to keep the IT system going until 2025.” The current CEO of Fujitsu Europe, Paul Patterson, is the first senior figure from the company to appear under oath. Testifying to the public enquiry, he condemned the behaviour of the Post Office in refusing to share knowledge of the bugs in his company’s system with the sub-postmasters during their trials. “But Fujitsu kept quiet about the errors too, and, whenever asked by Computer Weekly over the years since its exposé, Fujitsu refused to comment. About 900 former sub-postmasters and branch staff were prosecuted using Horizon data as evidence”.
The public enquiry grinds on. There are two police investigations in progress. The media are all over the story for now and MPs are making pious statements. Lest we forget, the sub-postmasters were not exonerated by a public enquiry, a campaigning journalist or an MP with a sense of justice. They were exonerated by the dogged determination of a couple of their members and the fact that they built a solidarity among their own community. Alan Bates and Jo Hamilton. In the place of a trade union they formed their own. They taught us a valuable lesson. It is only when workers come together and build communities, and only when they stop believing in the very system that is oppressing them that they can effectively challenge the status quo.
This scandal, like the tainted blood scandal that preceded it, like the corruption surrounding PPE procurement or the Grenfell disaster, is not just a one-off. They are caused by greed and by a corporate culture that always places profits before lives. That culture ensnares not just the corporate world but politicians, journalists, judiciary and the media. It is evidence of widespread and endemic corruption. Whilst prosecuting a few individuals will satisfy a public lust for vengeance it will not stop another scandal.
The answer is not just in reform of the system. We have tried that approach. The answer lies in root and branch changes through our political, social and economic systems. Stopping these scandals occurring cannot be achieved by a few prosecutions but only when we shift the fulcrum away from the assumption that the answer to everything is to turn to the private sector. In any decent society post, health, education, housing would not be considered a means for a minority to make fortunes but as essential public services. That will require a revolution. Not just in the way we organise society but in the way we think.
Only then will we see the possibility of justice, equality and fairness. The sub-postmasters have shone a light, albeit unwittingly, into the dark corners of the capitalist economy, we must not allow the emphasis on personalities to switch that light off again.