Wednesday 10 January 2024

The Post Office Horizon Scandal - where to now?

(Picture from ITV)
Even if you are a new reader of the blog, and unaware of how I have been banging on about the Post Office Horizon Scandal over five years, it can't have escaped your notice over the past week as it has been and continues to be the lead story most days on television, radio and paper media. (It's been reported in far-flung corners of the world, even though they haven't yet seen the ITV drama). 


I first mentioned it in 2018 and wrote:

This has culminated in a legal case which has come to court this week.  …..  It's going to be a fascinating period for anybody interested in the postal network, and in justice. So far over £10 million has been spent on legal fees.  The result is impossible to predict, however much sympathy one has with the individuals concerned.

Little did we know.  

What's it all about?

For those readers who are new to it all, and have a lot of time to spare, there are two excellent blogs by Nick Wallis (permanent links in the column to the right) The Post Office On Trial and Post Office On Trial, part 2). 

If you don't have a lot of time to spare, Computer Weekly have doggedly reported all stages since 2009 - scroll right down and get the popcorn or a coffee.

And if you want to know more about the making of the programme, the actors and the characters they played, Radio Times has a good page here.  Most of the actors met the people they were playing - and most knew 'too little' about the scandal before getting involved.  Thus it came as much of a surprise to them as it did to many viewers, which may have enhanced their performances.

Why hadn't I heard of this before?

The story has been covered in a piecemeal way for over 15 years.  It has been covered in detail by Computer Weekly and Private Eye magazine, and occasionally BBC local radio, Welsh tv channel S4C, and BBC Panorama (TV), and Radio 4.  More recently there has been occasional coverage in most of the British newspapers, and there are numerous people writing about it on their blogs and social media. If you shun social media and haven't found the blogs, you wouldn't have found out.

Computer Weekly is a specialist industry magazine and rarely has a readership outside the industry.
Satirical magazine Private Eye “offers a unique blend of humour, social and political observations and investigative journalism” but does not appeal to everyone.  It is a long read, which is alright if you are a rail commuter, but finding time to read it all can be difficult! 

BBC Radio 4 is often an 'in the background' programme, although now that catch-up services are available it is easy to binge-listen to the omnibus episode (and more satisfying than 5 x 15 minute broadcasts).  But that only reaches a certain audience.

The audience for BBC's Panorama* (which first aired in 1953) no longer attracts the big audiences it did when there were pm;y three tv channels.  In 1985 it averaged 3.5 million viewers but it was subsequently shuffled around the schedules with no permanent slot. And if a special programme was commissioned, it might be 'bumped' by something more politically topical, which meant that advance publicity could be wasted.  

* The BBC have made the 2015 programme available on their website and he 2022 programme is here.

UPDATE: For UK listeners only, I suspect, TV Channel S4C has repeated the 2009 episode of Taro Nao which reported on the case of Noel Thomas. (Available for a month from 11 January.)
Registration required, as with all TV catch-ups; English subtitles available for those who need them.

In Mr Bates Vs the Post Office ITV scheduled four x 1 hour broadcasts over consecutive evenings at peak time (9 pm). The programme was heavily trailed in the two weeks before and over Christmas, on TV and on their catch-up service ITVX and website.  The trailers must have been viewed many times and they included a stellar cast well-known for their previous performances, rather than journalists.  If it had been all fiction they would still have had good viewing figures: that it all happened made it more compelling.  

Why haven't politicians acted before?

It can be argued that politicians have acted, but within the normal confines of government bureaucracy and the law.  

Whilst we know that some ministers had copies of Nick Wallis's book it is unlikely that the Prime Ministers and Justice Ministers have read it and the case histories, nor any more than reports of the court and court of appeal judgements. 

They are briefed by civil servants from the Business ministry (by whatever name it went under at the time), and of course they themselves had something to hide, as one of them sat on the Board of the Post Office!

Given that the department (and ultimately The Treasury) was the paymaster funding the Post Office's case against everything it could be argued that they could have stepped in at any time and stopped the madness.  But they didn't even step in and stop the awarding of bonuses to the present board for allegedly co-operating with the Inquiry such was the lack of governance and oversight.

Why haven't the convictions been overturned and compensation paid?

Some people are suggesting that an act of parliament should overturn the convictions – but that would set a precedent that would not be welcome in a parliamentary democracy.   The legislature should never interfere with judicial decisions.  

No, it needs a fast-track process to hear all the cases at the Court of Appeal in one go, or several batches, just as was done with the first batch of cases (Hamilton & others).  

The justice system operates along strict non-political lines.  Once the GLO judgement was made the way was open for the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CRC) to review cases.  Only the commission can send a case back to an appeals court. Applications can be made by anyone who believes they have been wrongly convicted or sentenced but the CCRC cannot be proactive: they have a long explanation on their blog on the Post Office cases.

Compensation is a very complex issue, and it is more than compensation.  (There's a brief outline in Wikipedia.)  The Post Office could have returned the money which postmasters were forced to pay - which should have been done at a very early stage, with interest.  

Although many postmasters were convicted and some jailed, some were acquitted. No blanket compensation figure or menu of amounts could cover these situations adequately.  

When you think hard about the consequences of the Post Office's shameful actions, the effects expand; loss of future earnings, loss of future pension, loss of property/investment - that's losses. Damages for malicious prosecution, wrongful imprisonment, loss of reputation, injury to health, extended to family including children who have suffered through the situation their parents were placed in.

What hasn't helped is that, as more cases come to light, and more evidence builds up against the Post Office, three different compensation schemes were set up over the last few years.  If those involved had known what is now known, a single scheme would have been set up in the first place.  If you're a victim, first work out which scheme(s) you are covered by. 

However it is resolved, interim payments should have been made to everybody by now, and that should not affect their ultimate compensation.

Why has no action been taken against the Post Office, Fujitsu, politicians, lawyers, etc?

The simple answer to this, in my view, is that you don't prosecute until you have all the evidence. 

The Metropolitan Police are investigating potential perjury by two Fujitsu employees following the original GLO court judgement. 
They are also investigating “potential fraud offences” arising from the prosecutions, for example “monies recovered from subpostmasters as a result of prosecutions or civil actions”.

They are waiting for the Statutory Inquiry to conclude.

With the Inquiry due to hear from Post Office investigators, Fujitsu prosecution support witnesses, and lawyers, I suspect more new evidence will be revealed - and that is just in Phase 4 of the Inquiry which covers action against Sub-postmasters and others: policy making, audits and investigations, civil and criminal proceedings, knowledge of and responsibility for failures in investigation and disclosure.

Phases 5 & 6 will cover Redress: access to justice, Second Sight, Complaint Review and Mediation Scheme, conduct of the group litigation, responding to the scandal and compensation schemes and  Governance: monitoring of Horizon, contractual arrangements, internal and external audit, technical competence, stakeholder engagement, oversight and whistleblowing.

There is a long way to go before Post Office Directors, including senior Civil Servants, come to face a grilling.


I hadn't intended to amend this post so quickly but breaking news makes it impossible to not mention - if I don't all the readers will!

Post Office victims to have convictions overturned


1 comment:

  1. "The Post Office Horizon Scandal - where to now?"

    In the case of Ms Vennells and other senior managers (before and whilst she was at the head of the corporation), the only acceptable answer must be: "Go to Jail. Move directly to jail. Do not pass 'Go!' Do not collect £200*"

    * or however many hundreds of thousands (or millions) she/they might be entitled to other than in strict observance of the binding terms of a former contract of employment (i.e. loss of entitlement to all bonuses and other discretionary payments made; where already paid, recovery should be sought).


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