Campaigners celebrate the overturning of 39 Post Office convictions by the Court of Appeal, April 2021

Delivering a monstrous injustice

It’s enough to make you go postal

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Between the years of 2000 and 2015, 738 sub-postmasters and mistresses were prosecuted by the Post Office for theft or fraud. They were for the most part respectable middle class citizens, many of whom had invested their life savings in a village shop with post office attached.

The explanation was simple: when the Post Office had decided to computerise their accounting system they contracted Fujitsu, a massive Bracknell-based Japanese tech corp, to initiate the change. The result was the Horizon IT system, with terminals installed in Post Offices throughout the country, all of them infected with deadly bugs which made them incapable of doing simple sums. Out of the blue, sub-postmasters would be informed by Horizon on their screens that they were thousands of pounds in the red. Not being familiar with computers, many of them accepted the findings and tried to repay the money from their own funds.

The misguided belief that computers do not make mistakes

Help was not something that the Post Office helpline could provide. In the eyes of Post Office officials, Horizon could do no wrong and dozens of sub- postmasters found themselves being sacked, charged, and, in many cases, sent to prison. The long compelling story of how they were eventually vindicated is told by Nick Wallis in this gripping and alarming book.

The Post Office’s incompetence and dishonesty are not the only things to be exposed. Just as worrying is the picture that Wallis presents of the judicial system which, time after time, convicted the innocent. The judges had only to look at the accused to see that they were not criminals, failing to grasp that there was — in no case — any evidence from bank statements or elsewhere that they had acquired large and unexpected windfalls of cash.

The Great Post Office Scandal Nick Wallace (Bath Publishing, £25)

In his book The Nicholas Cases, a miscellany of miscarriages, the late Bob Woffinden made clear that the conviction of the innocent is achieved often by the poor quality of the defence lawyers who fail to exploit the holes in the prosecution case.

Underlying the thinking of those concerned here — the Post Office management, the judges, the lawyers (on both sides) — was the misguided belief that computers do not make mistakes. If the computer said that £5,000 had been spirited away, then it had to be believed. In the end it was left to one of the few sub-postmasters with wide experience of computers to set the alarm bells ringing. A website for victims of Horizon was established, one or two MPs started asking questions and the Post Office belatedly realised that steps of some kind or another would have to be taken.

The Rev Paula Vennells. She was chief executive officer of the Post Office Limited from 2012 to 2019

By this time (2012) the Post Office had appointed a new chief with the aim of introducing some much-needed modernisation. The unlikely person to be entrusted with this task was Paula Vennells (right) who prior to joining the Post Office as Group National Director had worked for a number of “customer-facing companies” including Argos, L’Oreal and Dixons.

In addition to running the Post Office, Paula Vennells was a non-stipendiary Anglican vicar. Nothing I have read explains how she was able to combine these two roles, though perhaps her clerical role was just something for the weekends. Whatever the truth, Rev Paula was skilled, like many of those rocketed into top jobs, in talking the talk, allowing her faith to give her remarks a note of piety: “maybe it was something about giving back” she told the Daily Telegraph when asked why she had joined the Post Office, “people care desperately for the Post Office. Very often it’s the sub-postmaster or postmistress that notices that an elderly customer hasn’t turned up recently and finds out what’s happened to them.”

As for the authorities, we know what to expect

But who would there be to help when the sub-postmistress herself hadn’t turned up recently, because she had been taken away by the police? Rev Paula eventually approved a two-man team to investigate the Horizon operation. It was important she said, to discover the truth. But it soon became clear that the Post Office which, had good sense prevailed, would have admitted its failures and granted an amnesty to its victims, instead embarked on an extensive cover up. Horizon, it insisted, was “robust”, it had “integrity”. The result was a long drawn-out battle with the Post Office’s victims by now united in an organised army, eventually emerging victorious.

With the miscarriages of justice spread over a period of years and developments randomly reported in the media, it was essential for a book to be written drawing all the threads together. The journalist Nick Wallis, who played a leading role in exposing the scandal, has written such a book, the result of years of research often into complex matters such as computer technology. He gives a vivid and highly readable account of the affair, in particular the individual stories, often tragic, of Horizon’s victims.

Will it be read as it ought to be? Regrettably the media have never given enough attention to what has been happening under their noses. The Great Post Office Scandal must be one of the most disgraceful miscarriages of recent times, resulting in multiple bankruptcies, wrongful convictions and imprisonment, breakdowns and suicides. Yet it has none of the necessary ingredients to appeal to contemporary tastes — sex, racism, #MeToo. It could never compete with Harvey Weinstein or Ghislaine Maxwell.

As for the authorities, we know what to expect. When all the accounts are settled the committee of inquiry will report after a year or two that lessons will have to be learned. The system will be held responsible and it is highly unlikely that any individuals will be named and shamed let alone arrested and charged.

It is surely significant that, as she was about to resign from the Post Office and with the denouement in the High Court coming, the Rev Vennells was awarded the CBE “for services to the Post Office”. When asked by Wallis about the award, Paul Scully, the minister whose remit includes the Post Office in the current government, maintained that under her tenure “the Post Office’s financial outlook had substantially improved”. Nick Wallis estimates that the cost of compensation to the victims added to legal costs of contesting their claims is likely to amount to billions of pounds.

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