Channel 7 will screen UK ITV’s drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office over two evenings on 14 and 21 February, the dramatised true story that finally broke the UK’s shocking post office scandal into the public consciousness, and has rocked British politics.
The cases constitute the most widespread miscarriage of justice in British legal history, spanning a period of over 20 years.
On 19 July 2023 Marina Hyde of The Guardian (UK) reported:
After 20 years, here’s why the Post Office scandal is special: the cover-up is happening in plain sight. People whose lives were destroyed deserve justice. And those responsible are contriving to make sure they don’t get it Pop your teeth-grinding guards in and gather round, because it’s time to talk about the Post Office scandal again.
It remains something of a downer that the most widespread injustice in British legal history doesn’t get the full-spectrum fever coverage that is lavished on more frivolous news – but then, the forces formerly known as The Man have always wanted this one covered up. Don’t worry if you’re only belatedly catching up.
The second-best time to start absolutely losing your mind that any of it was allowed to happen is right now, while the official inquiry is under way and precisely NO ONE has yet been held accountable for the ruin of hundreds of completely innocent lives, and the causing of deep suffering in thousands more. Box office-wise, despite its slow burn, the Post Office story has it all.
It’s a tale of total corporate psychopathy, a mad Kafka-esque nightmare in which totally innocent subpostmasters, the very backbone of villages and communities, were turned into criminals to cover up the fact that the Post Office’s Horizon computer system didn’t work properly.
Each was told by the Post Office that no one else had any problems with the system. Vast sums were effectively looted from them to make up accounting shortfalls, before they were prosecuted anyway. Distraught subpostmasters were imprisoned pregnant, or still in their teens, or on their young child’s birthday, or in their old age, or in high-security jails where they saw and suffered terrible things. At least 60 have died without seeing justice or compensation; at least four took their own lives.
Countless victims were driven into physical and mental problems from which they have never recovered. Post Office boss apologises for inquiry bonus payments Honestly, the full catalogue of stories would take more than a book to cover – I strongly recommend The Great Post Office Scandal by Nick Wallis – and every single individual case forces you to stop, catch your breath, and ask yourself: what the hell did I just read? And here’s the kicker: the scandal is still playing out right now. The cover-up is still under way right now. Right now, in London’s Aldwych House, Wyn Williams’s long-awaited and tirelessly fought-for inquiry is hearing evidence, except on the days it can’t, because the Post Office is continually failing to hand over evidence.
Right now, the weeks turn up completely eyepopping new revelations, like the discovery of a document proving that Post Office investigators were ordered to group suspected subpostmasters in racial categories such as “negroid types” and “dark-skinned European types”. This advice was still in use in 2011.
That document was also somehow not put before the inquiry, would you believe, along with tens of thousands of others the Post Office has been accused of serially withholding. Last week, on the very night before a crucial evidence session from an engineer for Fujitsu, the firm that designed and maintained the highly defective Horizon accounting software, the Post Office suddenly found a mere 4,767 relevant documents it had forgotten to mention. So, his evidence was not heard, and the inquiry again had to be halted.
Right now, even seasoned watchers of this epic saga are getting their heads round the recent revelation that today’s Post Office management actually ran a bonus scheme to reward executives for cooperating with the inquiry. To adapt that old Chris Rock routine about people who nobly take care of their own kids: you’re SUPPOSED to cooperate with the inquiry?! What do you want – a cookie?!
Right now, the inquiry is uncovering details like the fact the current Post Office chief executive Nick Read got a £455,000 bonus last year, a mere 3% of which he has now returned, judging that bit to be the part that related to giving a shit about his obligations to the inquiry (I paraphrase).
Fifty other senior Post Office executives also got inquiry-related bonuses. Bear in mind this is an organisation that said it needed up to £1bn from the taxpayer to fund the compensation and clean-up, otherwise it would be insolvent. (Oh, YOU’ll be insolvent now, is it?) And bear in mind this was at the same time as, say, the case of Francis Duff, an 81-year-old former subpostmaster who lost his house, business and marriage in the two-decade wait to be absolved and compensated.
He was finally awarded £340,000 last October – only for the Post Office to immediately swoop and tell him he would lose £332,000 of it to cover income tax and the bankruptcy their own erroneous actions had forced him into. He couldn’t afford to heat his home last winter.
Yesterday, the inquiry’s chair, Wyn Williams – who I’m developing a bit of a public servant crush on – appealed to the government to protect victims and expedite payments from the various compensation schemes. It’s kind of amazing that in addition to Sir Wyn’s mandated task of working out WTF happened, new events and revelations keep forcing him to work out WTF is still happening. Why is the Post Office continually failing to hand over documents to the inquiry? Why are the three patchwork compensation schemes such a mess, and taking so long? Why doesn’t the government minister responsible for the Post Office, Kevin Hollinrake, step in right now and grip this – unlike all his predecessors in the role who failed the subpostmasters so badly by simply accepting any old rubbish the Post Office told them? Post Office inquiry chair criticises Horizon compensation scheme.
Ultimately, of course, one of the biggest questions for many remains: where is Paula Vennells? Vennells was the chief executive for much of the period during which the postmasters were wrongly pursued (as well as an Anglican minister, in a somewhat eyebrowraising detail). Internal reports she commissioned repeatedly found the Post Office may have prosecuted completely innocent people and that the IT system was a mess.
Vennells saw to it that no one was told about these conclusions, from the subpostmasters to parliament. She eventually left the Post Office with a CBE and £5m richer, failing upwards into some Cabinet Office business role and chairmanship of an NHS trust.
Vennells has since gone to ground – but her giving evidence to the inquiry, when it finally comes, will be a momentous occasion. Whether it will lead to anything you’d call justice is another matter.
A chap I corresponded with not long ago thought the entire over-remunerated executive class covering the period in question should be chucked straight into prison and have to argue their way out; which is, in a way, what happened to so many of the poor people who were the lifeblood of their business.
But perhaps Post Office bosses past and present know that while such a nightmarish thing could happen to a subpostmaster – or on this evidence, perhaps even one day to you or me – it couldn’t really happen to them. Then again, the surest way to foster that kind of outcome is indifference – so let’s all resolve to stay very, very angry about this one.