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James Kierstead: The Sub-Postmasters’ Tale

James Kierstead,
Publish Date
Wed, 21 Feb 2024, 5:00am
Photo / Getty
Photo / Getty

James Kierstead: The Sub-Postmasters’ Tale

James Kierstead,
Publish Date
Wed, 21 Feb 2024, 5:00am

When visiting family in England as the new year got off to a chilly start, one story dominated the headlines. A news story that, curiously enough, was prompted by a drama series that we had watched on the telly only a few days before. 

Mr Bates vs The Post Office tells the story of a sub-postmaster in Llandudno, North Wales, who notices an apparent shortfall in his accounts in the clunky new IT system. Unbeknownst to him, other sub-postmasters – managers of small mainly rural post offices – are having the same problem.  

And there’s no quick fix. When one woman tries what the official helpline recommends, the amount of money owed – and for which she, as sub-postmistress, is ultimately liable – doubles before her eyes. Other sub-postmasters are prosecuted, and in some cases convicted, of fraud and theft.  

The rest of the series tells a David versus Goliath story as 555 sub-postmasters led by Bates take on the might of the Post Office, eventually culminating in a finding in their favour in High Court. 

Perhaps the most astounding thing about Mr Bates vs The Post Office is that it’s a true story. Between 1999 and 2015, almost 1000 sub-postmasters were convicted by British courts for shortfalls caused by Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon accounting software.  

Forced to make up for the shortfalls or pay exorbitant legal costs, many of the sub-postmasters went bankrupt, or were forced to re-mortgage their homes. Some received criminal convictions and spent time in prison, including one pregnant woman. One sub-postmaster was sectioned after his mental health spiralled out of control. Four committed suicide.  

The cause of the Justice for Sub-Postmasters Alliance (the group Bates set up) did receive coverage in the press. In 2009, Computer Weekly ran a story about Horizon’s glitches, and from 2011 Private Eye covered the story in a series of articles. In 2020, former BBC journalist Nick Wallis presented an award-winning Radio 4 series about the scandal, and the following year he published a book, The Great Post Office Scandal. 

It would be fair to say, though, that the plight of the sub-postmasters was never a national concern. That all changed with the airing of Mr Bates vs The Post Office 

By January 10, less than a week after the final episode, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the Post Office scandal “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation's history” and announced that new legislation would be introduced to clear and compensate convicted sub-postmasters en masse – a highly unusual proceeding. 

So why did the sub-postmasters’ tale touch such a national nerve? One reason was the questions it raises about over-reliance on technology, especially in our new age of AI. Fujitsu’s Horizon software was not AI (to put it mildly), but Post Office bosses should have been quicker to realise and admit there were problems with their accounting programme – especially after hundreds of bugs were reported as soon as the system was trialled. 

That sub-postmasters who reported shortfalls were punished (often severely) rather than listened to also raises questions about the structure of incentives within the Post Office bureaucracy. The Post Office rewarded staff with bonuses if they recovered money that Horizon told them had been lost in shortfalls, but there were no rewards for identifying problems caused by the system. Once Post Office executives had decided to back their new software, the assumption that it could effectively do no wrong was locked into the way that the Post Office worked as an organisation – with disastrous results. 

It seems that executives, including chief executive Paula Vennells, also took a narrow and ultimately disastrous view of what would protect the Post Office brand, long refusing to address the problems with Horizon because they thought that this would undermine the Post Office’s reputation for reliability and efficiency. In the end, of course, the injustices that this caused for the Post Office’s employees has done far more serious damage to the brand than any airing of the teething troubles of new accounting software could ever have done. 

Above all, though, the Post Office scandal struck a chord because it speaks to the difficulty that ordinary people now face in dealing with enormous and over-weening bureaucracies with apparently bottomless pockets.  

Even when, after years of tireless effort on the part of the Justice for Sub-Postmasters Alliance, the Post Office agreed to pay £58 million in an out-of-court settlement, the 555 sub-postmasters only received about £20,000 each, having been forced to spend about £47m collectively in legal costs. 

The Post Office scandal has led to considerable soul-searching in the UK. But injustices stemming from the same nexus of blind faith in IT and over-mighty state enterprises aren’t unknown closer to home.  

In 2020, the Australian government announced it would be compensating almost 500,000 people after its “Robodebt” programme was found to have been issuing faulty debt notices to welfare recipients from 2016 on.  

So far, no computer-generated bureaucratic catastrophe on the scale of the Post Office scandal, or even Robodebt, has surfaced in this country. With ever-more complex IT systems being rolled out across government, though, and bureaucratic bloat burgeoning in public organisations from universities to government ministries, we would be unwise to think that such injustices couldn’t happen here.  

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