The Post Office scandal: what actually happened?
The Court of Appeal has exonerated some of the huge numbers of wrongfully convicted sub-postmasters and mistresses in Britain
It is “one of the greatest injustices in British legal history”, said The Daily Telegraph: the wrongful convictions of huge numbers of British sub-postmasters and mistresses. This “technological horror story” began when the Post Office installed Fujitsu’s Horizon accounting system in its branches in 1999. The software was “riddled” with bugs, which led it falsely to report shortfalls running into thousands of pounds. Under suspicion, some desperate postmasters tried to compensate for the system’s mistakes using their own money. But the Post Office ignored evidence of IT errors and mounted prosecutions against countless innocent people. Between 2000 and 2014, it prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters: one a week, on average. They were people such as Seema Misra, who was pregnant with her second child when she was convicted and imprisoned, said Ben Quinn in The Guardian. Or Vijay Parekh, charged with stealing around £78,000, who spent six months in jail “crying every day”. Last week, 39 of them finally had their names cleared in the Court of Appeal; but what they went through remains “all too raw”.
The source of all of this was a “stupid” programming mistake, said Tim Worstall on CapX. If the internet connection dropped out when a transaction was being sent to the central Post Office system, and a postmaster re-sent it, Horizon would log it as a new transaction – so would often over-calculate the amount of money collected. But the Post Office’s behaviour in the following decades was a far greater offence. As the judges’ ruling made clear, senior staff “knew there were serious failings” with Horizon, even as they hounded sub-postmasters, said Sabah Meddings in The Sunday Times. MPs and journalists had raised concerns about the system for years. One wrongly accused postmaster, Martin Griffiths, took his own life in 2013. Yet still the organisation “dug in”, dragging “blameless people” through “a lengthy legal fight”. Three died before they could be vindicated. And this affair is far from over: many more cases are still to come. The damage to individual lives is on such a scale that taxpayers may eventually have to pay out more than £350m in compensation.
The scandal is all the more disturbing because no one has yet been held responsible, said Ruth Sunderland in the Daily Mail. An official inquiry is under way, but it will be meaningless unless the “key players” are properly brought to account. Most prominent is the ex-chief executive Paula Vennells, an Anglican priest who earned £4.9m and a CBE during her time in the top job, between 2012 and 2019. She’s not “in the dock” alone: Tim Parker, the current chairman, backed her policy of aggressive prosecutions. As a result, sub-postmasters – valued members of their local community – endured “unbearable pain”, including breakdowns, bankruptcy, public shame and worse. The Post Office, once “one of our most trusted institutions”, turned “hundreds of hitherto unremarkable lives” into “Kafka-esque nightmares”. Those responsible must be held to account.