What does the Post Office Horizon IT scandal tell us about British Politics? The release of ITV drama ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ has thrust the Post Office scandal back into the public fray, and as political parties and senior Post Office figures scramble to outdo each other’s condemnation of the events, their efforts are overshadowed by their own records of negligence and complicity over the past 20 years in allowing such an injustice to occur.
The extent of this scandal, unearthed by both the decades-long campaign of victims and the ongoing public inquiry led by Sir Wyn Williams since 2021, exposes not only the sordid conduct of senior officials within the Post Office, but also structural deficiencies in the British economy, legal system, and the government’s approach to such a valuable public service. There are therefore three key lessons that should guide our understanding of the scandal to place it within a context of society-wide inequalities and the abuse of corporate power in public services.
The Post Office scandal
The scandal itself began in 1999 as the Post Office transitioned from handwritten ledgers to a new computer accounting system: Horizon. Across the next 15 years, recurring reports of discrepancies in accounting and mis-balanced ledgers resulted not in investigation of the software, but the suspension, contract termination, and often prosecution, of sub-postmasters assumed to be guilty of false accounting, fraud, or theft. As of January 2024, over 700 sub-postmasters have been found to have been wrongfully convicted of those charges from 1999-2015, and many of them await compensation and the overturning of their convictions. This is not, however, before hundreds of lives have been ruined from false imprisonments, loss of livelihoods, bankruptcy and so on, contributing to several suicides.
The eventual unearthing of the scandal was not a result of a successful criminal justice system uncovering the truth, nor a good-faith concession by the Post Office management, but rather the outcome of a decade long grassroots campaign organised by the victims themselves, most notably the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) founded in 2009 by Alan Bates (the titular figure of the ITV drama) and various other afflicted sub-postmasters. Now, following waves of legal battles, a public inquiry into the scandal, and the fresh publicity of an ITV drama, the government has pledged legislation to “exonerate and compensate victims” of the scandal.
Whilst we celebrate these successes, and grimace slightly as politicians jump on the bandwagon following years of neglect, there are three key lessons we must take away from these events. Lessons that give insight into the structural injustices sewn into the fabric of the British economy.
1. Government negligence toward public services
The negligence of several governments from both major parties over the last few decades, towards such a valuable public service, created the perfect material conditions for these errors to occur in the first place.
This involved an ever-increasing shift of the costs and responsibilities of running the network onto sub-postmasters themselves rather than state subsidy, leaving them much more vulnerable to the mistakes of the Horizon system.
Furthermore, a general lack of government oversight towards the operations of Post Office, reflecting a lack of interest, prevented due diligence checks with introduction of Horizon and delayed investigation of its known problems once in use. This is evidenced, for example, by the initial rollout of the Horizon system in 1999, when a Treasury briefing outlining a variety of concerns was largely disregarded by ministers, or later in 2004 by the then-minister for postal affairs, Stephen Timms (Labour), who responded to a letter from Bates with a dismissive claim that this was a Post Office issue, not a government one
Far beyond the conduct of a few ministers, government negligence of public services has long been a theme in British Politics, particularly since the neoliberal turn of Thatcherism. Whether that is the crisis in the NHS (exposed further by the Covid-19 pandemic), or the dire state of social housing which would make the Grenfell tragedy possible, any public services that have survived extensive waves of privatisation have become a fertile ground for such scandals due to a deadly combination of underfunding and lack of oversight.
2. Profit over people
The conduct of the Post Office management themselves throughout this scandal highlights not only the callousness of a few senior individuals, but most importantly the ways in which structural economic incentives under capitalism encourage cruel behaviour from corporations.
In the case of the Post Office, this involved the large scale cover-up of the Horizon system’s errors so the Post Office could avoid both the costs of overhauling the system, and the public relations hit of installing faulty IT. This cover-up ranged from the bullying and accusatory treatment of sub-postmasters, to concerted efforts to suppress investigations, such as the closure of an investigation in 2015, the day before it was due to release its report and an extensive pattern of lying to victims, politicians, and courts.
However, it’s crucial to consider that the Post Office management were not acting irrationally, but rather such cruelty was a rational effort to maximise profits and minimise losses from the failures of Horizon, characteristic of a much larger systemic problem within profit-oriented economies and the commercialisation of public services.
3. The importance of union representation
Whilst we commend the incredible work of Bates and JFSP in standing up to the Post Office and receiving vindication over ten years down the line, we must consider the lack of representative infrastructure for sub-postmasters that made the founding of JFSP necessary. In other words, where was the National Federation of Sub-postmasters (NFSP), the trade union (turned trade association as of 2016) supposedly set up to represent and defend the interests of its members?
Former-NFSP executive member Mark Baker provided a clear answer when he wrote of the close relationship between the NFSP and the Post Office management. Throughout the scandal, the NFSP consistently supported the Post Office and Horizon system, allegedly often refusing to defend sub-postmasters wrongfully accused of theft and fraud. The NFSP’s negligence in this case was held to scrutiny in the 2019 Bates vs Post Office High Court trial with the finding that the Post Office and NFSP had confidentiality signed a Grant Framework Agreement in 2015 which involved a clause not to bring the Post Office’s “name or reputation into disrepute”. This agreement would prompt the judge to argue “that the NFSP put its own members’ interests well below its own, and I also find that the NFSP is not fully independent.”
Should a proper trade union infrastructure have been in place to defend sub-postmasters from the start, with the resources to conduct an investigation and organise those afflicted, it is likely such a lengthy campaign would not have been necessary.
Highlighting deeper structural inequalities
As the Post Office scandal seemingly reaches its conclusion, from a decades-long campaign by the JFSA and a final push from the political publicity of an ITV drama, we are right to relish this moment of grassroots success against the intimidating foe of corporate power. However, we must not let the punishment of a few scapegoats quench our thirst for justice, and instead we must locate this case within the context of inequality, negligence, and corruption within British society and increasingly, our public services. The three lessons within this article thus aim to highlight key takeaways which should guide our understandings of this scandal, and those like it, so that we can turn our sights to the structural inequalities that will continue to reproduce injustices and tragedies.
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