14 January 2024

Weekly briefing: Justice on the horizon?


For those living under a rock, this week’s news cycle has been dominated by the Post Office Horizon scandal – a story that has re-emerged in light of the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office. It follows Alan Bates (Toby Jones) in his Sisyphean struggle to take on powerful vested interests and edge closer to the exoneration that he and so many others deserved.

This scandal, like many others, has been years in the making. In 1999, the Post Office rolled out Horizon – a flashy new computer accounting system developed by a subsidiary of the Japanese technology company Fujitsu. It soon became clear that the software was faulty and that this was leading to serious accounting errors. In the years leading to 2015, 736 sub-postmasters and postmistresses (the good people who run our post offices) were prosecuted for false accounting, theft and a series of other charges. Some were subsequently imprisoned, and others took their own lives.

So who is to blame for this gross miscarriage of justice? Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells is going to return her CBE. But many are also pointing the finger at Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey. Davey was the Post Office minister from 2010 to 2012, during which time he did nothing to address the complaints of those who had been wrongly accused. His defence is that he was lied to by the Post Office puppeteers at the time, meaning that he couldn’t possibly have applied Occam’s razor. But this hasn’t cut it, and Davey is now inundated with calls for his resignation. There’s even a petition with 5,000 signatories demanding that his knighthood be revoked.

Although the politically minded love Schadenfreude more than most, in this case punishing an incompetent few will not deliver the requisite justice. As Henry Hill argued in these pages this week, while it is always tempting to find a Davey-sized dunce hat and be done with it, the causes of this scandal are deeply embedded in how poorly some parts of government are run.

First, the frequency of Cabinet reshuffles has meant that ministers remain in their posts for increasingly short periods of time. This has fostered an environment where politicians in charge of large departments (often riddled with intricate and entrenched problems) do not have the time or institutional knowledge to identify hazards before they emerge – and the same can be said of many of the civil servants. Consequently, they are forced to rely on outside parties, who may occasionally have an interest in concealing certain facts.

The other issue is the growing trend of abdicating political responsibility to unelected quangos, or in this case companies owned by the state but operating separately from it. As Henry highlights, this poses problems for democracy, as ‘vast parts of the machinery of state operate on official autopilot with minimal input for our elected representatives’.  

To add insult to injury, the Post Office appears to have used every trick in the book to minimise compensation payments. These crafty tactics include forcing elderly victims to endure unnecessarily complex legal procedures and ensuring postmasters don’t receive legal advice when they fill claim forms.

The scale of corruption this fiasco has uncovered is truly shocking, but shock alone will not compensate the victims. Of course we should scrutinise the individuals involved. But unless we address the structural factors that allowed this abomination to happen, then it is only a matter of time until a future TV drama exposes yet another national scandal.

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Joseph Dinnage is Deputy Editor of Capx.