The hounding of the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, as told by ITV’s Horizon scandal docudrama, Mr. Bates v the Post Office, may not be ‘one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in British legal history’. We cannot tell. There are no appropriate league tables. As an example, however, of petty cruelty, fraud, and incompetence at an official level, it would be hard to equal.
Between 1999 and 2015, more than 700 sub-postmasters were falsely accused of stealing large sums of money from the Post Office and ordered to repay. Some went to prison or admitted liability for the sake of lesser sentences. Some, to escape prosecution, paid the demands with their life savings. Many sank into despair and a few took their own lives.
The source of the trouble was a computer system, Horizon, owned by the Japanese company, Fujitsu, and made under license by the British IT company, ICL. It was installed in 1999 to bring together the accounts of thousands of post offices into one integrated system; but it was not foolproof. It was possible to tamper with the figures. Errors were recorded shortly after its installation, although they were persistently denied by the Post Office.
Horizon scandal: underlying lessons to learn
After 20 years of campaigning, led by a heroic sub-postmaster from Llandudno, Alan Bates, there has now been some redress. The Post Office was forced to admit its misdeeds. Some compensation has been offered, although not enough. After a social media campaign garnered a million signatures, its chief executive officer from 2012 to 2019, Paula Vennells, has given up her CBE and promised to tell all to a public inquiry.
The government has rushed through a bill to exonerate the guiltless post office operators and override the rulings of the courts, thus setting another risky precedent. The TV drama has touched the conscience of the nation, but was the underlying lesson learned?
It would be easy to pretend that this shoddy affair was somebody’s fault, or even whole companies, like Fujitsu, who could be sacked and replaced. Lies were told, crimes committed, but perhaps the source lies not with some single entity, but in the political muddle of post-industrial, neoliberal Britain.
Vennells was trapped in the transitional process whereby a well-loved and respected national institution was transformed into a hi-tech private delivery firm for the internet age. It took a long time. It began in 1969, when a government department, run by the postmaster general, was replaced by a statutory company, the General Post Office (GPO), with similar powers but a semi-independent status.
It could not be sold into private hands. This would have been politically unpopular, and impractical too, for, with its monopolistic powers, it retained the statutory commitment to provide its services for the country, of which the daily postal delivery was only one.
The Post Office: deeply woven into the nation’s fabric
The Royal Mail has a long history. It began as a way of keeping the monarch, Henry VIII, in touch with his kingdom. It served its time as a government messenger service, until, in the 1840s, its role was transformed by the invention of the penny post. Any citizen could use its services. It became a tool for greater democracy.
The Post Office was the nerve centre of Victorian prosperity, linking its senses with its administrative brain. Red pillar boxes sprang up across the realm. Its first telegraphic services began in 1870. It launched the first national telephone system in 1912. It offered the first airmail services for the commonwealth and empire in 1927. It issued the first licenses for the British Broadcasting Corporation. It encouraged and helped to sponsor new technologies.
The GPO could not have achieved these successes without a further factor, its reliability. During the 1930s, sub-post-offices handed out the new old age pensions as well as stamps. It was the human face of government. After the war, it retained this community trust. Our postman was a neighbourhood friend. When my grandmother suffered a stroke, he called the ambulance.
Privatisation and rushed modernisation
During the 1970s, it fell into the ideological battleground between those who wanted more nationalisation and those who wanted less. The response of those who placed their faith in the free market was to break up the company into manageable sizes, and sell them off, as the former prime minister, Harold Macmillan, once remarked, like the ‘family silver’.
The ethos of a company intended to provide a national service and one which seeks a bankable profit for its shareholders is quite different. The mixed economy requires skills other than those of capitalism or socialism, as John Maynard Keynes convincingly argued. National services should provide the framework within which private companies should thrive. They should not threaten each other or get in the way of economic advancement.
In 1980, British Telecom (BT) gained its independence from the GPO and launched on the stock market. It was high on the list of publicly owned companies to be privatised under Margaret Thatcher, but it came at a price which was not financial. A Home Office report, Cable by Choice (1982), had recommended that optical fibre should be installed, paving the way for a national broadband service. The government did not want to complicate the sale of BT with a commitment to offer a new cable network.
For a decade, the government dithered about broadband, allowing others to take the lead. internet companies grew from small to large, like mushrooms, overnight. Amazon, the online retail and delivery service, was first launched in 1994. A freshly privatised GPO would enter a world in which mail deliveries had become a boom industry.
The installation of Horizon in 1999 was part of a hasty attempt to modernise the GPO, prior to the separation of the Post Office from the Royal Mail in preparation to launch the latter as a private company. It could not be allowed to fail – or seem to fail. It was central to the wisdom of the time.
Mismanagement of change
The harassment of the post office operators took place over two decades in which the GPO was, lizard-like, shedding its old skin. There were continual administrative changes. In 2000, under Tony Blair, the Postal Services Act was passed, allowing the Postal Services Commission (PostComm), to monitor the Royal Mail.
In 2006, the Royal Mail lost its 350-year-old monopoly, opening the postal market to international competition. In 2007, it lost its status as a publicly owned company. In 2011, PostComm merged with the communications regulator, Ofcom, which supervised everything from the BBC to porn on the Web. In 2013, the Royal Mail was floated on the stock exchange. Our sympathy must go out to all the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses impacted by these appallingly managed and implemented changes. They should be fully compensated. But who will compensate the rest of the country, for the years of muddle and confusion, party squabbling, arrogance, and inertia, at the very heart of public administration?