We live in an age saturated with corporate scandals, public and private sector both, marked by greed, lies, callousness and cover up. But amongst them all, the Post Office scandal stands out.
It has lasted the best part of two decades and has destroyed the lives of many hundreds of innocent people. But what most distinguishes it is the ferocious, secretive and completely pointless cruelty of the Post Office towards its own people. It’s rightly been called the greatest miscarriage of justice in modern British history. I was wondering what it reminded me of: of course, it's Stalin's Great Terror, as recounted by Orlando Figes. Of course, these victims were not being tortured or executed, but there’s the same sense of loyal, innocent servants of the State being hounded by the State towards oblivion, for no reason whatsoever.
In brief: the Post Office introduced a new computerised accounting system, Horizon, around 2000, rolling it out without proper testing, and knowing it to be highly defective, operating it in a way that was both chaotic and secretive, and then when it generated false balances in sub Post Offices, hounding hapless and innocent sub postmasters by demanding they make good the difference from their own funds, then terminating their contracts, prosecuting them, sending many to prison and seizing everything they own, all the while denying that there were any problems with Horizon and - this was truly diabolical - telling each sub postmaster that nobody else had any problems with the system.
The Post Office was able to do this because they retained their own private prosecution system in house. For all other crimes the decision to prosecute and handling of prosecution had long been separated out from the police and given to the Crown Prosecution Service, and one sees from this story how necessary that separation is. The Post Office refused to give those accused access to the data that might have saved them and made use of an absurdly oppressive and unfair contract which few of them had seen in full, or if seen, understood.
As prosecutions mounted, and innocent sub postmasters and pace mistresses were driven into bankruptcy, mental illness, shame, imprisonment, ill health and in some cases suicide, the Post Office lied and lied and lied. It denied that they had retained the ability to change figures in individual sub Post Office accounts centrally, without telling the account holder. It denied there was any problem with Horizon, but in fact it was overwhelmed bad tsunami of errors and bugs. It deliberately suppressed all mention of independent reports which confirmed that there were serious problems. It deliberately failed to disclose material in its possession which was its duty to disclose in proceedings. The conduct of the Post office at senior and middle management levels was truly wicked.
Gradually and over many years a series of curious reporters, most of all Wallis, were drawn into investigating and eventually exposing and overturning these injustices. But one is not left with a sense of wrongs righted for two reasons. Too many people have had their lives shattered , their reputations destroyed, years spent in prison, savings and houses seized. Compensation cannot compensate for all that. And secondly there is at the end of it no justice: of a wide cast of wicked people at senior and middle management levels in the Post Office and in Fujitsu and in in the sub post masters own representative body, which took the side of the Post Office against its members, none have been brought to justice in any way. They simply retired on nice pensions and averted their eyes from the evil they had done. The current statutory inquiry will one hopes give some of these people a very unpleasant public grilling, but probably no more than that. Some of them deserve to be imprisoned: they wont be.
This account of the scandal is outstanding in every way. It is long - some 800 pages on Kindle - because the scandal went on for long time, and was endlessly complicated, but it is a surprisingly easy read. Wallis breaks it up into quite short chapters, without breaking the narrative flow telling the stories of many of the individual victims in a way that is simply devastating. You cannot believe that such things could be allowed to happen: nor did the victims themselves, until they did happen.
Wallis sets out to explain 2 sets of complicated, technical things: the operation and faults of the Horizon system itself, and the intricacies of the many court cases, one on top of the other. He does so very fully, without dumbing down come up but in a way that's surprisingly easy to follow. This is a very great skill. On top of that there's the thrill of the chase, with false turns, blocked routes and sudden breakthroughs, as a motley crew of reporters gradually begin to uncover the true horror and scale of the scandal. (One of the things I very much like about the account is the way the author gives full credits to other journalists.)
One is left wondering, as ever, why people behave this badly? After all there was no question of financial gain, either to individuals, or the Post Office as an organisation (the same cannot be said of Fujitsu, whose appalling behaviour has not been fully recognised, and seems to have been motivated basically by money).
No, the main motivator seems to have been that old, old vice, tribal or group thinking, us against them, ‘them’ the outsiders who don't understand our problems, who want to do us down, when we're doing our best, ‘them’ who have only bad motivations and who must be defeated at any cost.
A warning from history indeed.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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