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The UK Post Office Horizon Scandal - What are the lessons?

by Lynda Goetz

 

 




I was one of the 1.2 million Brits who signed the petition calling for Paula Vennells, ex-Chief Executive of the UK's Post Office, to be stripped of her CBE honour. I was not, though, one of the 9.8 million who watched Gwyneth Hughes’s dramatization on ITV, Mr Bates vs The Post Office. This was, in part at least, because I am a fairly avid reader of newspapers and a follower of national and international news and had been aware of the Post Office debacle for over a decade. I honestly wasn’t sure that I wanted to be further horrified or enraged about the injustices which had clearly been perpetrated against hundreds of innocent Middle Englanders who had chosen to run small businesses and become a vital part of their local communities.

 

The impotence of the individual in the face of state or corporate bullying was always something which for me had been an easily imagined fear. Most English speakers will know of the celebrated American film ‘Shawshank Redemption’, made back in the early 90s about a man accused wrongly of the murder of his wife and incarcerated for years, but these sorts of scenarios are not just fictional. Last summer, Andrew Malkinson was released from jail after seventees years, finally exonerated of a rape of which he was not guilty. I also clearly remember reading about the several families who had been accused of child abuse in the 1980s, when their babies had been taken into hospital with injuries as a result of using baby walkers, popular around the time we had our first child. In spite of these families protesting their innocence of any such criminality towards their children, the combined weight of medical and social workers’ reports resulted in some horrific miscarriages of justice. It was easy to see how difficult, not to say impossible, it would have been to prove one’s innocence in the face of such ‘expert’ opinion, even though several of those involved were articulate middle-class professionals. The postmasters individually didn’t stand a chance, particularly when the Post Office was offering its security staff what were effectively ‘bounties’, called bonuses, for prosecutions.

 

Apart from the worrying implications of such a policy, basically encouraging avarice and venality amongst its staff, there are a number of other serious concerns arising from this scandal. The public response to the television drama has at long last prompted the much-needed backlash and discussion. Firstly, there is the fact that, apart from a few honourable exceptions (e.g. the former Conservative M.P, James, now Lord, Arbuthnot, and Labour M.P, Kevan Jones,), so many in the higher echelons of the Post Office, in Government and in the legal profession ignored the pleas and protests of those wrongly accused and convicted. Secondly, the behaviour of the Post Office Investigation Branch (IB), now known as the Post Office Security Department which is the “oldest recognised criminal investigations force in the world and has worked for more than 335 years to detect offences against the post and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes”, * has highlighted the problems and dangers of private prosecutions. Thirdly, also put under the spotlight, is the legal presumption that computers are ‘reliable’. This has in fact been questioned by legal experts since 2009, but recommendations put forward by a group of lawyers were never implemented. Fourthly, the fact that it has taken a television drama to alert the majority of the population to this monstrous miscarriage of justice puts into question the way the public gets its information in this digital age. Finally, there is the issue of honours and how they are seemingly still, in spite of reforms, dished out wantonly to highly paid civil servants irrespective of merit and actual achievement.

 

Starting with the first point, the attitude of the Establishment in general to this problem has been cavalier and indifferent. As several commentators have pointed out, we used to believe that this country was relatively free of the corruption we could see in other governments around the world; that our institutions were basically on our side, not simply there for the reward of those who ran them. Perhaps naively, the public believed that those in powerful positions were not rapacious and mendacious protectors of nothing but their own positions, reputations and fortunes and that of course ‘truth would out’. Well, it finally is, but it has taken far too long and too many ruined lives before this has happened. Apart from those who have died whilst waiting for justice, there were the four who killed themselves. For so many others the nightmare they couldn’t wake up from went on. As in the Andrew Malkinson case, those who had the power (in that case the police) abused it and those who had the power to listen (e.g. Sir Ed Davey, PO Minister between 2010 and 2012) turned a deaf ear or preferred to believe the executives rather than ‘the little people’. It could take a long time to remedy the mistrust which has resulted.

 

Interestingly, on the second issue, the Bar Council in a press release yesterday (12th January) called on Parliament to review the safeguards around private prosecutions  in the wake of the Horizon Scandal. As the barristers point out, “Those bringing private prosecutions almost inevitably have a vested interest. It is important to recall that the Crown Prosecution Service itself was created in the 1980s to remove the decision on whether to prosecute for more serious crimes from the police in order to separate the decision to prosecute from those invested in the investigation”. Putting it another way, as Allison Pearson points out in her article in The Telegraph, the current position makes the Post Office “the complainant, the investigator and the beneficiary.” The Bar council’s approach echoes the request of Sir Robert Neill M.P that the Government re-visit the recommendations of the Justice Committee inquiry on safeguards.

 

The third point could in fact be remedied relatively quickly by legislation and, given that we are now faced with the rapid spread of Artificial Intelligence (AI), it is probably important that it should be. Computers, as we all know, are not always right. They are not infallible, any more than humans are. Why on earth should we have a legal presumption in their favour? In a short article in yesterday’s Guardian, Alex Hern describes how that presumption came into being in 1999 following an earlier incarnation which presumed that ‘mechanical instruments’ operated correctly unless proven otherwise. Between 1984 and 1999 computers did not benefit from that presumption, but s69 of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act was repealed in 1999 (under pressure from, inter alia, the Post Office), when it was argued that, as volumes of computer evidence increased, the requirement imposed by s69 to prove that a computer was working properly had become burdensome and inconvenient. In a briefing note produced by a group of lawyers in June 2022, it was argued that this presumption was unsafe for a number of reasons. The Horizon scandal was referred to and in particular the findings of Lord Justice Fraser in his 2019 judgement in Bates v The Post Office. As the lawyers pointed out, the defendants “had no means of providing to the court evidence capable of rebutting the presumption. Rebutting the legal presumption may, in practice, present insuperable problems for defendants, and in the Post Office prosecutions did so.”

 

The fourth point is one which it is almost impossible to know how to do anything about in an age of echo chambers and social media driven by algorithms. The Post Office scandal has been building for over two decades and yet it would seem that whole swathes of the population were unaware of it until very recently, when a TV drama brought it to their attention. The drama’s scriptwriter, Gwyneth Hughes, seems nonplussed by this and is quoted as saying “that’s what drama was invented to do.” Maybe, but possibly we should all be aware that if we only get our news from social media sources it will be influenced by what the algorithms deem to be our areas of interest, so that a wide-ranging coverage of events will not be presented to us. Furthermore, just listening or watching, for example, the BBC news is only going to provide coverage of what they consider to be the main news items of the day. This could leave us ignorant of a great deal of other national and international events happening at the same time. There is little which can be done to avoid this, other than educate children into understanding how information is purveyed and make them aware of the need to evaluate sources and listen to different opinions. Given that our schools, and in particular our universities, seem currently to be failing singularly on this point, it is maybe this which needs somehow to be addressed. This rather damning conclusion only confirms the view that our elites and those in positions of power and authority need to be more sensitive about their ability to affect people and influence change and to be less complacent, incompetent, insensitive and arrogant when it comes to dealing with issues pertaining to their responsibility to the public, their employees or their customers. (The victims of the infected blood scandal are already wondering when their turn to be fully listened to will come).

 

Finally, in spite of reforms to the honours system which have seen members of the public able to nominate ‘ordinary’ people, the system remains seemingly entrenched. Civil servants and those directly or indirectly employed by Government at senior levels, are not only extremely well remunerated, many being paid more than the Prime Minister, they are also entitled to huge bonuses, retirement packages that those in the private sector can only dream of, and to top it all are awarded gongs and honours irrespective of actual merit or achievement, but seemingly for time served. Most of us are aghast at a situation where Ms Vennells is not only able to walk away with millions in bonuses, but is also able to walk straight into another highly paid government job with the National Health Service and is given a CBE, one of the highest levels of honour (OBEs rank next, followed by MBEs) at a time when the extent of the Horizon scandal was already known. What was the Honours Committee thinking of?

 

Now that the public reaction appears to have forced the Government’s hand, the Prime Minister has made a number of announcements on this whole sorry matter: a new law will be rushed through Parliament to exonerate sub-postmasters caught up in the Horizon IT scandal; more than £1 billion of taxpayers money has been set aside to provide compensation; No 10 “fully intends” to make Fujitsu pay up if the firm is found culpable. All moves in the right direction, but what most people would also like to know is will Ms Vennells and all those self-serving bounty hunters also be made to pay up, knowing, as most of them did, the true state of affairs? Will all involved ‘have learned lessons’ or will that phrase just be parroted out meaninglessly as usual?


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