THERE is no end to the questions raised by the Post Office scandal which, after 20-odd years, is finally getting the attention it deserves. Some of these are legal: why was a public corporation allowed to bring prosecutions in which it had a vested interest?

Some are political: why didn’t the governments (national and devolved) act as soon as problems with the IT system became apparent?

Still others are existential: why are the worst people so often honoured, while the best are hung out to dry? And into what dystopian future might our blind faith in technology lead us?

This tragedy exposes so much of the darkness at the heart of the British establishment, its repercussions are likely to be felt for generations.

Let’s start with the law. In England and Wales, private prosecutions – that is prosecutions brought by individuals and organisations – are commonplace.

This is uncontroversial when it involves the RSPCA pursuing animal cruelty cases, less so when it’s the BBC prosecuting single mothers who haven’t paid their TV licences.

Private prosecutions are particularly problematic where a public body is pursuing individuals for alleged crimes committed against itself.

When the Post Office prosecuted 900 subpostmasters for theft, embezzlement and false accounting, it was acting as complainant, investigator and prosecutor, so of course its impartiality was undermined.

Watching James Strong’s excellent ITV drama Mr Bates Vs the Post Office, it quickly became clear its chief concern was not the proper administration of justice, but the shoring up of its own reputation.

Thus its investigators told affected subpostmasters they were the only ones experiencing “shortfalls”, went on insisting Horizon was reliable as the prosecutions piled up, and denied workers at Fujitsu – which built and operated the system – could access and alter their accounts long after they knew this to be untrue.



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Materials gain

Under the UK duty of disclosure, prosecutors – private or public – are obliged to provide the defence with copies of, or access to, all material capable of undermining their case and/or assisting the defence. But the Post Office appears to have sat on a mountain of information about Horizon glitches and, even now, there are delays in handing over documents to the public inquiry.

In Scotland, almost all prosecutions are brought by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Office (COPFS).

By rights, this distance ought to have provided an extra layer of protection to subpostmasters here.

But it seems COPFS too had more faith in the integrity of Horizon than in the integrity of the accused. Should we drag 100 respected members of their communities through the courts? Computer says “Yes”.

This is particularly odd given the Scottish legal system’s requirement for corroboration, which does not apply in England and Wales.

As Stuart Munro, convener of the Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee, has pointed out: “Horizon cases typically involved charges of embezzlement – the dishonest appropriation of someone else’s money. Yet the only source of evidence that money had disappeared was Horizon.”

Other experts have suggested different computer records might have been used to corroborate each other, or that computer records were being corroborated by Post Office witnesses.

Whatever, evidence from Horizon appears to have been viewed as unassailable in the much same way as DNA evidence, but with less justification.

None of the political parties and few individual politicians have covered themselves in glory.

Refused to meet

A SUCCESSION of Labour and Tory-led governments oversaw the periods in which these prosecutions were being carried out. As Post Office minister in the coalition, the current LibDem leader Ed Davey refused to meet campaigner Alan Bates, saying he “didn’t think it would serve any purpose”.


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LibDem leader Ed Davey


Meanwhile, as Tory MP James Arbuthnot fought the subpostmasters’ corner, his own party was accepting donations from Fujitsu director Simon Blagden, who went on to be appointed chair of the government agency responsible for delivering faster broadband and mobile coverage.

In Scotland, Humza Yousaf is working hard to distance the SNP on the grounds that control of the Post Office is reserved to Westminster. But the Crown was alerted to possible problems with the IT system in May 2013, and did not stop pursuing cases until 2015.

No-one is suggesting the Scottish Government should have interfered in its decision-making.

But, given Yousaf is so critical of the Tories on this, one has to ask: what has his party done to identify and support those wrongly convicted in Scottish courts? The answer appears to be not much. As of last week, the number of Scotland-based subpostmasters to have had their convictions quashed was four.


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FM Humza Yousaf


Post Office lies

AS Davey pointed out in lieu of an apology, UK Government ministers were being briefed by civil servants who, in turn, were being lied to by the Post Office.

But what struck me watching Strong’s TV drama was the lack of curiosity.

What is the point of being in politics if you have no impulse to investigate, if you accept everything you are told at face value?

The media has taken pelters for failing to mobilise public outrage.

But the 2015 Panorama programme on which the TV drama was based came about because – unlike Davey – journalists did listen to the subpostmasters, and went on to gain the trust of a Fujitsu whistleblower.

Later, with support from the BBC, they faced down the Post Office’s threats and broadcast their findings.

If only ministers had a fraction of their gumption.

You’d have thought – once it was clear how much the subpostmasters had lost – the Conservatives would have rallied behind them.

Instead, they looked on as the Post Office set up compensation schemes described as a “patchwork quilt with holes in it”, then handed its former chief executive, Paula Vennells, a CBE.

Now the story is dominating the front pages, party leaders are on manoeuvres. Rishi Sunak has promised an emergency law which would see the convictions quashed en masse, with Yousaf suggesting a Legislative Consent Motion will be used to ensure it applies north of the Border.

New law concerns

WHILE no-one could begrudge these subpostmasters the belated restoration of their good names, there are concerns the new law will undermine the independence of the judiciary while doing nothing to speed up the process for other miscarriage of justice victims.

More cynically, the UK Government’s belated sense of urgency may be an attempt to deflect attention from the fact former Fujitsu chairman Michael Keegan is the husband of Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, or that the company has a partnership with Infosys, the firm owned by Sunak’s father-in-law.

Certainly, it was disconcerting to discover Fujitsu remained on a “preferred supplier” list until 2022, and won £4.9 billion of contracts after the landmark 2019 civil case which found “bugs, errors and defects” in the Horizon system.

At any rate, the overturning of convictions is only part of the story. True justice lies with accountability. It requires politicians and others to own their misjudgments, and a reckoning for the companies involved.

The Post Office should hand over all relevant material to the public inquiry immediately, and both it and Fujitsu should be forced to shoulder the financial burden of compensation.

Given there appears to have been a concerted effort to pervert the course of justice, it seems only right that some of those involved should themselves face criminal charges.

More broadly, the system of private prosecutions in England and Wales must be overhauled so no organisation can ever again pursue cases in which it has a vested interest.

A final dividend of the scandal would be a shift in attitude towards technology. No longer should evidence from IT systems go unchallenged.

Rather, computers should be treated as potentially reliable – and as potentially fallible – as their human counterparts.