I cannot remember when I first heard of the Post Office scandal. I think I came across a piece by Nick Wallis in Private Eye 10 years ago. It is not often that news stories in that magazine feel so close and personal to me, vicar of a country parish in middle England, where the last time a story of national significance occurred was when one of our Home Guard nearly shot General De Gaulle by accident on a foggy morning in 1942.
But I remember realising, with a stab of alarm, that what had been happening to subpostmasters all over the country could have happened to our subpostmaster, Narinder, whose quiet and devoted service to our village was exemplary. She was the person who for my parishioners mediated officialdom, financial services and local news, and was held in affection, respect and trust.
She has since moved on, but to give you an idea of her character, in lockdown she and her husband contacted me with an offer to provide meals from their kitchen at home for anyone who was finding it difficult to manage shopping and cooking. The thought of Narinder being accused of theft, and prosecuted, convicted, ruined, sacked and maybe even imprisoned, was so awful it kept me awake that night.
So I continued to follow the story, and eventually got in contact with Nick Wallis, who directed me to Karl Flinders’ reporting in Computer Weekly, and I became familiar with the details of one of the most shocking scandals in public life of recent years. And I gradually came to realise that it was not just what happened to these subpostmasters, wrongly convicted on dodgy evidence, that was scandalous, but – even more ominous – many years later its victims were still waiting for redress, while those responsible for it just walked away, some of them honoured and rewarded.
How can it be that people in power knowingly connive to ruin others they know to be innocent, for that to be brought to light, and for them to get away with it?
“We need to uncover more detail and make connections if we want to understand what happened at the Post Office. The story that emerges will, I am sure, make uncomfortable reading, not only for the Post Office and Fujitsu, but for those in Westminster ultimately in charge. That is one powerful reason for asking for a statutory public inquiry”
Reverend Richard Cole
There is another angle to this, which I began to find compelling. The failure of the Horizon system at the Post Office is not the only example of a powerful organisation investing so much, materially and reputationally, in automating essential work through the use of IT that even the thought of it failing is unthinkable.
So what do you do when there are failures, as there always will be in any enterprise flawed humanity undertakes? You hope you would have robust enough governance to detect those failures, call a halt, work out what has happened, and fix it. But so often that does not happen, because resource-strapped organisations, doing essential, even statutorily sanctioned work, place their hope and trust in automation – with good reason. It is an amazingly powerful tool. I know from my own experience at board level in a housing association, as chancellor of a university that built a new campus for a digital age, and as someone who has worked in media for 30 years of ceaseless digitally driven change.
I guess the extraordinary turnaround at the Post Office, as a business, under Paula Vennells’ leadership, is in part due to a strategy built on digital. Whatever it was, an organisation losing £120m a year, in dramatically short order, became a profitable one – big payday and a CBE for the departing CEO. I wonder if that tells us what the priorities were for senior management at the Post Office, the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), to which they reported, and at Fujitsu, which supplied the system? A success so sought after and so spectacular that this counter-narrative of a flawed system with such disastrous consequences could not be admitted?
Reverend Richard Coles
I have experienced, less spectacularly, that feeling of helplessness when a complex situation, in which human interest conflicts with organisational needs, drops you into a Kafkaesque narrative in which reason and dignity and basic humanity are pushed to the edges. The integrity of the system is the first priority, and if people suffer injury as a consequence it is acceptable as collateral damage.
Of course, it is not acceptable, and as light begins to shine on what happened at the Post Office, there are fewer dark corners for people to hide their misdeeds, or cowardice, or indifference. At the moment, we see through a glass darkly, but thanks to the brilliant journalism of Karl and Nick, and through the growing number of court judgments, and lengthening litany of misdeeds, more is revealed.
But we need to uncover more detail and make connections if we want to understand what happened. The story that emerges will, I am sure, make uncomfortable reading, not only for the Post Office and Fujitsu, but for those in Westminster ultimately in charge. That is one powerful reason for asking for a statutory public inquiry.
The government has announced an inquiry, chaired by a former judge, but it does not have the power to compel witnesses, and the subpostmasters have declined to engage with it. That should in itself be reason enough to upgrade, but it is, of course, not only about justice for the subpostmasters and restitution and compensation – although it is certainly those things – it is also about public trust.
We need to know that everything will be done to mitigate the risk of an appalling scandal like this happening again.
We need to know that when there is a massive miscarriage of justice, what went wrong will be put right.
We need to know that our trust in British justice is not misplaced.