The Perils of Certainty: The UK Post Office Goes Rogue
“If you have time to read only one book this year, this is the book you should read.” I wouldn’t quite say that about The Great Post Office Scandal by Nick Wallis. But I would certainly recommend its consideration for your reading list. It is a bit too long and sometimes loses momentum in the weeds of court proceedings, but the core story is compelling.
In her annual Director’s Lecture last January, Bronwen Maddox, Director of the Institute for Government in London (a “blue chip” independent think tank) listed this “scandal” alongside the botched exit from Afghanistan, the “flailing” attempts to curb immigration and the multiple bungles of the London Metropolitan Police as symptoms of complacency about failings in British government “that undermines the way the country works and is deeply corrosive of public trust”. She summarised the essence of this scandal thus:
High on the list of recent horrors is the wrongful prosecution of more than 700 sub-postmasters, because the computer system designed by Fujitsu wrongly decreed that they had taken money from the till. At least one of those wrongly accused took his own life; others are still struggling to clear their names or reclaim money they were forced to pay.
The Fujitsu system called Horizon was introduced into Post Office branches in 1999 to process transactions with customers and manage branch accounts. Branches were typically run by sub-postmasters, effectively independent contractors with the Post Office rather than employees, operating to standard, non-negotiable contracts which assigned a right to the Post Office to query, audit or investigate a branch at any time and included this ominous provision:
The sub-postmaster is responsible for all losses caused through his own negligence, carelessness or error, and also for losses of all kinds cause by his Assistants. Deficiencies due to such losses must be made good without delay.
At the end of each working day, a sub-postmaster could compare the cash in their tills against the “tot” provided to them by Horizon. Very soon after its introduction, the system began to reveal “deficits” which sub-postmasters were unable to explain or resolve. It should be said that training in the use of the new system was variable in quality at best, often scant, sometimes never happened at all.
Similarly, the Post Office “helpline” available to branches experiencing difficulties was often worse than useless, the stock response to queries from branches about deficits being windy comfort that they would eventually sort themselves out. Sometimes they did, but sometimes they didn’t, occasionally rising to tens of thousands of pounds. Some sub-postmasters would attempt to cure or reduce the shortfall from their own savings to buy time or out of misplaced shame. After all, even if they couldn’t put a finger on their own mistake, surely the mighty Post Office couldn’t be wrong?
Eventually, the deficit could grow to a level large enough to prompt an audit, followed by an immediate suspension and eventual sacking of the sub-postmaster, thorough investigation of their personal lives by the Post Office’s own investigation team and rapid, zealous prosecution.
In the four years before the introduction of Horizon (1996–1999), there had been 68 prosecutions for “likely” cash shortfalls. In the following four years (2000–2003), the number of prosecutions rose to 226. Horizon had apparently flushed out an epidemic of embezzlement. By 2014, the number of prosecutions had reached 736, including 20 in Northern Ireland. Prosecuted sub-postmasters were sacked. Some received non-custodial sentences. Others served prison terms. The toll on mental and physical health was obviously enormous. Lives were ruined.
The scandal has two broad but standard dimensions, first the crime and then the cover up.
Fundamentally, when confronted with an apparent deficit, the Post Office’s priority was to eliminate it by recovering the money rather than actually investigating its cause. That blinkered approach was facilitated by presumptions held within and outside the Post Office about the institution itself and the imbalance of leverage between the Post Office and its “victims”.
The Post Office presumed the infallibility of Horizon and that any apparent deficit had to be due to theft even when its own investigation teams were unable to discover any evidence at all of actual theft. The Courts presumed the reliability and trustworthiness of the Post Office as a centuries-old public institution of unimpeachable repute. There was a sub-postmasters’ union of sorts but, funded by and dependent on the Post Office, it stood, supine, on the sidelines.
The Post Office had the leverage of its imbalanced contract with sub-postmasters which automatically placed the onus of explanation and justification on the latter. It had the money to pursue all legal actions without a second thought, not just prosecution of apparently delinquent sub-postmasters themselves, but the diligent pursuit of their assets to make good the damage. And it had the leverage of an imbalance of knowledge. This scandal took wing in the twilight of the pre-social media age. Sub-postmasters were aware only of their own circumstances and were routinely assured by the Post Office that they were unique in having “trouble” with Horizon. The Post Office alone had the composite picture that such “trouble” was widespread.
It was only gradually through the “noughties” that awareness developed among the affected individual sub-postmasters that others among them were in the same boat. A structured campaign for investigation and redress began to develop from the initial informal grapevine. Awareness dawned only gradually in the media. It was as late as 2009 before the story “broke” at all when the trade paper Computer Weekly reported the complaints of seven sub-postmasters and raised the possibility of Horizon being affected by “glitches”. The mainstream media was much slower to take an interest. This was a techie, niche story rather than a sizzlingly sexy one. But the increased visibility of the issue by 2009 was enough to draw the sympathetic attention of a smattering of MPs to the sub-postmasters’ cause, though governments sat on their hands.
A critical core to the Post Office rebuttal of sub-postmasters’ claims of miscarriage of justice was that the Horizon terminals in individual branches were thoroughly insulated from any possibility of external interference whether by accident or design. Various snippets of countervailing evidence accumulated to undermine this claim — including the testimony of a whistleblower from within Fujitsu. Horizon was not an isolated “hub and spoke” system between Post Office “HQ” and its individual branches but had extensive interfaces with other systems within the Post Office as well as external to it. When it came to it, the Post Office could only assert rather than demonstrate Horizon’s touted “robustness” against outside interference or contamination of the “data” from branches.
Eventually a large enough cohort of aggrieved sub-postmasters was assembled to secure the support of a law firm willing to undertake class actions on their behalf on a “no foal, no fee” basis. This opened the path for two civil High Court trials in 2018–2019, one on the sub-postmasters’ complaints and the other on the efficacy of Horizon itself. The Post Office maintained a strategy of denial, deflection, delay, concealment and obstruction all the way through. Again, the imbalance in leverage was important. The Post Office could spend over £20 million in legal fees without breaking sweat. The sub-postmasters’ legal team operated on a wing and a prayer.
But, the courts found emphatically against the Post Office in both trials and related appeals. The judge’s comments on Horizon in the second trial were particularly trenchant. All the evidence showed not only was there the potential for bugs, errors and defect to affect sub-postmasters’ branch accounts, but also that this had actually happened on numerous occasions. He was highly critical of both Fujitsu and the Post Office. The former never properly and fully investigated the problems. Documentation supplied by the latter revealed:
An extreme sensitivity (seeming to verge, on occasion, to institutional paranoia) concerning any information that may throw doubt on the reputation of Horizon or expose it to further scrutiny.
These judgements opened the path to appeals against their convictions by sub-postmasters found guilty of offences solely on the basis of Horizon “evidence”. In a landmark moment, the Court of Appeal quashed 39 convictions in April 2021 and smaller numbers were quashed in other proceedings.
The Government announced interim compensation of £100,000 for those wrong convictions but the eventual compensation bill will be many multiples of that. During the 20 years or so that this scandal has unfolded, nobody from the Post Office, the civil servants overseeing it or Fujitsu has been held publicly to any account, much less faced criminal investigation.
Of course, nothing like that could ever happen in Ireland, could it?
Up to a point, no. But beyond that point, of course it could and already has.
Lest we forget, Ireland of the not too distant past deployed nationwide systems for the incarceration of “faces that didn’t fit”; industrial “schools”, mental “hospitals”, mother and baby “homes”. However, though open to correction, I can’t readily recall an instance of multiple criminal convictions and prison terms arising from a systematic “mistake” by a state body.
But, there is no shortage of examples of citizens suffering in other ways as a result of systemic rather than deliberate mistakes on behalf of the state and, in some cases, of that suffering being exacerbated by delays in establishing the true facts of the matter occasioned by obfuscation and/or obstruction.
This has been especially true in the medical sphere. Older readers may recall the “scandals” of the 1990s/early 2000s where women were infected with Hepatitis C after receiving contaminated blood products manufactured by the Blood Transfusion Board. Compensation payments (which continue to be made under the auspices of a tribunal) exceed €1 billion. The more contemporary cervical check “scandal” will be broadly familiar to all. In both cases, the State was slow to grasp the full implications of the errors that had been made with inadequate attention to deliberate, urgent and open disclosure being at the heart of the latter especially.
I am still troubled by the length of time it takes to bring individual cases of medical failure to resolution in the courts and why these cases continue to be conducted by the state in a legalistic, aggressively adversarial manner with the apparent primary intent of restricting the liability to the state rather than ensuring prompt and appropriate recompense to its victims. It’s an inherently imbalanced struggle given the disparity of resources and personal risk between HSE managers on one side and individual claimants on the other.
More directly aligned on another dimension of the Post Office scandal was the scandalous treatment of Sergeant Gerry McCabe, effectively ostracised within the Garda Siochána for making allegations of corruption and malpractice. At the Public Accounts Committee in January 2013, then Gárda Commissioner, Martin Callinan queried why there was not a “whisper” anywhere else within the force about corruption in the Garda Siochána other than the charges levelled by Sergeant McCabe and his colleague, Garda John Wilson. Commissioner Callinan concluded: “Frankly, on a personal level, I think it is disgusting.” Better late than never, but it was only in January 2018, that the Charleton tribunal report thoroughly vindicated Sergeant McCabe — while roundly criticising his former boss.
I just wonder if another more narrowly focused scandal isn’t unfolding in plain sight right now. I hold no torch for Leo Varadkar. But allegations that he had leaked a confidential document to another doctor were aired publicly and confirmed by him to be true as long ago as November 2020. We still await a decision from the Director of Public Prosecutions about whether proceedings will be taken against him — 17 months on. As possible offences go, the issues here are hardly complex. If we are still in this limbo of uncertainty in December when Mr. Varadkar is due to be reappointed as Taoiseach, it will not reflect well on the quality of public administration in our own state — to put it mildly!