The Great Post Office Trial is an ear-opening 11-part BBC podcast. Recounting a true story, this audio series is a must listen for anyone who wants to know the depths that a bureaucracy can reach to defend its personal interest, wrecking the lives of honest workers in the process. This from such a national institution as the Post Office.
The podcast also shows the level of courage and organisation a group must muster to fight back against a mighty corporation.
There remain many unanswered questions, however. No one has yet been held accountable for one of the UK’s biggest miscarriages of justice of recent times.
The story starts when a local journalist comes across a cab driver who tells him that his pregnant wife has gone to jail for a crime she didn’t commit. She was one of 736 branch postmasters prosecuted by the Post Office between 2000 and 2013 for balance shortfalls.
All this happened after the £1bn Fujitsu IT system, Horizon, was introduced to track Post Office payments. Incredibly, no link was made between the sudden rise in shortfall anomalies of up to £208k and the introduction of the new IT system.
All of the accused were told that the computer system was never wrong, and that they were the only ones with the problem. Both lies!
Horrific personal accounts explain how the accused were subject to hours of interrogation by multiple members of the Security Team, all without the need to produce evidence or for public prosecutor involvement. This is since the Post Office itself is a ‘public prosecutor’, dating from the days of mail highway robbery.
In 2010, the victims came together for the first meeting of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance. With the help of MPs and solicitor friends, they finally pushed the Post Office into an independent investigation.
The first report concluded that Horizon had many bugs, and that those prosecuted were treated unfairly.
This is the point where the Post Office terminated the investigation. They were grilled by an MP select committee, and found themselves in desperate need for political cover. This came in the form of the National Federation of Subpostmasters – a pseudo trade union supposed to support and represent postmasters.
When questions were put to general secretary George Thompson, he told a committee that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the Horizon system. He argued that unfortunately a few postmasters had tried to exploit the system for their own gain.
It seems like those seeking justice were back to square one. But struggles don’t ever move in straight lines. The group was gaining experience and public interest.
The next leap came in the form of a gritty BBC Panorama episode in 2015. Whistleblowers and internal documents revealed that prosecutions of theft were made with no evidence; and that, contrary to what the Post Office had been claiming, Horizon was externally accessible.
It still took the victims, now 550 in number, a year to find a law firm and funding to take the Post Office to court.
The first hearing was damning, concluding that the Post Office had intentionally delayed justice to wrack up costs. The second hearing uncovered that Horizon needed an army of external engineers to solve on-going system bugs.
It was later revealed that an internal Post Office document had confirmed this in 2013, yet it was kept secret. And that the head of security ordered all meeting notes to be shredded.
In the end, the Post Office gave up and agreed a settlement of £57m. After paying legal costs, this only gave the subpostmasters around £20k each.
Some of these workers had been in jail for up to 18 months. They had their lives ruined by bankruptcy and 20 years of carrying criminal records, which were only finally quashed this year.
Sadly this was too late for those that did not live long enough for justice. As we go to press, a dozen more subpostmasters have now had their convictions overturned. More will follow.
The Post Office knew Horizon could make money disappear. But the bosses chose to hide this for their own protection, while wrecking workers’ lives and using the corporation’s huge wealth to hinder justice.
No one has yet been held personally accountable. We await with baited breath for the results of the government’s statutory enquiry.
Meanwhile, the Post Office Chair and CEO still have their jobs. Indeed, the previous CEO Paula Vennells was given a CBE and a comfortable job as Chair of Imperial College NHS Trust.
The supporters of capitalism will say lessons have been learned, and that – due to our great democracy – justice finally won out.
But workers are learning that the cards are heavily stacked in favour of the rich and powerful. Only with workers’ control can we run things for the many, not the few.