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At the time of publication, there is no bigger story in the United Kingdom than the IT Scandal that affected the Post Office and hundreds of its sub-postmasters.

UK Post office Scandal News

Selection of recent front pages related to the story

This scandal has worked its way through sub-post offices, magistrate courts, county courts, the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Houses of Parliament. This week, the Prime Minister was challenged on this subject and committed to resolving this open sore of an issue. So why the sudden burst of interest?

On New Year’s Day, ITV, the UK’s leading independent broadcaster, broadcast a four part dramatization Mr Bates vs the Post Office”. This series tells the shocking story of the greatest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

In 2021 I read Nick Wallis’ meticulously researched book, The Great Post Office Scandal. Published by Bath Publishing, a specialist in the legal and professional market, I was expecting it to be a fairly dry overview of corporate failure and coverup. In fact, it reads like a John Grisham thriller, albeit that it is, sadly, a true story. I literally found it impossible to put down and was grateful for each of its 550 pages! As I read it, I was struck by the numerous lessons that are applicable to any business professional, and especially to the telecommunications fields of Revenue & Business Assurance and Fraud Management.

This is a story of the unjust prosecution of hundreds of upstanding citizens, innocent of any crime, who were recast as convicted criminals, fined, imprisoned, bankrupted, their reputations destroyed and who were, thankfully rarely, driven to suicide. The prosecutor was a 100% state owned company proud of the claim that its in-house investigation unit is the oldest recognised such force in the world[1]. Hopefully I’ve got you interested.

My original plan was for just one blog. However, the more I researched the story, the more insights I have come across. In the end, instead of my single blog, I will be publishing a series of blogs on this topic. In fact, I started the blog in late 2022 but, as the story kept developing, I struggled to finally complete it. The recent burst of press coverage has pushed me over the line!

This first blog is an introduction with three or four more to follow addressing the core lessons I want to share. But first of all, given the international nature of Mobileum’s audience, I need to get you all up to speed with what is now routinely described as Britain’s most widespread miscarriage of justice.

Britain and the British people are proud of our justice system. Its reputation is global and London is one of the world’s litigation and mediation capitals. Based in part upon this, the UK property market has boomed for decades and, in recent years, it has been fuelled by foreign investors who see the UK as a safe haven – no dictator can suddenly confiscate one’s assets! It has long been noted that many foreign investors into the UK property market[2], particularly London, come from Russia, Hong Kong/China and the Middle East (albeit, unfortunately, often shrouded behind secret structures located in tax havens).[3] [4] It is the dependability of the law and enforcement of the law that has powered this growth.

However, despite this proud reputation, sadly British justice has been far from perfect. Over the years, there have been numerous miscarriages of justice. Wikipedia offers a decent overview of such cases. It is notable that the UK’s list is the longest outside of the USA entry - although that has as much to do with miscarriages of justice as the ability of a justice system to recognise and eventually correct its own mistakes. Five Chinese cases asides, the absence of dictatorships from that list speaks volumes!

The Post Office IT Scandal stands out from the long list of Wikipedia entries – it truly is different. The case is one of the few that doesn’t involve violence and is the only one that doesn’t specify the number of defendants. The case relates to the prosecution of large numbers of Post Office sub-postmasters (and mistresses) and a smaller number of Post Office Crown Branch employees[5], typically for the crime of theft and false accounting. Prosecutions were mostly led by the Post Office’s in house team and convictions nearly always achieved. The case against the accused was solely based upon evidence from the new Horizon computer system supplied by Fujitsu. There were never witnesses to the crime, there was never evidence of the spoils of crime and “the system” simply trusted the integrity of the Post Office and its internal evidence.

I first became aware of this case watching the BBC’s Panorama investigative documentary programme some years ago. So egregious is this case that there have now been an almost unprecedented three separate BBC Panorama[6] episodes and other broadcasts over the years. The first public breaking of this scandal was an incredibly well researched article that curiously appeared in Computer Weekly, a publication that has followed this story in immense detail ever since. The fact that this broke in such a specialist technical publication is in fact highly relevant to this blog.

One of the earliest TV broadcasts on this subject was Inside Out, a BBC regional news story, presented by Nick Wallis, author of the aforementioned book. It is important to understand the role of the Post Office and sub-Postmasters (and mistresses) “SPMs” in UK culture. The Post Office is one of the most trusted and revered institutions and sub-Postmasters have long been held in high esteem, similar to other local workers such as bank managers, lawyers, doctors and teachers. Operating the UK’s largest retail network, they are a regular point of contact for most citizens are considered to be honest and trustworthy.

Over the years the convictions kept growing – eventually over 700 SPMs were found guilty. The Post Office remained as intransigent as ever, denying any issues with their Horizon system. Eventually, 555 SPMs collectively took the Post Office to court, organised by Alan Bates, the same Alan Bates who features in the TV dramatisation. In a series of ground-breaking cases, the High Court Judge, Mr Justice Fraser, firstly found that the contract between the Post Office and its SPMs was unenforceable and, in a later case, found that Horizon was “not remotely robust” and the “convictions unsafe”. The system contained "bugs, errors and defects", and that there was a "material risk" that shortfalls in branch accounts were caused by the system. The Post Office agreed to settle the case with the 555 for £58m. This was just the beginning of the fallout to the Post Office. The ultimate cost will prove far higher.

Following the High Court ruling, cases were brought forward to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), an independent body which investigates suspected miscarriages of justice. From here a cascade of convictions have been overturned – at the time of writing over 93 convictions have been struck down. The scale and impact of this case is totally without precedent. The financial impact upon the Post Office is beyond its resources. If it was a normal company it would be bankrupt. However, it is not a normal company and, its sole shareholder, the UK Government will bail it out to the tune of £1bn.

Having followed this story in some detail and, working in the field of telecommunications, I will share the main lessons that I drew from Wallis’ book (and other sources since) that are relevant to all of us in the telecommunications field and others? Each blog is broadly themed and the next blog will focus on the roles of leaders and the importance of leadership.

 


[1] “The Post Office Investigation Branch” https://www.postalmuseum.org/blog/the-post-office-investigation-branch/

[2] “Foreign ownership of homes in England and Wales triples” https://www.ft.com/content/e36cec28-7acd-4154-b57d-923b5d1610da

[3] “Foreign Ownership of London Property Shrouded In Secrecy” https://www.transparency.org.uk/foreign-ownership-london-property-shrouded-secrecy

[4] “Revealed: Pandora papers unmask owners of offshore-held UK property worth £4bn” https://www.theguardian.com/news/2021/oct/05/pandora-papers-reveal-true-owners-offshore-held-uk-property-london

[5] A Crown Post Office is typically a larger Post Office, owned and operated by the Post Office. A sub-post office is typically a smaller Post Office, run on an agency basis, typically within another business e.g. newsagent, convenience store etc.

[6] Panorama broadcasts: first, second and third programmes

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