Inside Story

Lost in the post

Britain’s Post Office scandal, kept alive by dogged journalism and a new drama series, still has a long way to run

Peter Mares London 12 February 2024 1607 words

Galvanising: Toby Jones and Julie Hesmondhalgh in Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

It’s a David versus Goliath struggle that began a quarter of a century ago and is again generating daily headlines. One of Britain’s most venerated institutions, the Post Office, falsely accused thousands of its subpostmasters of cooking the books. Around 900 were prosecuted, 700 convicted and 236 jailed. Hundreds more paid back thousands of pounds they didn’t owe, had their contracts terminated, lost their livelihoods and often their life savings, and had their reputations trashed.

There was no fraud. The postmasters’ lives were destroyed because of faults in the Post Office’s Horizon computer network. But much like Australia’s robodebt system, Horizon was regarded as infallible. Attempts to raise the alarm were ignored; people who sought help were hounded for non-existent debts. As in Australia, those whose lives were turned upside down struggled to gain the attention of established media outlets; it was individual journalists and smaller publications that kept digging and probing, and refused to accept Post Office spin.

It wasn’t until January this year that prime minister Rishi Sunak conceded it was one of Britain’s greatest-ever miscarriages of justice. He has committed his government to a “blanket exoneration” of hundreds of wrongfully convicted individuals and promised them “at least £600,000 in compensation to rebuild their lives.”

Three compensation schemes have already been set up and around one hundred convictions overturned by appeal courts. A public inquiry led by a retired High Court judge began hearings in February 2021 and is likely to continue at least until September this year. In the meantime, many former postmasters remain destitute or seriously out of pocket. They are waiting not only for redress but also for the full truth about what went wrong in the executive ranks of the Post Office.

While details continue to dribble out, so far no senior managers have been held to account, though former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells has offered to hand back the CBE she was awarded in 2019.

Vennells said she was “truly sorry for the devastation caused to the subpostmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted.” Whether or not Vennells loses her gong is up to King Charles. The union representing Post Office employees reckons if she were truly remorseful then she’d offer to repay her performance bonuses as well.

Solicitor Neil Hudgell told a January hearing before the parliament’s business and trade committee that the Post Office spent £100 million “defending the indefensible” through the courts yet he has clients who are still waiting on reimbursements of a few hundred pounds. He said the contest between postmasters and Post Office was characterised from the start by an inequality of arms. “You are facing this big beast in the Post Office, with all the machinery that sits behind it,” he added. “You have some poor person who is being accused of doing something hideous who does not have that.”

On top of the financial losses comes the psychological toll. Hudgell says his firm has more than a hundred psychiatric reports for clients diagnosed with depressive illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoia. At least four former postmasters are thought to have committed suicide, and more than thirty have passed away while awaiting justice in their cases.

The saga goes back to 1999, when the Post Office began rolling out a new computerised accounting system to its thousands of branches and sub-branches, many of which operate as franchises run by subpostmasters. Essentially, the subpostmasters are independent contractors delivering services under an agreement with the Post Office. Many also operate a shop, cafe or other small business on the side.

As in Australia, people go to their local post office for much more than stamps and parcels. Branches offer banking and bill payment services, and handle applications for passports and other critical official documents. Subpostmasters play a central role in villages and small towns. They are often trusted as advisers and confidants, especially for older, less digitally connected citizens. To be accused of putting their hands in the till was a mortifying experience.

The new Horizon computer system, developed by Fujitsu, was meant to make it easier for postmasters to balance their books. But problems were evident from the start. In 1998, Alan Bates invested around £60,000 to buy a shop with a post counter in the town of Llandudno, in north Wales. After Horizon was introduced, discrepancies quickly appeared in his accounts, and Bates found himself £6000 short.

“I managed to track that down after a huge amount of effort through a whole batch of duplicated transactions,” he recalled. Meticulous record keeping enabled Bates to show that the problem lay with the computer system and was not the result of carelessness or fraud. Still, in 2003, the Post Office terminated his contract, saying £1200 was unaccounted for.

Unlike other postmasters, Bates was not prosecuted or forced into bankruptcy, but the injustice and the lost investment cut deep. Post Office investigators insisted that he was the only subpostmaster reporting glitches with the computer system, but Bates was certain that there must be others. He was right. RAF veteran Lee Castleton challenged the Post Office in court after it suspended him over an alleged debt of almost £23,000. In the first instance, the Post Office failed to show up at court and he won. Months later, the Post Office raised the case to the High Court. Castleton represented himself, lost, had costs awarded against him and was rendered bankrupt.

Castleton managed to convince a young journalist at the trade publication Computer Weekly to investigate. Rebecca Thomson found six other examples of people who’d been accused of stealing from the Post Office, including Alan Bates, who had tried a few years earlier to interest the same magazine in his case.

National newspapers and broadcasters failed to pick up Thomson’s 2009 story. “It really did go out to a clanging silence,” Thomson told the Sunday Times in 2022. “I was super-ambitious, and I was disappointed and a bit confused about the fact that there had been so little reaction to the story, because I still continue to feel like it was incredibly strong.”

What Thomson achieved, though, was to confirm Alan Bates’s hunch that he was not alone. Bates reached out to other subpostmasters in Thomson’s story and discovered they’d been told the same thing as him: no one else has had a problem with Horizon, you’re the only one. This Post Office mantra was a bare-faced lie.

Bates and his newfound allies founded the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance with the aim of “exposing the failures of Post Office, its Board, its management and its Horizon computer system.” Their campaign for truth and justice is the subject of the four-part television drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office, starring Toby Jones as Alan Bates, that aired on British TV in January.

The series put the scandal and the ongoing public inquiry firmly back in the headlines (Rishi Sunak’s belated response to years of revelations came a few days later) but it would not have been possible without fourteen years of dogged, dedicated journalism. Since Thomson broke the story in 2009, Computer Weekly has published about 350 follow-up articles on the issue. Separately, freelance journalist Nick Wallis has pursued the story since 2010, at times relying on crowdfunding to finance his work.

In 2010, Wallis was working at a local BBC radio station when a flippant response to a tweet put him in contact with Davinder Misra, the owner of a local cab company, who told him his pregnant wife had been sent to prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Seema Misra had been convicted of theft and false accounting and sentenced to fifteen months jail. The Post Office claimed she had misappropriated almost £75,000 from her branch in West Byfleet in Surrey.

With roots stretching back to 1660 and the reign of Charles II, the Post Office is in many respects a law unto itself. It doesn’t have to jump through the hurdles of police investigations or case reviews by a public prosecutor to launch prosecutions. It has huge resources to employ top silks to represent it. Against its might, people like Seema Misra didn’t stand a chance.

Unaware at the time of Thomson’s article in Computer World, Wallis decided to investigate. He has been writing and broadcasting about the Post Office scandal ever since. He has been a producer, presenter or consultant on three episodes of Panorama, the BBC’s equivalent of the ABC’s Four Corners, he has written a book, The Great Post Office Scandal, he made a podcast series, and he maintains a website dedicated to continuing coverage of the story.

Wallis also acted as a consultant on Mr Bates vs the Post Office. He told the Press Gazette he was “blown away” by the program and what it had achieved. Yet he stressed that it is Bates and the other postmasters who should take the credit for getting the scandal into the open and convictions overturned.

Seven screens Mr Bates vs the Post Office in Australia this week. If you can put up with the ad breaks, the series is well worth watching. It’s an engaging, heartwarming story of decent, ordinary folk standing up against the powerful and the entitled and eventually winning against the odds. If you want to understand the story more fully, though, and to hear directly from those most affected — people like Alan Bates, Seema Misra and Lee Castleton — then I’d recommend The Great Post Office Trial, Nick Wallis’s podcast for BBC Radio 4. It’s a compelling tale that shows what good journalism can achieve. •