“British Justice”? Hundreds of Subpostmasters Ask, What’s That?

Photograph Source: Judicial Office, UK – CC BY-SA 4.0

Two years ago CounterPunch published a piece by me on the greatest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

Between 1999 and 2015 several hundred sub-post masters (SPMs) were accused and in many cases convicted of negligence or crimes involving theft, false accounting and fraud, based on flawed information – defective to the point of being haywire– provided by the multinational Fujitsu-installed Horizon computer system. The Fujitsu-Horizon system wrongly indicated that money had somehow “gone missing” from numerous SPM branch accounts. The accused victims were required to pay back the missing money or face prosecution.

Unlike the US, these SPM-run post offices are often attached to general stores of various kinds, and thus are the lifeline of small many towns and villages. British post offices also function as banks (most likely the only bank in a village), so they are where people go to collect their pensions, as well as to withdraw and deposit money, and so forth.

Numerous such small post offices were closed while their SPMs faced spurious “investigations” by post office apparatchiks with powers of criminal investigation and prosecution in England and Wales, thanks to an archaic law going back to 1683. The assumption behind these heavy-handed “investigations” was that accused SPMs were guilty unless proven innocent. So much for British “justice”, where of course someone is, in principle, innocent until proven guilty.

More than 900 SPMs were convicted using evidence from Horizon computers, including 700 convictions obtained by the Post Office (PO) between 1999 and 2015. Some of those convicted committed suicide, got divorced, were bankrupted, or suffered mental breakdowns. So far 103 convictions have been quashed and new parliamentary legislation is being introduced to overturn the convictions of SPMs prosecuted between September 1996 and December 2018.

To update my March 2022 CounterPunch piece, in which I mentioned the start, after much pressure, of an official inquiry, chaired by a retired high court judge. This inquiry is continuing, and what it has shown so far is utterly damning.

The inquiry would not have happened but for the doggedness of the SPM Alan Bates, now the subject of a TV drama.

Bates was an SPM for five and a half years before he was sacked for being “unmanageable” and as “someone who struggled with accounting”. Bates refused a plea bargain, and was met throughout with repeated lies (“no other SPMs have your problem with the Horizon system”, even though 29 bugs were identified as early as 1999 in the Horizon system) and stonewalling. Instead of addressing his concerns, the PO and its legal team only saw Bates as a PR risk, who had to be managed accordingly.

Bates, however, fought back stubbornly, and his unremitting persistence led to the current inquiry. Even this inquiry has been subjected to PO stonewalling.

When the PO waited until the last minute before submitting thousands of documents of potential evidentiary significance in July 2023, a Counsel to the Inquiry, Jason Beer, said: “It is of course grossly unsatisfactory, to be told at 10.32 pm that there are 4,767 documents that are at least potentially relevant to a witness who is being called 11 hours and 28 minutes later.” 

In 2012 the forensic accountants Second Sight were appointed by the PO, together with a small group of MPs and the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), to investigate Horizon.

In February 2015 the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee was told by Angela van den Bogerd, head of partnerships at the PO, that the PO had provided Second Sight with all the information the PO said would be provided at the outset.

But Ian Henderson, the lead investigator for Second Sight, told the committee that he had not received access to prosecution files, which he needed to verify his suspicions that the PO had brought cases against SPMs with “inadequate investigation and inadequate evidence”. Henderson went on to say these files were still outstanding 18 months after they had been requested.

The inquiry lacks prosecutorial power, but can submit its findings to the police for possible legal action.

Stephen Bradshaw was a PO investigator who provided evidence to the Inquiry. The Guardian sketch writer John Crace covered Bradshaw’s time in the witness stand, and Crace is worth quoting at length (given that the PO was withholding files from Second Sight 18 months after they had been requested):

“Bradshaw was defensive…. Blake [a counsel for the Inquiry] began by taking him through his written statement to the inquiry. Did he not now regret that he had not reflected a little more on the cases he had investigated? Had paused to think and join the dots? Bradshaw shook his head. It was well above his pay grade to be asked to think. He just kept his head down and did as he was told.

OK, said Blake. Well, allow me to help you break the habit of a lifetime. Maybe we could just run through the evidence and you tell me what comes into your mind….. So you’ve said that you never had any idea that the Horizon system was defective. Now let me take you through a document trail that shows you were well aware of the Computer Weekly story back in 2009 and that many operators were reporting problems.

Oh, that. Bradshaw sat back. No. None of that counted. Because the only knowledge that really counted was what Post Office bosses were telling him. Anything he might have picked up himself was just gossip. Trivia. Unreliable evidence. Knowledge was not really knowledge until he had been told it was genuine knowledge by Paula [Paula Vennells, the PO CEO at that time] and the teams…. And at no time did the Post Office bosses tell him there was a problem, so in his mind there wasn’t a problem”.

Bradshaw, like his colleagues and bosses, showed himself to be a gutless “get the job done and pick up your annual bonus” company man.

Alan Bates, now 69, who has had his claim for full compensation rejected by the PO, gave his evidence to the inquiry last week.

He was poised and collected in his testimony, while describing PO officials as “thugs in suits”, and Ed Davey (the former PO minister who now leads the Liberal Democrats) as “disappointing and offensive” after his meeting with Davey. Davey reportedly only met with Bates when informed that the sacked SPM’s campaign was about to be the subject of a forthcoming TV drama.

The inquiry has shown that what went on was a classic case of passing the buck.

The PO’s line was that it had been misled by Fujitsu and took Fujitsu’s assurances at face value. Vennells (then-PO CEO) wrote in a letter to the parliamentary Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee: “The message that the [PO] Board and I were consistently given by Fujitsu, from the highest levels of the company, was that while, like any IT system, Horizon was not perfect and had a limited life-span, it was fundamentally sound.” Vennells went on: “Fujitsu’s then CEO when I raised {the issue of the system’s security] with him said that the system was ‘like Fort Knox‘.”

One of the goals of the Inquiry will be to ascertain exactly what transpired between the so far not-exactly-forthcoming Fujitsu and the evidently duplicitous PO. Each wants to throw the other under the proverbial bus.

The government told Bates it had an “arm’s length” relationship with the PO, and maintained throughout that it had been misled by the PO’s leadership. In fact there was back-door communication between the PO and the government (the sole shareholder in the PO), something they withheld from Bates.

Two key protagonists—Davey and Paula Vennells (who stood down as CEO in 2020)—have yet to give their evidence to the Inquiry.

We can expect Davey and his lawyers to stick to his “the government is arm’s length with regard to the PO” line and to maintain that he had trusted Vennells & co, who then misled him about what was going on. This time it will the government’s turn to throw the PO under the bus.

Vennells, still the PO CEO, after the PO started conceding court cases, apologized in December 2019 to SPMs caught-up in the scandal, saying: “I am truly sorry we were unable to find both a solution and a resolution outside of litigation and for the distress this caused.”

The PO incurred massive liabilities during Vennells’ CEO tenure directly as a result of the Horizon scandal—these were estimated in early 2024 to be £160m/US$202m in compensation and £298m/US$376m in current legal fees already paid (with more fees expected to come), and £1bn/US$1.26bn of public funds set aside for future compensation.

Vennells’ forthcoming evidence at the Inquiry is bound to be a box-office draw.

Fujitsu will also await the fate of its other contracts with the UK government. It has done well so far and is confirmed to have held contracts worth more than £3.4bn/US$4.3bn linked to the UK Treasury since 2019.

Some of these contracts were awarded after the December 2019 legal judgment over the company’s software, which found that “bugs, errors and defects” in Fujitsu’s Horizon system could cause shortfalls in Post Office branch accounts.

Clearly Fujitsu continues to find favour with the Tory government, even though it informed the Cabinet Office in January 2024 that it would not bid for UK government contracts until the conclusion of the public inquiry into this scandal.

It will also be interesting to see who ends up in jail when this tragedy for the SPMs and their families is finally over (if indeed it ever will be).

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.