The British media is currently gripped by a long running scandal, involving the actions of the Post Office against hundreds, possibly thousands, of its subpostmasters. This is largely in response to the ITV drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, which aired recently and is available on its streaming service ITVx. The drama has so captured public interest that over a million people have signed an online petition calling for former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells to be stripped of her CBE (honours awarded by the British Crown), and questions about the scandal dominated the return of Parliament in the New Year.
By Chas Berry, Socialist Alternative Kent & Medway
The scandal itself has been running for over 20 years and results from the mistreatment of around 700 subpostmasters, who were wrongly convicted of theft, false accounting and fraud between 1999 and 2015. Many hundreds more were accused, bullied and stripped of their businesses without matters reaching the courts in what has been widely reported as the widest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.
Working class people may dispute this title, given our collective experience of neglect, abuse and oppression that characterises our daily lives and is often only manifested after tragedies such as Grenfell, Hillsborough and Orgreave. But there can be no doubt about the depth and scale of the injustice against many subpostmasters and the human cost of the harm inflicted upon them.
This was brought graphicly to life by the ITV drama, with its tragic portrayal of individual stories such as that of Martin Griffiths from Ellesmere Port, who took his own life in 2013 after he and his family were forced to pay £100,000 of ‘phantom losses’. His widow was subsequently pressured into signing a gagging clause preventing her from suing the Post Office. There are thought to be at least four suicides linked to the scandal and numerous cases of mental health crises following public shaming and ruination of individuals who were previously pillars of their local communities.
In England and Wales, the Post Office exercised legal powers as judge, jury and executioner to prosecute cases, such as that of Jo Hamiliton, played brilliantly in the drama by Monica Dolan, who was wrongly convicted of false accounting despite there being no evidence against her. The truth about this lack of evidence only came to light when the Post Office were forced to make documents available as part of the ongoing Public Enquiry established in 2020.
Where did this come from?
To understand the significance of such miscarriages of justice, Marxists look at the social and political context in which they occur. What are the underlying processes that drove the scandal and what caused it to break into public consciousness? Who stood to gain by allowing the abuses to happen, and what mechanisms did they use to protect their interests? Above all, how did a disparate group of small business holders take on and defeat one of the largest corporations in Europe backed up by its only shareholder, The British Government?
At the heart of this scandal lies the introduction of the Horizon IT system, responsible for causing the numerous accounting errors that placed subpostmasters at odds with the Post Office. The system was rolled out to branch and sub-branch post offices in 1999, which is when subpostmasters became responsible for ensuring their daily accounts matched what the centralised software indicates as their daily takings.
Prior to this, subpostmasters were the clerical book keepers of a system that had been in place for hundreds of years. Whether or not there had been IT failures, this change alone marked a radical departure for these small business owners, who overnight became data providers for the behemoth known as Horizon.
Almost from the start, subpostmasters were pointing out problems with Horizon but were told “you are the only one” and, as part of their contract, were forced to make up shortfalls from their own savings. Many put themselves into debt and remained liable even when the Post Office terminated their contracts.
Unlike workers, who can fight for basic protections through our trade unions, small business owners are often left purely at the mercy of the capitalist economy. They often have no collective strength in economic production and very little to fall back on when faced with the combined might of the big corporations, backed up by the political establishment.
Consequently, Paula Vennells, who was appointed Post Office CEO when it split from Royal Mail in 2012, pursued the subpostmasters ruthlessly through the courts. She and her team continued to maintain that Horizon was “robust”, despite evidence from its own internal enquiry that this was not true. She withheld evidence from the Parliamentary Select Committee that staff working for Fujitsu who were responsible for maintaining the integrity of Horizon had access to subpostmasters accounts and regularly had to correct accounting errors in the system.
This façade was backed up by Ed Davey and Jo Swinson who, as Lib Dem Ministers responsible for the Post Office during their coalition with the Tories, continued to defend Horizon despite growing evidence to the contrary. They now maintain they were ‘misled’ by the Post Office!
It seems clear, from both the ITV drama and the wealth of documentary evidence supporting it (see also Mr Bates vs The Post Office: the Real Story on ITV and BBC Panorama’s The Post Office Scandal) the overwhelming priority for both the corporate and political establishment was to protect the integrity of the Post Office brand at the expense of the lives of individual subpostmasters and their families.
This is the real face of capitalism, which in pursuit of profit regards any negative impact upon working class people and the poor as so much collateral damage. Included in their calculations are small business holders like subpostmasters and family-run firms such as shops, restaurants and small farms/market gardens.
The real Mr Bates, in whose name the legal case against the Post Office was eventually brought, was a subpostmaster in Llandudno in North Wales. Brilliantly portrayed by Toby Jones in the ITV drama, he steadfastly refused to sign off accounts to the Post Office that he knew to be false, resulting in the termination of his contract in 2003. This personal injustice motivated him to pursue the Post Office, initially as an individual and later as the elected spokesperson for the campaign group Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA).
What the ITV drama captures that no documentary journalism can, is a sense of feeling generated by that initial meeting with the realisation of the participants that they are not alone. From being isolated individuals, many carrying the shame and guilt of failure, they come to realise they have collective strength and are able to channel their anger into the pursuit of their just cause.
It is this realisation that may explain the astonishing reaction of the public to the drama that has been largely absent through all the years of political lobbying of MPs and legal challenge through the courts. It is a reaction that could have significant consequences, with Parliament considering changes in legislation to fast-track wholesale compensation to subpostmasters and possibly strip the Post Office of its historic powers to pursue its own prosecutions in England and Wales.
However, the uproar of many on this issue is likely to have swayed the Tories to respond in an election year – The Tories (alongside the Lib Dems) have overseen this injustice over the last 14 years and have done little until now.
Socialists and trade unionists should take encouragement from witnessing how a campaign that started in the sort of draughty village hall many of us are familiar with, took on such epic proportions. But socialists wouldn’t just campaign to get compensation from the Post Office, we would take this further. It is clear from the behaviour of CEO’s with over bloated salaries, that they cannot be trusted to run society that exploits workers and the planet, we need to fight for democratic workers’ control of the Post Office, alongside other industries that dominate the economy, running society for the benefit of the workers, customers and the planet.