When I hear and read interviews by and with former sub-postmasters I become very emotional. These are not casual workers in convenience stores. They are mostly people who made significant investments by buying local Post Offices with a view not only to make a living but also to place themselves in the heart of a community, not unlike pub landlords used to do before large breweries bought up many, many pubs to promote their ales.
Some sub-postmasters bought their local post offices as ‘retirement’ investments, seeking a quiet but useful occupation in their later years. Many have passed away due to old age or coping with the stresses of sudden and undeserved criminality.
First, to be clear, there’s an understandable muddle about what is what. The Post Office is a government-owned company for which it is entirely financially and corporately responsible. The Royal Mail is a company entirely separate from The Post Office.
There has been criticism that The Royal Mail is more concentrated on parcel collection and delivery rather than only postal deliveries of letters. It’s now a commercial profit-making company. Most important communication seems to be sent now by courier, email or other electronic means. The Royal Mail is great to use and its systems seem to work. It functions well in competition with other courier services.
The Post Office is a company owned entirely by the British government and is responsible for the processing of mail, be it letters or parcels sent within the UK or abroad. The Post Office (with its branches) is an agency which supplies services such as quantifying letter costs and parcel sizes to determine and log despatches. It also provides some banking activities such as pension and benefits payments as well as passport checking and driving licence renewals which are useful local services.
This scandal is about The Post Office which is ultimately owned by all of us. It has previously been argued by ministers that the Post Office is an “arm’s length” autonomous organisation. Really? It has apparently been semi-autonomous (but that’s not true as it is a wholly government owned organisation) for over 20 years and was the responsibility later of many junior non-cabinet ministers who glorified in the titles of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs.
Allegedly, none of these ministers dealt with the issues raised by aggrieved sub postmasters directly, face-to-face, with the excuse that they were advised by their civil servants that meetings with the most prominent activist Alan Bates (a ‘busted’ former Post Office sub-postmaster) and others would “not serve any useful purpose”. It should be noted that Ed Davey (now leader of the Liberal Democrats) claims he did meet Bates when serving under the coalition.
Several more served previously under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown making it a cross-party issue. It’s worth noting that there have been 20 postal ministers in the last 20 years – which rather demonstrates the value placed on this non-cabinet post by successive prime ministers. Fortunately, the former Conservative MP, Lord James Arbuthnot, took up the cause of the aggrieved sub-postmasters when the story first broke and continues to be a leading champion for them.
Mr Bates versus the Post Office
ITV has broadcast a moving and meaningful drama series in four parts: Mr Bates versus the Post Office. For more than 20 years, former sub-postmasters have fought the Post Office organisation for recognition of their plight in being prosecuted for fraud. Their fight continues. There’s a public inquiry, set up in 2020 and still sitting. Since the renewed attention, triggered by the ITV drama, the inquiry, which is now fully televised, has been a revelation with the exposure of aggressive Post Office investigators, and possible collusion with Post Office management over denials about there being any problems with the obviously flawed Horizon counter-top computer system.
There is perhaps some resolution to quashing a very large number of prosecutions for fraud but there isn’t clarity yet of a final date for compensation to be handed over to those whose lives, reputations, homes and businesses that have been destroyed by The Post Office. More than 700 sub-postmasters have been prosecuted by the Post Office, and by extension, its sole owner, the government, for fraud. Some 90 or so have had their prosecutions quashed. Many, many more are still to be reprieved.
Precious little compensation has been paid for miscarriages of justice. For example, a Surrey sub-postmaster in West Byfleet, Seema Misra, was jailed while pregnant on the day of her son’s tenth birthday. Others, such as Sathyan Shiju lost his home, his savings and his sub post office in Tolworth, Surrey: just two victims among many, many more throughout the country (although more pity must be reserved for those in Scotland where the legal system operates differently and more slowly to England and Wales, not to mention those in Northern Ireland where there is still no effective government in Stormont). Such is the sort of outcome the Post Office sought with enthusiasm in defiance of queries and complaints about the Horizon computer system.
What is fair compensation?
Compensation and reparative action is at the heart of justice for the affected sub-postmasters, although arriving at a final restitution will be inevitably complex and must encompass the following considerations:
First, Horizon, provided by technical giant Fujitsu, seems to have been at the root of the sub-postmasters’ problems, primarily in the generation of erroneous accounting errors. This left sub postmasters with deficits their contracts obliged them to fund from their personal assets or cash, even by giving up their post office premises and possibly their homes and businesses.
Second, they not only lost their investment in buying their own post office premises. They also lost the ability to earn from their endeavours in running a post office.
Third, they suffered abuse and insults from the local communities they served who believed them to have stolen money from the Post Office. This was further fuelled by the immediate closure of local branches, thereby preventing people from using their post offices for services such as buying stamps, cashing cheques, withdrawing pensions and benefit payments, and the rest.
After more than 20 years, how can any compensation be calculated for these people?
Loss of income over more than 20 years? Maybe that can be estimated using national income data but, given these were privately owned businesses, can that really be accurate?
The consequences of a criminal conviction for fraud are much harder to calculate. A criminal record makes basics such as opening a bank account, obtaining a credit card, setting up house insurance, and even insuring a car almost impossible and, if possible, incredibly expensive compared to the costs faced by most. Applying for a job with a so-far irreversible criminal conviction is an almost insurmountable obstacle.
The loss of reputation, personal status and trust is probably incalculable.
The government seems suddenly, because of an ITV drama, to have woken up to the need to act urgently to do something for these damaged people. This situation has been going on for many, many years but the national press and MPs only seem to have woken up to it in the last month or so.
The current postal affairs minister, Kevin Hollinrake MP, took a barrage of questions this January from an unusually full House of Commons, lasting some two and a half hours. Hollinrake declared that “the taxpayer should not be responsible for paying any compensation.” But the Post Office is entirely owned by the government and therefore the nation, so if compensation is to be paid (and just how quickly will that happen?), surely it is the taxpayer who will bear the cost?
There has been some political bleating about hitting the computer and software supplier Fujitsu for part of the costs but this is still subject to the outcome of the public inquiry which may or may not attribute blame to Fujitsu, the Post Office or indeed its management (recipients of CBEs or other notes of recognition for ‘services to the postal services’, although I note that former chief executive of the Post Office, Paula Vennells, is to hand back her CBE for postal services. She and others apparently denied there was a large-scale problem with the branch computer network).
For once, the government needs to fess up and deal with this massive and wilful destruction of many lives and businesses and give an undertaking that it can never happen again. The local post office is an essential community asset but if it is hide-bound by an unfit-for-purpose computer system and ineffectual or even disinterested ministers, how can it be developed? Who might want to take on a commercial business that is also community-focused when there is little interest or support from a government that not only owns it but can barely take any interest in it by only appointing minor ministers to be responsible for it?
Villages and small suburban communities are focused on their local stores such as convenience supermarkets, local traders, and their post offices. It’s time the government tried refocusing its attention on communities as this will be how local voting intentions might be successfully redirected.