I was brought up to believe that there was a difference between the original transgression and whether or not you ‘fess-up’ or lie in order to cover it up.

My mother drummed into me that everyone makes mistakes, but lying about that mistake in order to get yourself off the hook, is actually worse than whatever you did wrong in the first place. And what about the other side of the coin, when you know for absolute fact that you’ve done nothing wrong, but someone in authority accuses you of a specific act of dishonesty? This is the stuff of Kafkaesque nightmare and it’s something that several hundred men and women who worked as sub-postmasters for the Post Office have been living through for nearly twenty years.

This week a public enquiry opened into one of the biggest scandals that has happened in this country in my lifetime. It is a classic ‘David versus Goliath’ story in which Goliath lied, lied and lied again and when David (who was entirely innocent) attempted to defend himself, he was met at every turn with threats, delay, obfuscation and more lies.  In his opening remarks to the enquiry into the Post Office Scandal this week, James Beer, QC said: “'Lives were ruined, families were torn apart, people were made homeless and destitute, reputations were destroyed – not least because the crimes all involved acting dishonestly. And a number of men and women sadly died before the state publicly recognised that they were wrongly convicted.”

I have been following this story for the past few years, because I find it terrifying. Terrifying that it happened at all in our sophisticated and (I like to presume) apparently fair society, terrifying that it has taken twenty years to play out (and is still not resolved), and terrifying for what it says about the contempt with which ‘ordinary’ people like you and I may be treated by those in positions of power and authority.


Image from BBC. See here

This is a complex and extremely convoluted story, but, as is often the case, in many ways it is also extremely simple. In the most basic terms, starting in 2000, accounting discrepancies in a newly installed computer system called Horizon were blamed on the humans administering the system in their post offices rather than on the machines which were actually at fault. Every single person who was accused of dishonesty and theft was told by their Post Office manager that ‘computers don’t make mistakes’ and that ‘they were the only one’ to have experienced any problems with Horizon, so they must be lying. In fact the management of the Post Office was lying. It didn’t matter how much the sub-postmasters protested their innocence, the computer was always believed and the result was ruination for all those (wrongly) accused.

A single tape recording exists of an interview conducted in 2012 between Sarah Burgess-Boyd, the sub-postmaster of a city centre branch in Newcastle and her Post Office manager. It makes blood-chilling listening. She is accused not only of dishonesty, but is also blamed for not asking for appropriate help, despite doing so repeatedly.

This is Sarah’s heart-breaking defence, which falls on entirely deaf ears:

“I’ve worked so hard. I think you need to ask yourself why, when I have raised my salary through hard work over 4 years from £22k to £60k a year, I would risk that by stealing this money? I am really proud to be a postmistress, I love my shop and my customers and I thought I was doing a good job. If I lose my office I’ll be heartbroken. I haven’t done anything wrong. I haven’t been dishonest (crying and sobbing) Why would I do this? It doesn’t make any sense.” 

Sarah was sacked and prosecuted for theft. It took two years to go to trial at which point the P.O offered no evidence and the trial collapsed, but Sarah had lost everything and her life was ruined. And, as was subsequently revealed, it was she who was telling the truth, whilst the people in authority over her were involved in a huge scape-goating cover-up.

For me, the truly reprehensible part of this story is the way that the Post Office senior management behaved after their initial transgressions were gradually exposed over many years, thanks to investigations both by forensic accountants appointed by the campaigning group ‘Justice for Sub-postmasters ’, and by various journalists, notably in Private Eye, on the Panorama TV programme and Nick Wallis* who has told the whole saga in a series of programmes on Radio Four. These investigations slowly uncovered the truth. They showed that glitches in Horizon were known about by Fujitsu, who built the system, from day one; that the Horizon system could be accessed and changed remotely whilst the sub-postmasters were told that was not possible; that over 700 sub-postmasters were wrongly blamed, sacked, financially ruined and some were imprisoned; and that when they were eventually challenged, the senior management acted to ‘protect the Post Office brand’ by doubling down.


Nick Wallis has been following the scandal for years and hosts a well-researched podcast: 'The Great Post Office Scandal'

Image from BBC. See here

In 2015 when Paula Vennels, the CEO of the Post Office was called before members of a Business Select Committee in parliament, not only did she refuse to apologise for the way that so many sub-postmasters had been treated, she very robustly defended her organisation and refused to accept that there’d been a systemic failure. She said “We’re dealing here with a very small number of people who have had some very difficult things happen to them, where we could have done things better. But that is not to say that over 10 years that the system was not good, because in the vast majority of cases it was”. 

By 2018, Justice for Sub-postmasters, led by the redoubtable Alan Bates, had sufficient evidence and financial backing to sue the Post Office and the first (of several) trials came to court. Far from accepting any liability for all those ruined lives, the Post Office continued to double down by playing every dirty trick in the book to delay, obfuscate and block the judicial process at a cost of millions of pounds to the plaintiffs who were fighting for their reputations. That notwithstanding, the trial judge found in favour of the sub-postmasters in a damning judgement which heavily criticised the Post Office for a ‘culture of secrecy’. The key contract terms that the Post Office had held over the sub-postmasters to refund the ‘missing’ money were deemed so unfair as to be unenforceable. But even then the Post Office refused to back down.

As the second trial got under way in 2019, it became clear that the Post Office had indeed known all along that the Horizon system was not only flawed but that the data could be accessed and changed remotely, something that they’d denied for twenty years. At that point, lawyers representing the Post Office suddenly stopped the trial. They demanded that the judge recuse himself on the grounds of bias, and applied to the Appeal Court to reverse his damning judgement from the first trial. The result was delay, extra crippling costs for the plaintiffs and an attempt on the part of the Post Office to collapse the whole judicial process and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Fortunately the Appeal Court was having none of it and accused the Post Office of ‘acting like a mid-Victorian factory owner.”  

Five days before the judge was about to deliver his second damning decision at the end of the second trial, the Post Office agreed to settle and to pay total compensation of £57.75m. However it accepted limited liability, offered no apology and, after all legal costs, individual sub-postmasters could receive little more than £20,000 in compensation. Many have still not seen a penny of that settlement, and to date not a single Post Office senior manager has been sacked or held to account. Paula Vennels, the CEO from 2012 to 2019, was awarded an MBE in 2018 and, unbelievably you may think, went on to chair a large NHS Trust.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a Post Truth Society if it means that people in positions of power can lie, obfuscate, delay and attempt to subvert due process and get away apparently scot-free whilst the ‘little people’ pay with their reputation, livelihood and, in at least four cases of suicide, with their lives. I am awaiting the outcome of this public enquiry which may take the rest of this year to complete. I very much hope that the investigation will reveal the truth of what really happened, that the right people will finally be held accountable and that the victims of this travesty will be properly exonerated and financially compensated. If that happens then maybe it will go some way to persuading me that I do still live in a society that cares about the truth and in which the liars in positions of power and authority do not go unpunished. 

*So would I lie to you? Just to be clear this piece is a mixture of personal opinion and factual reporting which I have taken from the dogged investigation undertaken by Nick Wallis who has been following this story for many years. His two hour-long omnibus podcasts ‘The Great Post Office Scandal’ is available on BBC Sounds and makes for fascinating listening. It is from there that I got the verbatim quotes from Sarah Burgess Boyd and Paula Vennels.

Tricia x 

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