by Nina Knowles (Writers Group)
On 11 November 2010, a West Byfleet sub-postmistress was convicted of stealing £74,000 in cash from the Post Office branch she ran. There was no evidence of her taking any money, except for a shortfall of cash compared to what was showing up on the branch’s Horizon IT system. Trust in the software superseded the lack of evidence presented to the court and newly pregnant mother of one Seema Misra was driven out of Guildford crown court to begin a 15-month sentence.
Horizon’s glitches, which were known to the Post Office, led to 700 sub-postmasters and mistresses being wrongly convicted for fraud and theft, with four of them committing suicide over their convictions. Over a decade later, legal action by those who were made victims of this scandal has exposed one of the most widespread miscarriages of justice on British record. Despite this, Voice of the Postmaster, a group that was set up to campaign for current staff, alleges that Horizon Software is still generating cash shortfalls, which are having to be paid back by those in charge of their respective branches.
So how did this happen? According to Private Eye’s Richard Brooks and Nick Wallis, The Horizon IT system was conceived as one of the first PFI contracts between the Post Office and the Benefits Agency on the one hand, and the computer company ICL on the other, having been set up to create a swipe card system for pensions and benefits payments from Post Office branch counters. Due to growing failures in the delivery of this system, the contract was scrapped, with taxpayers forking out around £700 million for this debacle. To save face, the Post Office decided to use the system to transform its paper-based branch accounting into an electronic system, covering the full range of Post Office services. The new Horizon project became the largest non-military IT contract in Europe, despite serious doubts over the reliability of the software. The Post Office continued to maintain there was nothing wrong with the technology and went after staff when the sums didn’t add up.
Keir Starmer was director of the CPS at the height of this scandal. The Post Office has indicated that the CPS played a significant role in the dispute, with the organisation acting as the respondent in six cases on Starmer’s watch, however a spokesperson for Starmer maintains that no cases relating to the Post Office case were brought to his desk under his tenure as DPP. Questions are also being raised about Tory MPs links to Fujitsu, which provided the faulty accounting software to Horizon, on which the convictions were based. Rishi Sunak faces questions about why the government have only addressed the scandal in the wake of ITV’s Mr Bates Vs the Post Office broadcast. The Liberal Democrats are also implicated in being instrumental to this gross miscarriage of justice, over local Lib Dem MPs failing to do enough to help those who called upon them for intervention in this matter.
There are many injustices thrown up in this case, from the isolation of workers pitted against a gargantuan British institution, to the blind faith that these institutions put into machines over human beings. What has also made people furious about this miscarriage of justice is the absence of accountability held to those in charge of these organisations, and the lengths they went to in order to cover their own backs. It would be easy blame all the individuals involved in the shameful cover-ups of gross incompetence and the vindictive persecution of the staff accused, however the privatisation of Royal Mail and its separation from the Post Office is one of the key drivers of this scandal and the main reason why it was so easy for the various stakeholders implicated to avoid accountability.
The Workers Party Manifesto calls for the selective nationalisation of utilities, particularly those that are currently dysfunctional. Royal Mail is a key part of our infrastructure and provides a significant level of employment to British workers. Posties should be valued members of our communities, who have been grossly neglected by a managerial class who jump from one gravy train to another. The Workers Party seeks to end the dangerous practices of public-private ownership, to ensure best value for the public, whilst recognising the rights of private producers. For too long we have been told there is no alternative, but the reality of allowing private finance initiatives unfettered access to complex public services has proved to be a devastatingly ineffective solution.