By Jeremy Dewar
Rarely can a TV series have had such an immediate impact in real life as Mr Bates vs the Post Office. But within days of its first episode screening the police announced it is investigating ‘potential fraud offences’ by the Post Office and giant tech company Fujitsu and the government started scrambling around looking for ways to show they cared about justice. Better late than never, perhaps.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission has appealed for more victims to come forward even if ‘your appeal was unsuccessful, or if your appeal was unsuccessful or you are a close relative of a former sub-postmaster who has died’. One is only left asking why it takes a fictionalised drama to make these ‘law enforcers’ to spring into action.
But that is one of the central themes of the series. As Alan Bates, the eponymous postmaster who led the campaign for justice, played by Toby Jones, remarks bitterly to a lawyer at one point, ‘We are fighting a war against an enemy owned by the British government, while we’re just skint little people.’
Post Office Robbery
Mr Bates vs… is cast in the genre of a real life drama with imagined scenes. The scandal started in 1999, when 20,000 sub-postmasters and mistresses were told they had to use a new computer system, Horizon, supplied by Fujitsu, to enter all their financial transactions.
It immediately proved unreliable and postmasters across the country found inexplicable errors popping up literally overnight in their accounts, plunging them into arrears amounting to thousands of pounds – at one point in the film right in front of a character’s eyes. The Post Office, a wholly government owned corporation, met all complaints with the brusque response that the computer system was ‘robust’ and postmasters were contractually obliged to pay back the monies owed.
Not only that, they were consistently told they were the only ones who had reported such errors and therefore they could not be telling the truth. This was a lie. Over the next two decades the Post Office prosecuted over 700 postmasters, essentially sole traders, convicting, bankrupting and sending to jail hundreds of innocent people.
And this is where the story would have ended, were it not for the tenacity of Bates and fellow former postmasters, like Jo Hamilton, Saman Kaur and Lee Castleton portrayed in the drama. They launched a campaign that brought the scandal to national prominence by the early 2010s. But at this stage it appeared to be just a faulty computer system that was to blame.
What Mr Bates vs shows, however, is that the semi-privatised Post Office and IT contractor Fujitsu had known almost from the beginning that the system was worthless and spent years covering up their errors. Indeed the litany of criminal activity went right to the top of society.
Fujitsu hired a small army of tech workers to go into postmasters’ accounts and change entries, while publicly denying anyone had access to them. When a representative of the postmasters claimed Fujitsu had shown him workers doing just that on an official visit, they tried to deny he had even been to their Manchester offices. It took a brave whistleblower to expose their lies.
The Post Office CEO Paula Vennells likewise repeatedly denied the Post Office knew of systematic errors for 20 years. Eventually emails revealed that she was fully aware and told staff to cover their tracks. The Conservative government finally stepped in and awarded her a CBE for ‘services to the Post Office and charity’ to shield her from further investigation.
Meanwhile, as Mr Bates vs… portrays well, the human tragedy caused by these callous officials and politicians was phenomenal. Four postmasters were driven to suicide. Many victims and their loved ones suffered serious mental health problems. Almost all were driven into poverty, lost their houses and businesses and were forced to work excessive hours in menial jobs to stay afloat.
‘What I don’t understand,’ a tearful Jo Hamilton asks at one point, ‘is where did the money go?’ The film heavily hints that it popped up in the Post Office’s profits. This is now the subject of a fraud investigation.
So what needs to be done? First there is the question of full compensation, public apologies and quashing of convictions that are owed – with interest. Then those who ordered the cover-up, fabricated evidence and led false and malicious prosecutions need to be brought to justice.
But also we are entitled to ask, where was the government? At several points in the drama it is hinted that they knew the extent of the scandal and not only allowed it to drag on and drag more innocent people into destitution, but were involved in hushing it all up.
Ed Davey, then minister for postal affairs in the coalition government (2010-15) and now leader of the Lib Dems, says he was deceived by the Post Office and ‘blocked’ from meeting the victims. How? They had already lost their jobs, so the Post Office had no hold on them or the minister. Was he incompetent, in on it or both?
Finally, where were the unions and Labour Party during these tragic years? In government for the first decade, Labour should have listened to the voices of the victims and taken action, bringing the whole edifice in-house and under workers’ control. Likewise the CWU should have intervened – and launched strike action – in their defence.
Fujitsu is one of the few IT firms that has been forced to recognise the unions after a bitter campaign of worker-led industrial action. Unite members should ask whether their union has now grown too cosy with the bosses – and demand it fights for a full workers’ inquiry into its handling of Horizon and other high-profile computer systems it provides to Britain’s elite companies.
Mr Bates vs the Post Office is available to watch on ITVX.