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An almost unbelievable scandal

London, 22 May 2024. Former subpostmaster Alan Bates speaking to reporters as the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry continues. Photo Sipa US/Alamy Stock Photo.

The Post Office Horizon scandal has exposed a deep-rooted problem. It’s more than the misbehaviour of individuals, it’s about the way capitalism works – and what workers can do about it…

Few, if any, of the recent scandals has gripped people like the Post Office Horizon affair. This disgraceful long running affair continues to fascinate and appal.

Thanks to the ongoing public inquiry and the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office broadcast in January, public attention is intense and is likely to remain so for the duration of the inquiry.

As with the Grenfell Tower fire, also subject to an ongoing inquiry, there’s a deep-rooted problem. It is not just down to a few craven or wicked individuals, or even just greed. Ultimately it comes down to control – whether workers can exercise power to prevent abuse.

The facts are now well known: a computer system (Horizon) did not work properly. More than 900 sub-postmasters were wrongly prosecuted over several years. Many were jailed or ruined, or both, and others suffered great distress.

This was, according to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, “…the most widespread miscarriage of justice the CCRC has ever seen and represents the biggest single series of wrongful convictions in British legal history.”

Still not righted

And the injustice is not yet righted. A group of subpostmasters took the matter to the civil courts. The Post Office fought every step of the way, but eventually agreed to pay compensation. That led to calls to reopen criminal cases and eventually to the setting up of an independent inquiry, which is currently taking evidence.

A compensation scheme administered by the Post Office has been criticised for slow progress and only a few of the convictions have been overturned. All this is devastating for the people involved and their families.

What is emerging week by week at the inquiry is almost incredible – and ITV had no need to embellish the facts. What seems to have happened is wilful and persistent disregard of evidence about the computer system faults and the obligation to disclose that to defence lawyers.

And what’s more, the Post Office persisted in that stance even under public questioning by members of parliament in 2012. An independent report by IT specialists Second Sight in 2015 was dismissed and its findings misrepresented.

Over 500 of the subpostmasters joined together as the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA). They took legal action, making a breakthrough with court victories in 2018 and 2019. These exposed the appalling actions of Post Office Limited, a publicly owned company, over many years – even extending to obstructive conduct during the court cases.

What’s less known is the role that journalists played in uncovering the scandal – which was public over a decade before the inquiry began or the TV drama was made. The magazine Computer Weekly broke the story in 2009, and by 2013 it had published over 300 articles about it.

Karl Flinders and his colleagues at the magazine continued for years to explore the issues and explain what was going on. So has journalist Nick Wallis. Originally a BBC Radio Surrey presenter, he made programmes for Radio 4 and Panorama about the scandal and wrote for Private Eye. He continues to report on the scandal online.

Under threat

But this sort of journalism is under threat. Computer Weekly is now a wholly online publication after acquisition by a US digital marketing group in 2011. And the BBC is shifting funding away from local radio stations.

And even the drama that brought this to many people’s attention might not be made in future. The programme was widely watched in Britain, but made a loss because it did not have international appeal.

‘Even the drama that brought this to many people’s attention might not be made in future…’

Many workers will ask – didn’t the subpostmasters have a union to fight for them? Yes, even though self-employed, they did have a long-established union, the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP). But it did not stand up for them in any meaningful way. That’s what led Alan Bates and others to set up their alliance.

The relationship between the Post Office and NFSP changed over the period that the Horizon prosecutions took place. NFSP lost its status as a registered trade union in 2014 after which it was funded by Post Office Limited.


The judgement in the court cases brought by JFSA was scathing. Justice Fraser said, “the NFSP is not remotely independent of the Post Office, nor does it appear to put its members’ interests above its own separate commercial interests.”

The former NFSP general secretary appeared before the inquiry on 20 June. He persisted in his claim to have been acting in members’ interests and denied a lack of independence from the Post Office. He appeared to reject both the words of Justice Fraser and the CCRC findings.

The Communication Workers Union represents those directly employed by the Post Office. It has been steadfast and diligent over many years in its support for the subpostmasters and in exposing the role of NFSP.

The union made a full and detailed submission in March 2020 when the inquiry was announced. Among other things, it called for a new deal for subpostmasters and access to collective bargaining for them. It said that the compensation to be paid should not be allowed to impact on the Post Office network as a whole.

Following the Postal Services Act in 2011, a majority of the shares in Royal Mail were floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2013. The government initially retained a 30 per cent stake but sold its remaining shares in 2015, ending 499 years of state ownership. Post Office Limited was constituted with a commercial board, and the Communication Workers Union has been campaigning for years about the number of post offices that have been cut. Post Office Limited’s persecution of subpostmasters has made the situation worse.

The persecuted subpostmasters and their families may, finally, have some justice and recompense. But that can’t be the end to this many-faceted affair.

The future of the Post Office network may be threatened. And while this is an extreme case, the attitude displayed by the management, its IT contractor and lawyers isn’t unique. So workers in the industry and more widely will have to respond.