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The Tragic Injustice of the British Post Office Scandal, Explained

How a tech glitch ruined hundreds of lives … and what the Church of England is learning in the aftermath.
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The Tragic Injustice of the British Post Office Scandal, Explained
Image: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
Post Office in Westminster in London

In recent weeks, Britain has seen an outpouring of anger at what has been described as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in its history: the Post Office scandal.

Over more than a decade, hundreds of local businesspeople were prosecuted on the basis of a faulty IT system, and the government has just recently begun to right its wrongs. A TV dramatization of the saga aired last month has generated further outrage and empathy for the innocent victims.

And because the Post Office’s former CEO happened to be a member of the clergy, the Church of England is also trying to learn lessons from the scandal.

What is the Post Office scandal?

Between 1999 and 2015, 736 people running local post offices (“sub-postmasters”) were prosecuted for false accounting, theft, and fraud, based on information from an online accounting system called Horizon. Hundreds went to prison. Families were left bankrupt, marriages collapsed, and lives were ruined.

Sub-postmasters had raised concerns about Horizon and the shortfalls it reported, and eventually 550 of them brought a group legal action. The Post Office agreed in 2019 to pay out £58 million ($73 million) but didn’t admit liability. In 2021, the Court of Appeal ruled that “the failures of investigation and disclosure were … so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the ‘Horizon cases’ an affront to the conscience of the court.”

A public inquiry is now underway to determine what went wrong. Although media first exposed the scandal, a recent TV miniseries, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, has sparked outrage among a much wider public.

What is the Post Office?

More than a mail service, the Post Office is an institution that is part of the fabric of British society and dates back to the rule of King Charles I in 1635. The postal market remained a state monopoly until 2006 and, while much has changed in recent decades, the Post Office is still entirely owned by the British government. With more than 11,500 branches, it is the largest retailer in the UK. Much of the population is able to walk to a branch.

The Post Office has expanded to offer banking for individuals and small businesses. The vast majority of local post offices are operated by franchise partners: “sub-postmasters.” They are often regarded as pillars of the community: familiar faces entrusted with thousands of pounds of local money. Another important fact is that the Post Office is able to bring private prosecutions. In fact, Royal Mail solicitors are believed to the earliest known formal investigators and prosecutors in the world.

When did the Horizon scandal begin?

More than 20 years ago, sub-postmasters flagged Horizon for generating shortfalls in accounts that they couldn’t explain. But the Post Office approach was to demand that they either make up the shortfall or face prosecution. In 2004, a sub-postmaster from Northern England, Lee Castleton, was made bankrupt after losing a legal battle with the Post Office.

Although the sub-postmasters eventually formed an alliance, each were initially told that they were the only ones reporting problems with Horizon. A key aim of the public inquiry is to establish who knew of faults with Horizon and when. Last month, one of the executives at Fujitsu, the IT company that ran Horizon, said that bugs had been present in the system for “nearly two decades” and that the Post Office had been made aware. The chief executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, Paula Vennells, told a parliamentary inquiry in 2020 that Fujitsu had assured her Horizon was “fundamentally sound.”

What is the connection to the Church of England?

Paula Vennells was unusual in serving as the CEO of a major company while also being ordained. She became a priest in the Church of England in 2006 and worked as a “non-stipendiary” (unpaid) minister at village churches in an area north of London.

She was a trustee of Hymns Ancient & Modern, the charity that owns the independent Church Times newspaper, serving a full nine-year term that ended in January 2019. She also served in a number of advisory roles for the church, including its Ethical Investment Advisory Group from 2019 until 2021, when she resigned.

Last month, it was reported that she had been considered for appointment as the bishop of London—one of the most senior roles in the church. Although she was not appointed, eyebrows were raised about the shortlisting, given that she had held no other senior roles in the church. A Church of England spokesperson has said that “more questions should have been asked about the appropriateness of Vennells’s involvement in various committees and working groups.”

In January, she handed back her Commander of the British Empire honor, which was bestowed upon her by the queen in 2019 for services to the Post Office and to charity. Vennells said, “I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the sub-postmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system. I now intend to continue to focus on assisting the inquiry and will not make any further public comment until it has concluded.” She stepped back from public ministry in 2021.

How has the church responded?

The bishop who leads the area in which Paula Vennells has carried out her local ministry, Alan Smith, is the son of a former sub-postmaster. After the 2021 court ruling, he expressed his “distress at the miscarriage of justice that so many sub-postmasters have suffered” and last month he said that the TV dramatization “rekindles the suffering and pain of the sub-postmasters and their families who are victims of the Horizon IT scandal, and anger in all of us for such a serious miscarriage of justice.”

He added, “I hope and pray that the public inquiry will explain fully the sequence of events, provide redress for the victims and hold to account the responsible people and organisations.” Some clergy have personal links to the scandal, including those who supported sub-postmasters facing prosecution.

What has the recent response been like?

Recent weeks have seen an outpouring of sympathy for those wrongly convicted and anger at how the Post Office pursued prosecutions. The subject of the miniseries, Alan Bates, has been hailed as a hero, with the sub-postmasters regarded as David up against Goliath. The story has tapped into wider anxieties about large-scale IT projects and corporate faith in technology, with many people incredulous that the Post Office was ready to believe that so many sub-postmasters had turned to crime.

Within the church, questions have been raised about its own relationship with corporate culture. Vennells was a member of a faculty appointed by the Church of England to deliver training for senior leaders.

A few weeks ago, an overview of the program was shared on social media, with topics including “applying concepts around value creation, value destruction and resource allocation to support the ministry and mission of the Church.” It comes against a wider, long-term backdrop of anxiety about incorporating secular management techniques in the church.

What happens now?

The public inquiry remains underway, with Vennells due to give evidence later this year. To date, only 95 convictions of sub-postmasters have been overturned, although the government has said that those previously convicted will be cleared of wrongdoing and compensated under a new law. Each will be eligible for a compensation payment of £600,000 ($756,765). For some, it is too late: at least 60 died without seeing justice or compensation. Some took their own lives.

Madeleine Davies is a senior writer for the Church Times in London, where she has covered the Post Office scandal.’

March
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