One miscarriage of justice is bad enough, but 738 is more than we’re capable of comprehending, says Nick Wallis. Emma Clegg asks him about his new book, the definitive account (to date) of the Great Post Office Scandal.
Between 2000 and 2015, 738 people were prosecuted by the Post Office for theft, false accounting and fraud. The prosecutions used evidence from Horizon, the Post Office’s software system that threw up duplicate entries, lost transactions and erroneous calculations. Subpostmasters were forced to settle the discrepancies with their own money, with some amounts stretching to tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds. Those unable to pay were taken to court. Respected local figures were stripped of their jobs and many were forced into bankruptcy or borrowed money to give the Post Office thousands they did not owe. The really unlucky ones were sent to prison.
Journalist and broadcaster Nick Wallis first encountered the story in 2010 when a taxi driver told him that his pregnant wife had gone to prison for a crime she did not commit. Since then, Nick has recorded interviews with victims, insiders and experts, uncovering hundreds of documents to build up the story, which he has now told in The Great Post Office Scandal, recently published by Bath Publishing.
The Horizon IT system, developed by Japanese firm Fujitsu, was rolled out in 1999. But the system was plagued by glitches, and many subpostmasters complained that Horizon was wrongly reporting shortfalls. Those affected were told by the Post Office that no-one else was having any problems with Horizon, and that therefore it was their own fault. This line of defence was maintained for 19 years.
“There was a culture of denial,” says Nick. “There is no doubt that it was policy within the Post Office to tell postmasters who were having accounting problems that they were the only ones. So the subpostmasters were lied to by their employer. Told that it wasn’t the computer system, they started to doubt their own sanity and this had extraordinary mental health repercussions.”
The Horizon system worked 99% of the time, so the Post Office maintained that it was “robust” and that the shortfalls were created by people who were seen as criminal subpostmasters. “There was a cultural snobbery at the Post Office that postmasters are not to be trusted, that they are all potentially thieves on the take, so they thought that Horizon was catching criminality in the act,” says Nick.
The lack of cooperation from the Post Office, both in terms of supporting their employees with accounting problems and in responding openly to the legal battle over their convictions – they refused for years to provide any records relating to Horizon – has meant that it has taken two decades to get the cases reconsidered. Over this time many had served time in prison, and had lost their homes, friendships and marriages. For some the stress was so overwhelming that the experience resulted in premature death through stress-induced illness or suicide.
This is an example of a massive company riding roughshod over small players: “The Post Office point blank refused to hand over the information and they traded the legal system to their advantage, using their institutional fire-power and limitless resources,” explains Nick. The government and the sub-postmasters union are also implicated: “The Post Office was supported by the government as a shareholder who, when the scandal started to break aided and abetted the Post Office to try and suppress the scandal. You also had a supine, corrupt union, the National Federation of Subpostmasters, who were effectively corporately captured by the Post Office – they felt that it was easier to believe the Post Office’s lies that a minority of their members were criminals than it was to take their side and properly challenge what was happening.”
The Post Office point blank refused to hand over the relevant information and they traded the legal system to their advantage…
It has even been established that some crucial documents were ordered to be shredded by a senior Post Office manager so they could not be used in evidence. Alan Bates, however, was not to be crushed. Sacked from his role as subpostmaster in Craig-y-Don, north Wales in 2003, he started as a lone public voice of dissent but went on to beat the Post Office in two of the highest courts in the land and win some redress for the victims. Nick says, “Alan was ruined by the Post Office in 2003 and he vowed he would get justice. It took 16 years before he could stand on the steps of the high court as part of a massive multi-million-pound group litigation. It was March 2019 and it was the first time anyone in authority had sided with his perspective. That takes absolute gargantuan, heroic levels of tenacity and stubbornness. That’s what he had as a leader.”
So why was the Post Office so unwilling to recognise the shortcomings of Horizon? Nick explains, “They had spent over a billion pounds setting up and rolling out this system and they were utterly dependent on it working perfectly to attract new business from third party clients, so they had to hide the scale of the problems.” Nick has worked tirelessly to get to the truth of the story, helping to spread awareness about the miscarriage of justice. He broadcast his first investigation for the BBC and took the story to Private Eye in 2011.
He subsequently made two Panoramas, a Radio 4 series, and raised thousands of pounds to crowdfund his own court reporting for the Post Office Trial website. He makes it clear that his role has been primarily about uncovering the truth: “I’m not a campaigner. I’m not on the postmasters’ side, as it were – I’m just reporting everything as I see it.”
But with so many victims, so much corporate obfuscation and such a complex, long-drawn out story and legal battle, there is also the issue of compassion fatigue. “Trying to get across the scale of this scandal is really difficult because one miscarriage of justice is bad enough but more than 700 is something we’re not actually capable of comprehending,” says Nick. That’s where the book has a role because it is the first definitive account of the scandal.
No one who has had their conviction overturned has received full and final compensation, although the government has put aside two-thirds of a billion pounds, so the fight continues – for Nick a third Panorama is scheduled as well as an ITV drama series in 2023, People vs. Post Office. I ask if something of this scale could ever conceivably happen again.
“There were confluences of events that made this unique. But these scandals keep happening – the infected blood scandal, the Hillsborough scandal, the Windrush scandal, the banking crisis. All these have hallmarks in common, the biggest of which is lack of accountability. At the moment there has been no accountability in this scandal.”
Thank goodness for truthseekers like Alan Bates and Nick Wallis.
The Great Post Office Scandal by Nick Wallis (£25) is published by Bath Publishing, which is donating 10% of its income from sales of the book to help Subpostmasters. This means £2.50 of every book sold directly from the site will go to the Horizon Scandal Fund.
Nick is also reading excerpts from The Great Post Office Scandal on 2 March, 7.30pm at the Guildhall