Baljit Sethi broke down in tears at a public inquiry that opened this week. His life and his family had been forced to undergo twenty years of stress and financial difficulty because he had been falsely accused of defrauding £17,000….by a computer system. The problem, as it turns out, was the computer system. It was faulty, and he was not skimming off money. He has said from the onset that there were problems with the system.
The computer system was being used by the publicly owned Post Office to manage its branch post office accounts. Not for the first time, the mess was created by a public/private partnership. The computer system called Horizon had been designed by the Japanese multinational, Fujitsu, and forced on the branches by the Post Office management.
Let’s just outline the key facts of this scandal:
- between 2000 and 2014 736 subpostmasters and postmistresses were prosecuted of theft, fraud and false accounting
- they were financially ruined and lost their jobs
- being a key focus of local communities, they suffered particular shame and ignominy
- poor health and addiction sometimes resulted, and marriages broke up
- some were imprisoned, including mothers of young children
- 33 victims are now dead, four of whom took their own lives
- only in 2019, nearly two decades after it had all begun, did the Post Office agree to a £58 million pay out
- just a third of the post office workers who applied for compensation have received anything as of last month
- it is one of the biggest single miscarriages of justice in British legal history
- the Post Office have now said they have no money to pay out all the compensation and are asking the taxpayer to foot the bill.
Six lessons of this miscarriage of justice
- Public/private partnerships are dominated by the interests of capital
The top management of the Post Office and the Fujitsu bosses worked in unison. They both did everything they could to deny the problem and to delay any action. Multinationals are adept at flattering and providing gifts and services to develop this collaboration. Their reflex was to blame the post masters and mistresses rather than to look for faults in their system. A key myth of such arrangements is that the buyer (the Post Office) can hold the seller (Fujitsu) to account. In fact the multinationals cover their backs. Their higher paid and more street wise lawyers make sure the contracts mean that they never have to pay out much if there is a problem.
As a senior manager I witnessed first-hand how companies like Serco outfoxed many schools with their agreements to provide IT systems that often did not deliver the expected benefits. Public/private partnerships in schools and hospitals have left the taxpayer burdened with huge ongoing costs. Gordon Brown, who was the architect of a lot of these, essentially took out costly mortgages to private companies rather than using state expenditure.
- The individual managers and bosses are never held accountable and often are rewarded and promoted
Paula Vennells became the Post Office CEO in 2012 and went on prosecuting hundreds of sub postmasters/mistresses. She received a CBE in 2019 and was made both chair of London’s Imperial College Healthcare NHS trust and something called “a non-executive board member of the Cabinet Office”. As Marina Hyde acidly commented in the Guardian (15th Feb): “postmasters have gone through the sort of wringer that makes Kafka feel like a Disney musical, extraordinary compassion has been shown to the managerial class in all this, who have been showered with honours and directorships and bonuses throughout.”
Any enquiry is held many years after the events, too late for many of the victims. The failure of either the Fujitsu or Post Office managers to accept publicly that there were bugs in the system has resulted in a lot of human suffering which they are unlikely to pay for. A big question for the enquiry to establish is to find out how far these managers knew about it and covered it up. Did nobody think that it was a bit strange that the Post Office had hired so many fraudulent people? Some of the moderate amounts involved must have flagged up some doubts surely – fraudsters do not take risks for such small sums normally.
- The mainstream mass media often under report such scandals
Whereas the media will spend inordinate amounts of money and staff on celebrity or sports stories a lot less is invested in this type of scandal. You wonder if the fact that many of the subpostmasters/mistresses were of South Asian heritage had any influence on such editorial decisions. It took the efforts of journalists at non-mainstream press outfits like Private Eye (link to their 7 page dossier) or Computer Weekly to do the investigative work. As the Post Office enquiry opened the tabloids were obsessed with the Wagatha Rooney/Vardy tiff.
- If you do not campaign and organise as victims you will find it harder to win anything
Alan Bates, among others, did sterling work to put the scandal in the public arena. As we saw with Hillsborough or Grenfell, the stronger the campaign the more results you get. Resolute campaigning led to 39 postmasters/mistresses’ convictions being overturned at the Court of Appeal last April.
- There is a naïve belief that if the computer says no then that is the truth
Part of today’s capitalist ideology is that the new technologies are unilaterally positive. Human judgements like those made by the post masters and mistresses were trusted a lot less that print outs from a computer. Just like today’s stock markets are distorted by the use of computerised buying and selling. It is assumed that it is good for the system despite evidence that it is non-productive and creates unnecessary volatility. Digital currency falls into the same category.
- Personal ties and revolving doors often operate with these public/private relationships.
Michael Keegan who ran Fujitsu is the husband of Cabinet member Gillian Keegan. He denied the IT system could be full of bugs. He is currently a crown representative at the Cabinet Office. It happens elsewhere. A Labour leader of Haringey Council who had promoted a development which had to be ditched due to local opposition, including within Labour, ended up joining the same property campaign once she left her position. This occurs time and time again – the arms companies and ministers at the defence ministry are particularly keen on revolving doors.
Yesterday, Baljit Sethi finished his evidence with the right question, let us hope he gets some justice. As he said: “The people who did this, they should be investigated. Not a single person has been brought to charge. They have gone scot-free”.
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