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Mr Bates vs. the Post Office – malfeasance of the highest order

Producers: ITV UK
Released: January 2024 

Malfeasance was a word I wasn’t familiar with until my ex-boss introduced me to in my last job in the NSW public sector. It is a noun that describes ‘an act that is illegal and causes primary or monetary harm to someone else. Malfeasance is intentional conduct that is wrongful or unlawful, especially by officials or public employees.’ It was something we should be conscious of, he warned me, when dealing with any of our colleagues who appeared to behave in an unexpected way that seemed to contravene the expected values of public service and integrity.

Somehow, it was this very word which was all I could think about while watching this latest four-part ITV miniseries. The TV miniseries presents, although admittedly taking certain dramatisation liberties with some details, the horrific real-life public service management failure known as the British Post Office Scandal.

What's the Post Office Scandal?

Acknowledged by the courts and the public as one of the widest miscarriages of justice in British history, the events associated with this scandal occurred between 1999 and 2015, and saw over 900 subpostmasters wrongfully prosecuted for theft, false accounting, and fraud for accounting shortfalls at their branches when these shortfalls were in fact due to errors of the Post Office’s Horizon accounting software.

While some subpostmasters almost immediately noticed the new system reporting false shortfalls, sometimes for tens of thousands of pounds, the Post Office insisted that the system was “robust” and, when these shortfalls occurred, forced them to make up the amounts and even prosecute these subpostmasters without proper investigation. The impact of court cases, criminal convictions, imprisonment, loss of livelihood and homes, debt and bankruptcy took a heavy toll on victims and their families, leading to stress, illness, divorce and, in at least four cases, suicide. In May 2009, UK publication Computer Weekly broke the story about problems with Horizon software and in September 2009 subpostmaster Alan Bates set up the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA).

Parliamentary & public scrutiny

As a result of pressure from campaigners and Members of Parliament, in 2012 the Post Office appointed forensic accountants Second Sight to conduct an investigation into Horizon. The investigations were carried out with much resistance from the organisation but concluded that Horizon contained faults that could result in accounting discrepancies. However, the Post Office still insisted that there were no systemic problems with the software. Then in 2019, a group of 555 subpostmasters led by Alan Bates brought a group action in the High Court against the Post Office, funded by investors willing to underwrite the case. After the judge ruled that Horizon contained bugs, errors and defects, the Post Office agreed to an out-of-court settlement of £58 million, which left the petitioning subpostmasters with a paltry £20,000 each after legal costs. The government subsequently agreed to supplement their awards. In February of 2020 the UK Prime Minister said that the government would establish an inquiry into the scandal. Courts began to quash convictions from December 2020.

Sadly, as of January 2024, a majority of the victims of the Post Office’s wrongful persecutions are still awaiting review and the anticipated and rightful overturning of their convictions. The public inquiry continues. And the Metropolitan Police continues to investigate the Post Office for potential fraud offences. We can only hope that there are criminal charges laid on those who wilfully and wrongfully went after innocent people. It would be a social scourge and shame if the mighty machinery of power and privilege prevails upon the culpable individuals such that they end up escaping accountability for their ruthlessness and abuse of their publicly funded positions.

David vs. Goliath

This is a compelling drama about small postal operators (i.e. the subpostmasters) who were subjected to the most unreasonable and cruel treatment by the big corporation purportedly acting in the interests of the State and Crown. We see how individuals and families had their honest livelihoods destroyed by an overzealous and unconscionable overreach by top management who firstly implemented a flawed accounting system and then sought to cover it up by making innocent parties take the blame and bear the unfair consequences of those accounting flaws. Shortfalls and losses conjured by the new Horizon accounting software designed by Fujitsu were incorrectly attributed to the small post office operators who were forced to either make good these reported losses (which they couldn’t explain) or face criminal prosecution by the Post Office.

Unreasonable contracts & conditions

The subpostmasters were held to unreasonable, one-sided contracts to which they had little recourse. As such they could so easily and readily be prosecuted without any proper investigation process whatsoever. Every one of the victims were repeatedly told that no one else faces any problem with the system when it eventually emerged that hundreds were experiencing erratic and confounding errors in the system; where they were systematically lied to so they would simply accept the consequences of an unreliable system they personally had little, if any, control over.

Dramatising the events

Over the course of the four emotion-packed episodes, we see how the victims of the crime were wronged. We are introduced to a few representative characters in the Post Office pulling the strings, who were determined to keep the reputation of true organisation unsullied, even if it meant being utterly cruel and unreasonable towards Mom-and-Pop operators whose families and lives were turned completely upside down through no fault of theirs.

Alan Bates (Toby Jones) is the main character and leader of the revolt against the mighty and cruel giant. He stoically refused to sign the erroneous financial reports generated by the Horizon system and consequently was forced to give up his post office, losing his life savings. He retreats to a life in the country with wife Suzanne (Julie Claire Hesmondhalgh) where they continue to work quietly to seek redress for not just themselves but for the hundreds of other victims of the corporate crime, they were all forced to bear the brunt of, as helpless and wrongly accused perpetrators of theft.

Jo Hamilton (Monica Dolan) is another victim of the Horizon system who was overwhelmed by the baffling technology. When accused of fiddling with entries, she succumbed to pressure to admit fault. She pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of false accounting rather than theft to avoid a prison sentence. Much loved by her community, her biggest concern is to clear her good name of a criminal record which saw her prevented from working as a volunteer in the local school.

Michael Rudkin (Shaun Dooley) held a union position in the Post Office. During a familiarisation visit to the Fujitsu control centre for the Horizon system in his role he accidentally witnessed an instance of an operator able to alter data on the backend on the live system without the relevant subpostmaster knowing it. When he realised and questioned this, his wife, who ran his post office during his step up into the union role, was subsequently wrongly and vengefully convicted of stealing money. He too eventually lost his job in the union position. He played a key role in providing his first-hand account and evidence to the JFSA that the system was not as secure or robust as the management kept insisting it was.

Lee Castleton (Will Mellor) was another innocent subpostmaster from East Yorkshire who was called a ‘nasty chap’ who was ‘out to rubbish’ the company by a manager of the tech firm which created the malfunctioning system, the Horizon IT inquiry heard. He eventually had his conviction overturned in court.

James Arbuthnot (Alex Jennings) is the former MP for North East Hampshire, who played a pivotal role in raising awareness of the Post Office scandal in Westminster and helped Alan Bates campaign for justice. He first became aware of the Post Office scandal when the issue was raised by one of his constituents, Alan Bates. By December 2014, 144 MPs had been contacted by subpostmasters about the issue and a mediation scheme had been set up with the aim of compensating those affected. However, Arbuthnot accused the organisation of rejecting 90 per cent of applications, claiming that they had been “duplicitous.” He has continued to campaign on the issue after being made a Lord in 2015.

You are not alone

In the past pre-social media era, it was challenging for the victims to come together, other than making cold calls to each other via the phone directory. Their collective revolt and voice were only enabled once they were mobilised with the formation of the JFSA led by Alan Bates. In one of the more emotionally charged scenes, we see the group coming together in a remote church community hall in an obscure little town which Bates had picked. The tears flowed freely as one by one, the victims told their stories and they each realised they were not alone. And the only way to deal with the problem was to act collectively.

For me it was very much like watching my first Mardi Gras parade on Sydney’s Oxford Street one rainy night in 2000. Seeing the PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) contingent go by in particular had gotten my waterworks going. It was mind-blowing to realise that not only were there so many other gays who were out and proud, but that there were parents and chosen families of friends who would maintain their unconditional love and support for who you were, even while others continued to judge, shun and condemn you to an imaginary hell.

The real villains

One of the key personalities put forth as the archenemy of the people is Paula Vennells (Lisa Williams). She is portrayed as the firm but uncompromising CEO of the Post Office, who comes across as the biggest hypocrite on earth when she serves concurrently as a Church of England pastor, displaying an abject lack of empathy or concern for any of the accused subpostmasters whose wrongful persecution she must have known about and approved. It isn’t until the Tory MP James Arbuthnot (Alex Jennings) who leads the pressure group from within the British Parliament accuses her of going back on her word and when things unravel to confirm that the organisation had been lying all along that she is seen to show some compassion for what her own post office agents, i.e. the subpostmasters had to go through.

There were obviously other key management personalities involved in the scandal, but the drama focusses on these few representative key characters presumably for dramatic simplification. In the most high-handed and bullying manner, each time anyone suggests that the accounting system could have flaws, the corporate machinery headed by the CEO insists that there is nothing wrong with it, and the critical question of whether anyone has back door access to manipulate the accounts of each post office is skirted around. This leaves the subpostmasters the impossible task of proving their accounting entries had been manipulated either wilfully or accidentally without their knowledge, especially when some of them had anecdotal evidence that something weird was actually happening in the system back end.

One of Vennells’ key accomplices in perpetuating the wrongdoing was Angela Van Den Bogerd (Katherine Kelly). This duo were referred to by the complainants as the “gruesome twosome”. Despite agreeing with Bates and the independent investigator that no one should approach members of the JFSA, Van Den Bogerd disregards the agreement and insincerely approaches the widow of a subpostmaster, after her husband had caved in and decided to commit suicide under the pressure and psychological weight of his wrongful persecution, to try and strike a private deal and to buy off her silence in the matter. Her pretence of showing concern, along with false intentions to make good, comes way too late and encapsulates the utter cruelty of the corporate machinery that was more preoccupied with protecting its reputation than it was in looking after the welfare of the very people that were fronting its public service image.

Fujitsu, as the party contracted and responsible for the problematic accounting system comes across as being merely the adjacent vehicle through which the wrongdoing was perpetrated. In a courtroom cross examination scene, when asked if the Post Office had access to altering entries in the system without the users knowing, she said no. But she gets caught out when asked if their service provider who maintains the system for them could and she is unable to deny it, without perjuring herself. The company contracted to develop and maintain the faulty accounting system has appeared to avoid accountability until recently.

The software giant has reportedly earned £2.4bn from the Horizon contract, which will have run for more than a quarter of a century by the time it concludes. The bill for compensation to victims, which will be paid by the UK government and the taxpayer-owned Post Office, is now expected to exceed £1bn. During a recent parliamentary committee inquiry, Fujitsu’s European boss, Paul Patterson, admitted the company had known the IT system was faulty since the 1990s. They are now expected, and the company obligated, to contribute to the further compensation due to the victims, as a complicit party to the travesty.

Abuse of unaccountable power

The lack of oversight of the system by a truly independent body or access to the system for users or investigators means the Post Office could unilaterally declare themselves to be in the right, despite suspicions to the contrary. In this incredulous heavy handed and unreasonable contractual or governance situation, there was absolutely no reassurances or attempt to convince the system users that there was integrity and effective security in the system l, yet they were expected to take full responsibility for and must blindly trust their financial data and outputs they had entered in the IT system.

This was not unlike the Roman Catholic Church in the way it has been so willing to sacrifice the safety and well-being of innocent children to protect its reputation against the criminal inadequacies of its own clergy under its less-than-watchful eyes. Instead of owning up to the consequences of its own poor organisational governance and the appalling standards of their clergy, they have chosen instead to blame the survivors of the crimes committed, what with the cruel and crafty initiatives such as the famous “Melbourne Response” a devious scheme established in 1996 by the late Cardinal George Pell, which sought to protect contain the cost of child sexual abuse claims, while deflecting any real and sincere redress to be made.

Pell's trucking company analogy

In the case of child abuse scandal involving Catholic priests, it was nothing less than repulsive to hear George Pell, in his testimony at Australia’s royal commission into institutional responses into child sex abuse, claim that the Catholic Church was no more responsible for child abuse carries out by church figures than a trucking company would be if they employed a driver who molested women. He said, “If the truck driver picks up some lady and then molests her, I don’t think it’s appropriate, because it is contrary to the policy, for the ownership, the leadership of that company to be held responsible”. Of course, this outraged not only the survivors of child abuse that occurred under his watch but also the Australian Trucking Association. It’s as if the Catholic Church could conveniently treat its priests and parishes like franchisees who were fully responsible for their own behavioural misconduct without implicating the management who had appointed and oversaw them from a governance and policy perspective.

Alas, the difference between the two situations was stark, with the UK Post Office seeking to persecute their allegedly errant franchisees without due process and the Catholic Church choosing to turn a blind and simply shuffle them around to protect its public reputation. Even the Australian truckers were astute enough to know that if any of them had been found to have molested a woman in a truck owned by the company, the management of the company would have had the good sense to hand them over to the authorities and sack them for a start. Astoundingly, Pell and his merry cohort weren’t bright nor decent enough to do this when aware of criminal misbehaviour among the clergy in their charge.

Complicated history of the Post Office

As alluded to in the ITV miniseries, the UK Post Office has had a long and complicated history and its evolution as an organisation meant that it held undue and unchecked authority. By virtue of legacy legal statues, it didn’t require the involvement of the police to take anyone to court for any perceived criminal action against it. It could therefore bring charges against those subpostmasters without any proper investigative process, nor could they, in turn, have access to any system information and data they were unfairly held accountable for, had little or no control over and were forced to sign off on blindly.

Post Office Limited is the prevailing organisational entity, acting as a retail post office company in the UK. It’s long history dates to the establishment of the General Post Office in 1660. It has undergone much change over the years, including the split of its telecommunications and postal sectors in 1980 and its separation from Royal Mail (the postal delivery arm) in 2012. As of 2023, it operates over 11,500 branches, with the majority run by franchise partners (contracted as subpostmasters) or independent businesspeople.

The Post Office remains a vital part of UK communities, providing essential services and serving as a community hub for many towns and villages. Following its independence from Royal Mail, the Post Office has been able to make independent strategic decisions and is on a challenging journey to evolve into a sustainable institution but following this appealing scandal would appear to struggle remaining or be perceived as one of the most admired in UK’s public sector.

Acting performances

Toby Jones is perfect on the role of Alan Bates, wonderfully supported by Julie Hesmondhalgh as his wife Suzanne. Monica Dolan turns in a magnificent performance as the motherly and slightly scatter-brained Jo Hamilton, who somehow succumbed to pressure in admitting to a lesser charge of false accounting rather than theft to avoid a prison sentence.

Alex Jennings is comforting as the reasonable minded and approachable Tory MP James Arbuthnot. Feeling obliged to support his aggrieved constituents against the steamrolling might of the political and public service behemoth he comes across an atypical Tory MP. He comes across as genuinely concerned for the average citizen in his constituency and not protecting the machinery that protects the rich which also keeps them employed.

Ultimately, it wasn’t about great individual or ensemble performances that was the accomplishment of the miniseries. But rather the story itself, and especially the incredulity that this was a real-life situation, which managed to hit such a raw nerve with the public. It was, as one review said, blood-boiling stuff to see how such mean-spirited public officials would have had the audacity to pin the blame for a situation brought on by their own incompetence on innocent people whom they were relying on to front delivery of their services.

Delayed public outrage

Having missed the initial rounds of stories about this scandal in the news, including their various sources and out ones, it has been interesting to see the flood of public outrage that has only coalesced and emerged with the screening of this dramatisation in the miniseries.

Perhaps it’s due to the quality of the journalistic reporting and interviews with victims along the way that hasn’t been effective enough. Or could it be a case that we, as a public, find it so hard to empathise with the unwarranted misfortune of others unless it affects someone we know or who is close to us?

Perhaps it’s how the events were dramatised in this miniseries that has brought everyone into the world of very relatable ordinary folk and to see how undeserving they were of such uncountable cruelty that has made everyone sit up and react?

Sudden resolve to fast-track restitution

As a result of the public outcry over the massive miscarriage of justice through this Post Office scandal, the prime minister Rishi Sunak as announced a new law which will allow the unjust convictions to be swiftly overturned. Sadly, this comes too late from the leader of a government desperate to hold on to power in the face of polls which suggest they will lose by a landslide in the forthcoming general elections.

We have to remind ourselves that the flawed system put into place by the Post Office, and the poor management and its outcomes, were a result of direction by Tony Blair and his Labour government. Evidence by a 1989 memo from an advisor to the then newly elected prime minister Tony Blair show that he had been warned about the Post Office’s flawed system, but the decision was to keep going with it. The document does not reveal any concerns at the time that the Horizon software could lead to post officers being wrongfully prosecuted for fraud, theft or false accounting. However, there were concerns about its reliability and ballooning cost.

Little did they know that the still yet-to-be-determined overall cost associated with introducing then defending such a useless system and then deviously using it to prosecute innocent people whom they had forced to use the system would cause such devastating and shameful outcomes for everyone concerned.

Good governance and expectations of justice must cut through partisan politics, and it is therefore imperative that no one be above the law, whichever side of politics one sits on.

Returning her CBE means little

Shockingly, the CEO presiding over the whole mess was awarded a CBE in 2019. Established by King George V in 1917m the “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” is a British order of chivalry which rewards contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organizations, and public service outside the civil service. There are five levels of honours, including the Knight/Dame Grand Cross (GBE), Knight/Dame Commander (KBE), Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE) and Member (MBE).

In hindsight, it was amazing she would have been given the award at the time the scandal that was unfolding which found the organisation she led had been so cruel to so many of its own subpostmasters, to the extent of ruining their lives, unfairly criminalising them and even resulting in suicides. Apart from the criticisms of the outmoded name which still refers to the now-extinct British Empire that was known to have asserted itself through many years of brutality.

Among the list of awardees who have rejected an OBE are David Bowie, John Cleese, Nigella Lawson and John Oliver. Even CS Lewis, who despite being a devout monarchist, was careful not to be associated with the tainted award to avoid association with any unsavoury political issues when he refused the award in 1951.

Following the broadcast of the miniseries on 1 January 2024, a petition to strip Vennells of her CBE passed one million signatures. On 9 January 2024, she announced that she would hand back her CBE. However, this will have no formal effect as only the monarch, on the advice of the Honours Forfeiture Committee, can revoke honours. Surely any inaction or stalling of this committee to revoke her CBE must bring shame on the late monarch who was so ill advised in the first place to have awarded the honour. And Vennells must have been utterly tone-deaf or completely lacking a social conscience in her audacity to have accepted the dubious honour in the first place. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has lent his “strong support” to the honours forfeiture committee if it decided to view Vennell’s CBE.

Stripping of honours, however, may not be enough to appease the critics. As advocated by one of the victims in the dramatisation, it’s the getting back the money which the senior officials were rewarded for their good work that will hurt more. There are ongoing calls and petitions to recover generous bonuses paid to Vennells for a job well done during the scandal she presided over. And this may not be unreasonable when the current Post Office CEO Nick Read has admitted that the moneys wrongfully recovered from the victims may have been declared as company profits and disbursed to senior officials as bonuses.

Importance of the arts & storytelling

Actress Julie Hesmondhalgh, who played Alan Bates’ wife Suzanne in the miniseries, has written an article published in The Stage titled ‘Post Office scandal: how drama can cut through the heart of an issue”. In it she makes the point about how the effect of the drama she was involved in which lays bare the scandal’s miscarriage of justice, has captured the imagination of the public who are now wanting the see real action shows the importance of the arts as a force for change.

However, it is also a sad indictment of society when objective news reports and documentaries are ignored. The public, it seems, can only be moved when serious matters such as these stories revealing failures in our public service are delivered through entertainment modes. Is the public so unfeeling, uneducated, and lacking in discernment and objectivity that they need their emotions stirred and manipulated by dramatic efforts to feel something? Sadly, this human weakness is known and opportunistically tapped into when conspiracy theories and misinformation are shovelled out in appealing, bite-sized, consumable form by those wanting to sway public opinion in their favour of the nonsense they spew.

Robodebt case in Australia

The Australian context has had its own similar scandal in the form of the much-criticised Robodebt Scheme. It was an automated debt assessment and recovery program implemented by the Australian government to recover supposed overpayments to welfare recipients. It relied on automated data-matching between income tax and social welfare data, leading to the incorrect demand for welfare recipients to pay back benefits. The scheme was found to be unlawful, with errors in the system leading to welfare recipients being pursued for debts that were not owed.

The scheme was criticized for its distressing impact on welfare recipients, as well as for reducing their ability to dispute the debt and failing to account for changing personal circumstances or differing levels of digital literacy. The scheme was ultimately dismantled, and the government was forced to refund over A$700 million of payments to victims and settle a multimillion-dollar lawsuit brought by victims seeking compensation.

The Robodebt scheme raised more than half a million inaccurate Centrelink (the Australian government agency that delivers a variety of social security payments and services) debts through a method of ‘income averaging’ between 2016 and 2019, which has since been ruled unlawful. If you didn’t pay any money towards your robodebt, it was reduced to zero, and a small number of former customers still need to update their details to receive their refund.

A Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme concluded on July 7, 2023. Its 900-page report, which was presented to the Governor-General, labelled the scheme as “cruel and crude” and made 57 recommendations. The report recommended civil and criminal prosecutions for unnamed individuals involved in the scheme. The findings implicated several high-ranking officials, including former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, former government services minister Stuart Robert, former department of human services secretary Kathryn Campbell, and former human services minister Alan Tudge.

The current Federal Labor government accepted 49 of the 57 recommendations, with the remaining recommendations accepted in principle. The acceptance of these recommendations is expected to prevent a similar scheme from occurring in the future. The report was also critical of the previous Coalition government’s handling of the scheme and its failure to adhere to legal standards.

Where’s the justice and the outcomes?

And yet nothing appears to have happened since July 2023. Let’s hope the people responsible for the criminal acts of social cruelty will be held to account and that there will prosecutions for the suffering and real-life consequences of those acts. We can only hope that the current government isn’t failing the public and holding back in prosecuting politicians on the other side of politics, in the fear that it will set a precedence for incriminating itself for its own malfeasance.

Where was the public outrage from the Australian public for the misery of the victims of the Robodebt Scheme? Do we not care or empathise enough with the families of those unfairly treated to want justice and redress for them? Are we waiting for the movie of TV drama to be created before there is a public outcry and demand for swift, fair and deserved justice for the victims of such cruel political power play?

Where is the social justice element of the religion of those who claim the country must be guided by, to the extent they want to inflict it on non-believers and are so proud to wear on their sleeves? Sadly, it appears that the very people who are so willing to preach about God’s will and how we should love one another and be compassionate are the very ones perpetuating the oppression against the “little people” they are happy to sacrifice in their pursuit of personal wealth and power!

Official trailer

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