The dark side of the Post Office: humans vs computers

The Post Office Horizon scandal currently saturating headlines is actually a story that is far from new. And, it is precisely its shocking history – the knowledge of this long-standing, deep-rooted injustice at the heart of British life – which makes this affair so interesting.

From 1999 to 2015, the Post Office – which is a separate branch from the Royal Mail, and oversees various postal and governmental services – triggered a series of prosecutions in relation to 736 sub-postmasters. There were 283 other cases which were brought forwards from other sources, like the Crown Prosecution Service: so, this is a case which has affected more than 900 individuals over more than two decades. And, the very nature of the case – essentially humans vs computers – is a topic which is eerily relevant, now more than ever.

The affair begins with the computer accounting system that the Post Office used – and continues still to use – which is called Horizon, and is created by the Japanese tech firm, Fujitsu. And, over the course of the Post Office’s implementation of this system, which was also in 1999, Horizon was beset by bugs, flaws, and faults which resulted in funds being incorrectly reported as missing, or falling short from what they should be. The sub-postmasters in charge then duly fell under suspicion; it appeared as if they were stealing funds. And, despite making repeated claims to the contrary, advocating for their innocence and raising widespread concerns about Horizon’s efficacy, they were criminally convicted. 

Many ended up in prison, whilst others were financially destroyed, as, contractually, the sub-postmaster should cover any funding discrepancies from their own pockets; many attempted to plug the gaps themselves, assuming that somehow it must be a human, not technological error. But, with amounts exceeding £50,000 for some, this was clearly not a tenable solution – especially when the figures were quite literally incorrect. 

And it had a deeper impact than the purely legal and economic; marriages disintegrated, and those accused became pariahs, ostracized by the communities they once proudly served. It completely ruined, and in some cases, literally ended, lives.

The Mirror reported the case of sub-postmaster Seema Misra, who was 8 weeks’ pregnant when she was sentenced to serve 15 months in prison over a missing £74,000 – which she had allegedly stolen. Or Lee Castleton, another former sub-postmaster, who was accused of stealing £25,000. He assumed that it was the Horizon system, not himself, who was to blame, so rang the helpline 91 times – received no help – and was left with £321,000 in legal fees, after he attempted to dispute his unfair suspension. 

The cases of Martin Griffiths and Peter Hexham, too, are horrific. Both were former sub-postmasters accused of fraud, who both respectively committed suicide as a result of their wrongful accusations. These weren’t even the only suicides occurring in the direct wake of the investigations, and this doesn’t include the 33 others who died simply over the two decades it took for the inquiry to begin. All these individuals passed away still with the belief that they were the guilty parties.

The total and cataclysmic weight of these wrongful accusations is something carefully explored in the recent ITV drama, ‘Mr Bates vs the Post Office’. This drama tells the specific, true story of Alan Bates – a sub-postmaster who fought against his allegations and actually won – and the show was released at the start of January 2024. It was very successful, specifically triggering a huge, new wave of support for victims – as well as renewed outrage towards those responsible.

But, whilst this dramatic success can be seen to be a heart-warming display of public broadcasting aiding public good, the real, hard facts of ongoing attempts to claim compensation are far less rosy.

So far, the total estimated costs for compensating affected individuals could be as much as hundreds of millions; millions that currently, are set to be paid for by the government – and therefore, the taxpayer.

Fujitsu – the manufacturer of the faulty Horizon system – has yet to confirm whether it will take any steps towards compensating people. The European boss of Fujitsu, Paul Patterson, has asserted that his company has a ‘moral obligation to contribute towards compensations for those its system has wronged. This admission has been seconded by UK business minister Kemi Badenoch, who has expressly written to Fujitsu, demanding talks to discuss this matter.

The fact that Fujitsu has other systems also deeply embedded within other governmental structures – like HM Revenue and Customs – as well as the fact that their stock has fallen by 9% since the start of the year, may be further factors to be considered in the question of compensation, but nothing as yet has been agreed.

In fact, the impenetrable barrier of bureaucracy is another genuine concern, and is currently proving to be a significant obstruction towards actual people receiving the actual pay they deserve. Over 4000 people have been told they are eligible for compensation, and there are three different schemes catering to various victims, and with differing outcomes. But, as the BBC reports, only 93 cases have actually ever been overturned, and from those 93, only 30 people have reached “full and final settlements.” With individual payouts estimated to be exceeding £1 million in some cases, there is still a long way to go in terms of real numbers, despite the growing amount of traction in the public sphere.

And, finally, the legal and political weight of these decisions cannot be overstated. Government officials in both England and Scotland have proposed a sort of ‘blanket exoneration of any who were convicted during the scandal. This would speed up the process significantly; but, it would also mark a historic instance of the government interfering with the justice system. And, although attempted in good faith in this instance, this interference could easily have later repercussions. The UK democracy rests on a separation of powers, and the blurring of these boundaries could result in the erosion of the systems which help to preserve our very democratic system. 

So, the inquiry into this scandal is still very much ongoing; there is still a long way to go before justice is reached, and it is unclear as yet how many people – if any – will eventually be held accountable. But, it is certainly an affair worth bearing in mind, especially as AI and technological systems become more and more prevalent within our lives.


Featured image: by sl wong via Pexels

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