It’s in the post

Pity the post office workers of the world: dogs, rain, and hills, not to mention IT.

01 February 2024

It’s in the post

Winston Churchill maintained that there is “no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion”. Publishers, among them Computer Weekly, may have been first to report on the Horizon Post Office IT system scandal in the UK, but it took a miniseries to tip the government into action. The facts are well known: in Britain, self-employed post office managers are known as sub-postmasters and postmistresses. They are trusted members of their communities, but their employer saw fit to prosecute 736 of them for fraudulent accounting between 1999 and 2015. Some were left bankrupt, others jailed and four committed suicide.

As it happened, these shortfalls had been propagated by Fujitsu’s Horizon accounting software. While the errors were immediately evident to the employees, the Post Office instead believed it had uncovered an epidemic of thievery, and doubled down on prosecutions. It was only in 2015 that the Post Office launched a forensic investigation, which eventually led to an out-of-court settlement of £58 million, but this amounted to very little after legal costs, and the convictions still stood. It took the ITV series Mr Bates vs the Post Office, screened by ITV this January, which spurred Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to announce that the sub-postmasters and postmistresses would be exonerated. In a nice, particularly British touch, the former Post Office CEO Paula Venables, on whose watch the mess unfolded, is going to hand back her Commander of the British Empire medal. Fujitsu, for its part, has belatedly said it will chip in for compensation, and will also say it’s sorry.

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