By Mia Tillyard
ITV’s explosive docudrama “Bates Vs the Post Office” has thrust the Horizon scandal back into the limelight: accusations are flying, pay-outs are pending, and justice appears imminent.
Following the installation of Fujitsu’s IT system, Horizon, in 1999 sub-postmasters across the nation were erroneously cast as corporate-scale thieves, and Post Offices were branded as hotbeds for embezzlement and fraud. In reality, the software proved to be massively flawed, and the UK justice system failed to recognise it: over 900 sub-postmasters faced wrongful prosecutions and thousands more lost their lifesavings alongside their reputation.
Labelled the ‘biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history’, the Post Office scandal of 1999 to 2015 has resurfaced, courtesy of the ITV series that has dominated British television screens since its release back in December. Post Offices countrywide were outfitted with software for transaction processing and account management. When employees noticed unexplained shortfalls, they found themselves unjustly shouldering the blame.
The drama unfolds as Mr Bates leads 555 sub-postmasters in a breakthrough court case, clinching a monumental £42.5M victory in 2019. However, after shelling out substantial legal fees to the High Court, what was left in individuals’ pockets was a mere shadow of justice. In response, the government has set up a series of compensation schemes.
Director, James Strong, was overwhelmed by the reception of the docudrama, commenting that “to see tangible change rectifying these wrongs, is quite unbelievable”.
There are several compensation schemes available:
- The Group Litigations Order Scheme
- The Overturned Convictions Scheme
- The Horizon Shortfall Scheme
The Group Litigations Order (GLO) Scheme applies to those who took group legal action, insofar that they were not convicted. If eligible, individuals will be offered an initial payment of £75,000 with the capacity to bargain for additional concessions if they have considerable grounds to do so; it is predicted that two thirds will request a higher sum.
The Overturned Convictions Scheme has been designed for those wrongfully sentenced as a result of the faulty system. This collective will be fast-tracked to a settlement of £600,000 and may enter into negotiations for a higher pay-out if this figure appears unreasonable. Whilst final figures are processed, an interim payment of £163,000 will be made to those who qualify for this scheme, provided that they sign a proclamation of innocence – such a document could be used against them at a later date if necessary. Rishi Sunak has announced a sweeping liberation law, which promises any conviction related to the Horizon scandal to be overturned. Inevitably, there will be a few wolves amongst the sheep, but in an interview with ITV news, justice secretary Alex Chalk, echoed the sentiment of William Blackstone: “better that 10 guilty people escape than one innocent person be made to suffer”.
The Horizon Shortfall Scheme caters to sub-postmasters who suffered personal financial set-backs due to the Horizon system but refrained from participating in Group Legal action. Contracts mandated employees to reimburse any shortfall, leaving them financially burdened, sums reaching tens of thousands of pounds, for no fault of their own.
Receiving over 2,700 claims thus far, this group can apply for their case to be independently assessed, potentially leading to compensation.
Government members are expecting that the pay-outs could easily surpass a billion pounds. With Britain’s economic landscape, such high figures raise the question as to where this money is coming from. The short answer: taxpayers. Such a staggering sum has ignited a fervent debate, leading fingers to point in different directions – who holds the blame for this immense injustice, and who should pay?
Some have turned their scrutiny towards former Post Office Chief Executive, Paula Vennels, who, responding to a petition with over a million signatures, has announced that she will relinquish her CBE. Alongside her colleagues, Vennels lucratively profited from Horizon, amassing £4.5 million in profits during her tenure at the Post Office. Meanwhile her employees were facing the courts and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
Alternatively, questions have been raised about Sir Ed Davey, along with other politicians. He served as the postal affairs minister during the coalition government but failed to flag the unusual surge of criminal activities in post offices.
It cannot go under the radar that Fujitsu, the multibillion-dollar international company, are responsible for installing the flawed software that triggered this debacle. Adding to the frustration, they kept zero record of their actions. Fujitsu remains silent on the matter until the completion of enquiries into the company.
With the invalidity of these extensive profits having been spotlighted, is it still reasonable that compensation be taken out of taxpayer money?
Paul Brand, the UK editor for ITV News argued that “it is the people who profited from Horizon, who are, by multiples, far better off than those that have been wronged by this scandal, even after they’ve been compensated”.
Image: BazzaDaRambler via Wikimedia Commons