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Post Office Horizon IT scandal: How cost-cutting contributed to wrongful prosecutions

The vital ingredients of success in any endeavour – good people and good systems – went missing from the Post Office

Read what I have to say about this in my latest Scotsman column, published today (23rd January 2024).

It seems it takes a good TV drama-documentary to kick our justice system into gear. The Post Office Horizon IT scandal has been bubbling away for close to 20 years, but it has taken the recent television series to really turn up the heat. Now the lynch mob is in full cry: punish the wrongdoers and compensate the victims is the order of the day.

To be sure a lot of decent Post Office employees have been shamefully treated, their lives ruined. The innocent must be compensated, but when it comes to vengeance we must be careful, for it usually takes us nowhere near understanding what actually went wrong so we can avoid such a calamity again.

Thankfully behind the sound and fury, we have a public inquiry that should ensure we don’t miss the lessons. From what we know now, it’s clear that case saw a complete systems failure, which failed to provide the safeguards that should have protected the innocent staff from prosecution, and the public from the enormous cost of compensation that’s sure to fall on the taxpayer. And it’s not just that different parts of the system failed, it’s also about timing.

The new Fujitsu computer system is getting much of the blame, but is this fair? Computers are, after all, only machines, designed and programmed by flawed humans. You would have thought that we were long past the time when we saw computers as infallible, yet some Post Office workers were apparently so enthralled by the machine that, even when they knew they had not stolen money, they accepted the computer couldn’t be wrong and repaid it.

But it was when the levels of reported dishonesty rose that the real systems failure occurred. Given that most people, including Post Office employees, are relatively honest, losses would be at the margins. So when the new computer system reported huge increases, it should have begged the obvious questions. What’s going on here? What’s changed? And here’s the first problem.

The people best suited to smell a rat, a group of experienced internal investigators who knew the business and its people inside out, were cleared out of the Post Office Investigation Branch in a cost-cutting exercise in the 1990s and replaced by a cheaper group of enforcers. This episode is a perfect illustration of the difference between investigators, who would have been an obvious safeguard against injustices, and enforcers.

The second safeguard should have been an independent prosecution service questioning such an increase in cases. Since the Post Office in England and Wales is itself responsible for prosecutions, the independent element is missing, but not in Scotland where the Crown Office/Procurator Fiscals Service still has responsibility. I can only conclude they accepted, in good faith, assurances from the Post Office and perhaps lacked the technical ability to question the computer.

So there we have it, seemingly unconnected failures in different parts of the Post Office combined with a lack of checks and balances resulted in an utter failure in the duty of care to Post Office employees. It is said that the vital ingredients of success in any endeavour are good people and good systems. It’s clear that Post Office employees could rely on neither.

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