Business & Finance Legal Money

Post Office Horizon Origins in Ireland?

  • May 13, 2024
  • 5 min read
Post Office Horizon Origins in Ireland?

Did the great Post Office scandal originate in Ireland? The fact that the Post Office scandal is so very much in the news is reason enough to refer to it in our business column. We can hardly be accused of getting on a bandwagon. We covered Nick Wallis’ excellent expose “The Great Post Office Scandal” long before the docudrama’s tipping point.

My firm’s client has no reason to believe that his hardworking god-fearing Irish mother was anything other than honest. When her accounts system showed that IR£10,000 was missing, she was persuaded to sack her own son. This story goes back into the early 90s, “lost in the mists” to quote David Smith. The system she was forced to use was Riposte by Escher, through acquisition of a predecessor of Horizon. All his mother’s worries would have been familiar to the hundreds of people prosecuted. His mother avoided prosecution by paying over the IR£10,000, an inconceivable amount of money for a sub-postmaster in Stillorgan, South Dublin. In the client’s own words:

“The Irish PO was going through a modernisation process at that time. She had been running a smaller although still quite busy PO in a different suburb but this was a step up. The PO put in sleek new counters etc. (which she had to pay for) and the all-singing all-dancing new-fangled computer system was part of the process. Her previous office was still an old school paper-based ledger system. It could well be that the Irish PO used her office as the sole guinea pig for the subsequent national rollout.”

It’s rarely the loss of the money. It’s the effect on the individuals and their lives thereafter. The ones who went to jail suffered dreadfully and at least five people took their own lives in the shadow of the Great Post Office Scandal.

The reverberations are publicly terrible but reflect reality for any small business starting out on its own. The devastating effect of bankruptcy or when other things go wrong. The collateral damage throughout families, of HMRC and the Official Receiver tearing lives apart, seemingly endorsed by the courts as appears to be the case here.

What is the answer? A higher level of integrity in public office, surely. Some humanity? It might be argued that if there were faults in the original software that were not disclosed to Fujitsu, rather like The Sun claiming to be a victim of the police’s cover-up in Hillsborough Disaster, perhaps Fujitsu is a victim. A stretch, but as we watch the executives being humiliated and Bates being lauded (quite rightly), one cannot help questioning the system and whether individuals are solely responsible.

The King’s Counsels make great plays of the Post Office acting as judge, jury and executioner. Surely the judges in these cases were aware of the conflict inherent in the Post Office’s prosecution system, more so than the chairman and chief executive. Senior managers had inherited a system that appears to have gone back centuries. To hold them responsible for the conflict in the system strikes me as hypocritical. The judiciary’s job is to defend the common people and it failed. Spectacularly.

Robin Hammond took part in a 1998 pilot of Horizon and has been quoted widely as saying that the Post Office are “liars if they say they were not aware of the problems”. One accountant colleague has asked the very sensible question, “if so much money was diverted internally, where was the balancing suspense account?” How did they sign off the books?

The publicity has thrown light on select committees (and similar) including Darren Jones on YouTube “terrorising Royal Mail bosses” and “Labour MP corners Post Office bosses over dodgy bonus culture” with Jones highlighting the irony of false accounting generating bonuses for bosses and prosecution for innocent sub-postmasters. It is a seductive theatre, but perhaps too easy to lay into bosses trying to turn round a failing publicly-owned organisation, which turns over around £13 billion and approaches 250,000 employees and (conveniently under employment legislation) self-employed subcontractors. They compete on an increasingly unlevel playing field with the likes of Amazon.

Borrowing Twain, “if you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything,” integrity is management’s secret weapon. Given the hostile nature of the questioning, part of the problem seems to be that it’s hard to fall back on the truth when relying on weasel words and blame shifting. Integrity is a core value, not out of a Christian or other spiritual mission, but as an efficient buttress to corporate communication. I can’t remember who first said, “branding is an internal message” (I think it was Sorrell). If you tell the truth, it’s harder for them to make you wriggle. Or worse.

Where did corporate integrity break down? All roads seem to be leading to Paula Vennells with a few staging posts and twists on the journey. What did the ministers think they were doing when Alan Bates wrote to them complaining about being stonewalled by the Post Office, asking the Post Office to draft the replies? What are MPs for except to hold the state properly to account? Is there a moral to this immoral story?

All state institutions are inherently evil. They pervert their own officers with the carrot of honours and index-linked pensions. We need more Alan Bateses, however cussed and difficult to manage they might be.

The prosecution is having its day but the soap opera awaits the defence with interest.

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Douglas Shanks

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