After Mr Bates vs The Post Office came the Business Committee vs The Post Office, and MPs packed the room to see how well the real-life witnesses played themselves. How many MPs? Twelve. Thirty-two. Four thousand and six. Forgive the confusion but the computer I’m writing on was made by Fujitsu.
Jo Hamilton is small, sparkling and remarkably tranquil, as if broken and remade by trauma. When her debt doubled before her eyes on the Horizon system, The Post Office first “convinced me it was my own fault” and then persuaded her that this hadn’t happened to anyone else. Lies, lies, lies. We heard that higher-ups knew there were bugs in the system, yet they prosecuted people for crimes the vast majority did not commit, and pocketed the money that sub-postmasters put back into the system.
Don’t call any compensation “compensation”, said Alan Bates. It’s the victims’s own money the state is returning.
He spoke in admirably precise language. No jargon. No waffle. Contrast that with Nick Read of The Post Office and Paul Patterson of Fujitsu. In a better age, Mr Fujitsu himself would have committed hara-kiri via Zoom to atone for his company’s shame but businesses have worked out that it’s less painful, possibly cheaper, to say “I’m so sorry”, to sugar obfuscation with scripted empathy.
Both men – after some grovelling – emphasised the damage was done before they took charge, and that the inquiry would answer points upon which they were unprepared to speculate.
Your evidence “has left us quite shocked”, said an angry committee chairman. “You cannot give us a precise timeline of what went wrong, don’t seem to have kept people’s money safe and can’t estimate the financial redress.”
Indeed, they might as well have said “we’re sorry you feel our service hasn’t met your expectations”, and littered Parliament with posters warning “abuse of our employees will not be tolerated”.
How did this madness go on for so long? Lord Arbuthnot nailed it: “People who had a conviction for a crime went up against the most trusted brand in the country.”
Though what The Post Office didn’t realise was that it was trusted because of the decency of those very people, not “because of the price of their stamps”. When the sub-postmasters were “vilified and humiliated, the brand then went into overdrive” to protect its reputation – and crushed them with lawyers.
Before this hearing, I was sceptical of the proposed mass pardon. Now, I’m for speeding it up. The bureaucracy of the appeals process is glacial and cruel, akin to asking men and women who have been on hold for 25 years to join a queue – a line that, like this scandal, has no clear end.
Ms Hamilton was asked if there were more victims likely to come forward. “I had a text in the taxi on the way over from Good Morning Britain from someone who had been to prison,” she replied. People have gone mad, miscarried, committed suicide. Whatever the redress available, she concluded, “it’ll never let my [late] mum and dad see me have my conviction quashed”.
The Post Office disaster was the British Chernobyl, an indictment of our ruling class, with consequences that will radiate for years.