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What is the UK post office scandal?

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Hundreds of UK post office operators were sent to prison for fraud or theft, in a scandal that has since cost the Government millions.
UK post office scandal

Between 1999-2015, hundreds of post office workers in the UK were charged with theft and false accounting, based on information from a faulty IT system.

A major inquiry was launched in 2020 to investigate the failures of the software that led to the prosecutions.

Since then, the British Government is now paying millions to victims. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described the scandal as an “appalling miscarriage of justice”. 

Background

The UK Post Office operates over 11,500 branches across England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, an IT system called ‘Horizon’ (owned by Japanese company Fujitsu) was rolled out across thousands of post offices to modernise their transactions and accounting.

“Bugs, errors and defects” in the system wrongly made it look like money had gone missing within some post offices.

Consequently, the defects led to hundreds of branch operators (called sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses) being accused of theft or fraud for the unexplained shortfalls.

The Post Office has since denied glitches in the Horizon system. Former workers told an independent inquiry that they were “the only” branch to have the issue.

Convictions

Employees who flagged missing funds were made to repay the money to the UK Post Office. Hundreds of branch operators were dismissed from their roles and criminally charged.

Between 1999 and 2015, the glitches led to an estimated 900 convictions. Some workers were jailed for at least three years.

Many former post office workers described suffering serious financial and emotional damage as a result of the prosecutions, including
bankruptcy and broken marriages.

Pushback

Issues with the software were first raised by former branch operator Alan Bates in 2004 to trade publication Computer Weekly. Following a story in the publication, other former postmasters reached out to Bates.

The group then banded together to form the “Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance”, in an effort to reveal the “injustice” they suffered and expose the “cover up”.

Several British MPs also began flagging concerns about the Horizon system, after hearing stories from impacted workers in their electorates.

Legal case

Bates drafted an application that was later submitted to the High Court in 2016, featuring the signatures of more than 550 ex-employees.

In 2019, the court found there had been many bugs in the system. It ruled there was a “culture of secrecy” at the Post Office. It said it engaged in “oppressive behaviour” by demanding sums of money that could not be accounted for.

The case has sparked recent attention because of British broadcaster ITV’s new drama ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’.

Compensation

A judge said the Post Office’s defence that the Horizon system had no glitches amounted to “the 21st-century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat”.

The UK government has paid £138 million ($AU263 million) in compensation to more than 2,700 post office operators affected by the scandal.

An ongoing independent investigation commissioned by the government, the Horizon Inquiry, began in 2020.

Exoneration

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has introduced new laws to “exonerate” (pardon) those who were convicted.

“This is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history,” he said.

“People who worked hard to serve their communities had their lives and their reputations destroyed through absolutely no fault of their own.”

So far, no individual Post Office executive has yet been held accountable for the scandal.

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