A TV series causes a political storm

London It is the story of David against Goliath. Based on true events, the four-episode drama miniseries broadcast between January 1 and 4 on the British network ITV, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, has returned to front page news for “one of the worst miscarriages of justice in UK history”, in the words of the Criminal Cases Review Commission: the so-called Horizon scandal. To the extent that on Wednesday, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has made them his own during the weekly control session in Parliament. And, to remedy this, he has announced the imminent passage of a law to this – a kind of amnesty law – to exonerate the hundreds of people unjustly accused and convicted and to compensate them financially for all losses. In some cases, it will be too late.

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Between 1999 and 2015, up to 736 post office concession holders (franchises of the publicly owned company Post Office Limited – not the same as Royal Mail, the postal company, privatized since 2013, which only sends packages and letters) were prosecuted for fraud, theft or mismanagement, always based on false evidence generated by errors in the Horizon accounting computer program, introduced in all offices.

The legal power of the Post Office Ltd company to conduct its own criminal investigations and to carry out its prosecutions and criminal proceedings, without the concurrence of the police, further facilitated impunity. Basically, contrary to what governs the principles of law, the accused had to prove their innocence.

We do not yet know the fine print of the legal formula that Sunak has announced, and which is completely exceptional, because Parliament will pass a law to annul court rulings. What is clear is that without the social impact generated by the television series, which is well-intentioned and which exalts the spirit of seeking justice in the face of any adversity, nothing would have moved so quickly, although the computer problems from Horizon began to be reported in 2009 and that, ten years later, in 2019, Post Office Limited admitted the errors in the system and established compensation for 555 of those affected.

The arrival of modernity

In 1999, the company Post Office Limited began to implement in its offices (about 14,000 throughout the country) the aforementioned new accounting program, developed by the Japanese firm Fujitsu. With the new Horizon computer system, the scams were in theory supposed to improve the accounting of the business.

In the United Kingdom, Post Offices are establishments – many in rural areas and small towns – that handle all kinds of services, not just the sending of letters and packages or the sale of stamps, which are tasks that depend exclusively on the Royal Mail. The offices also act as banks, renewing passports and driving licenses and paying social benefits and pensions. Long story short, they move billions of pounds a year. Horizon, in theory, made life easier for managers. Manual numbers were over. Welcome to computing. Until soon the problems started.

A lot of money disappeared. The computerized accounts did not match the manual balance sheets of the concessionaires. And, of course, after the relevant audits, the fault always lay with the owners of the franchises. Consequently, Post Office Limited demanded the missing money from them. And if they didn’t put them out of his pocket, he sued them. This is how he brought more than 3,500 office managers to trial: 736 were found guilty and 236 received prison terms. Four committed suicide because of the financial and emotional catastrophe into which they were dragged. So far, only 93 of those convicted have been exonerated.

Alan Bates, 69, Mr. The show’s Bates, played by Toby Jones, had to close his office in a small town in Wales in 2003. Post Office Limited said he owed him £1,000, according to records kept by Horizon. Bates had to pay off the debt or face the criminal consequences of the alleged theft. But he said he didn’t owe a cent, he didn’t fold and, unlike hundreds of others affected, he didn’t sign a guilty plea. As a result, his license was revoked and he lost his business. But after realizing that the same thing had happened to other concession holders, he launched a legal battle against the giant in 2009. Eleven years later, the government agreed to launch a commission of inquiry, when the company had already admitted wrongdoing of the computer program and had even agreed to pay compensation to 555 of the victims of the scandal. The commission’s work began in February 2022.

2009, the first reports of errors

Horizon’s problems were first reported by the trade journal Computer Weekly in 2009. The publication’s specialists highlighted errors in the software, which inexplicably inflated cash inflows relative to actual ones and caused misstatements in stock information. The accounts could never square off.

Bates promoted the association of those affected and in his struggle he was gradually joined by up to 555 people out of the 736 convicted. Eighteen have already died. Without any compensation and without seeing his name restored. When the Court of Appeal ruled in 2019 that the Horizon system was to blame for the accounting discrepancies, the group was forced to accept a settlement that compensated them, but only £8,000. Very little money for, in many cases, having gone to prison, having lost all savings and having destroyed professional reputations and families.

In September last year, following the first findings of the independent commission of inquiry, the government finally announced that each wrongfully convicted racketeer would be offered £600,000 in compensation. But, as has been said, so far only 93 of the 736 convictions have been overturned. And only a third of these have received complete and final settlements. The ITV series has again recalled the scandal and highlighted the negligence of the authorities to resolve a brutally unfair situation.

Post Office Limited officials, who had been aware of Horizon’s problems since the late 2000s, have not been affected in any way by the scandal. Neither do those of Fujitsu, which continues to provide computer software to the British government. For now, only the director of the company between 2012 and 2019, Paula Vennells, has announced that she will return the decoration of the British Empire that she received at the beginning of 2019, when more than four years ago she had assured the British Parliament that Horizon he had no problem and when he was seven years old, too, that he instructed the company’s lawyers to report and prosecute the alleged fraudsters.

2024-01-11 06:41:17
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