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Thursday, 29 April 2021 16:39

The Great Post Office Scandal

Last week, 39 former Postmasters had their criminal convictions for theft and false accounting overturned by the Court of Appeal. They were amongst 736 Post Office Workers who were wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office between 2000 and 2014 for such allegations following the installation of a new accounting system, called Horizon, in 1999.

The court ruling highlights a culture of blame and arrogance that was, and arguably is, endemic within the Post Office, and that led to the most widespread, known, miscarriage of justice in the UK.
All organisations would do well to pay attention to the lessons that can be learned from this case in order to avoid any similar behaviour and failure towards their employees and associates.

To briefly précis the story, in 1999, the Post Office rolled out a new computer-based accounting system called Horizon, installing it in post offices up and down the country. Horizon was meant to simplify the lives of postmasters by replacing what was a largely paper-based system for recording stock, sales and transactions.

Soon after its installation, some postmasters started recording discrepancies in their accounting. Shortfalls started showing and the money for thousands of pounds worth of transactions could not be accounted for. For some, this started amounting to tens of thousands of pounds. The Post Office blamed the postmasters for these shortfalls, holding them personally responsible and demanding that the money be repaid.

Despite their protestations, some were forced into serious debt to repay the money, taking out loans and even re-mortgaging their property. Marriages broke down and some say the stress led to health conditions, addiction and premature deaths. Many postmasters were prosecuted and some even ended up being sent to prison. In short, many innocent lives were ruined.

* * * * *

The Post Office has its own Prosecution Department that pre-dates the Police. It can be traced back to 1683 and was formed partly to combat highwaymen. The presence of this department presents a significant conflict of interest as it means the Post Office is the prosecutor, the victim and the investigator of an alleged offence.

Consequently, throughout all of the prosecutions, at no time was the validity of the Horizon computer system ever doubted or bought into question. Indeed, the Post Office continuously stressed how robust the system was. Neither was it questioned why hundreds of previously reliable and law-abiding people suddenly became alleged criminals. The focus was entirely on retrieving the “missing” money.

This failure to question the Horizon system, to eliminate it as a potential contributing factor to the high number of people being investigated, is characteristic of an organisation that believes itself to be beyond reproach. A thorough and impartial investigation is the cornerstone of any action involving an employee. The one-eyed approach of the Post Office totally dissolved any trust.

We must question the leadership at the Post Office during the fourteen-year period that the prosecutions took place. The prosecutions were high profile and MPs had been alerted to the plight of some of the Postmasters. An independent review had been commissioned but this was then scrapped when it looked as though the result might leave the Post Office exposed.

In 2012, Paula Vennells was appointed Chief Executive of the Post Office. Here at last it seemed was an opportunity to sweep clean and have a fresh pair of eyes look into the situation. Ms Vennells wasn’t party to the implementation of Horizon back in 1999 and her new appointment presented an excellent opportunity to make good the errors of the past.

During our Leadership & Management training courses at HR Champions, we ask delegates to describe the characteristics of great leaders. Across different training courses and cohorts, some words come up time and again; typically:

  • Integrity
  • Courage
  • Authenticity
  • Honesty
  • Fairness
  • Inquisitiveness
  • Resilience
  • Empathy

Sadly, none of these qualities appear to have been present at the Post Office. Ms Vennells towed the corporate line and stuck to the position that there was no fault in the Horizon system. It seems, even as the evidence continued to stack up against the Post Office, there was a fear that the organisation would “lose face” if it now admitted that Horizon was flawed.

Following the Court of Appeals ruling, Ms Vennells quit her posts on the boards of Dunelm and Morrisons. There are now calls for her to be stripped of her CBE title which she was awarded for services to the Post Office and to charity.

It would be wrong to assume that the issues presented here could only ever be found in large organisations such as the Post Office. There are occasions when quite modestly sized businesses can be guilty of taking a maverick or bullish approach over how it handles situations involving employees and even customers. We’ve been called in on more than one occasion to deal with the aftermath.

Remaining objective in such circumstances, although difficult at times is key. Whilst acting in the best interest of the organisation remains primary, it cannot be done with a blinkered approach that leaves a business exposed to more serious consequences further down the line. Culture comes from the top down and the behaviour exhibited by board members and senior managers filters down throughout any organisation. We need to make sure that our culture reflects our values.

We can help in the development of your own organisation’s values and culture. Start a conversation with us now on 01452 331331 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

NB. The BBC have an excellent documentary about the history of this case available to listen to via the BBC Sounds app. Well worth a listen. Just search "The Great Post Office Trial" in the app.

 

Read 96 times Last modified on Thursday, 29 April 2021 17:13

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