Beyond the Horizon

As over a million people sign a petition to have Paula Vennells’ CBE withdrawn, it’s clear that the Post Office Horizon scandal has reached a level of public outrage that, sadly, it has not seen before.

This comes on the back of an ITV dramatisation, shown at the start of the year, which has clearly captured the imagination, in a way that previous reports, articles and podcasts have not.

Perhaps it’s the timing; the drama came at a time of year when many people are more likely to be sitting down to watch things in the evening. And I think that it’s struck a chord because many of us still like to believe that a “sense of fair play” is somehow part of the British character.

The Post Office is also, though not to the degree that it used to be, a fairly important thing for a lot of people. Whether it’s simply queueing up to post a parcel, or get a passport form checked, collecting pensions, or picking up forms, lots of us will have spent at least some time in one.

That’s even more the case for people outside big urban centers, where the sub-postmaster may be a well known part of a small community, perhaps running the post office alongside a village shop, or community store.

In short, lots of us can feel that we know, if not those directly affected by the Horizon scandal, people like them. They may not be close, but they’re certainly not distant victims with whom we have nothing in common.

And so, finally, as the drama has laid bare the injustice for all to see, outrage has surged. I think that’s welcome, and overdue, and the government’s making noises that suggest it’s trying to move things along, and exonerate more people.

Over the horizon

That’s all well and good, but I’m not holding my breath; and I wonder what the longer term effects of this scandal may be. Because it’s not the first, of course, nor is it the last.

It’s just the latest.

Yes, of course it’s the biggest, and the most prominent involving an IT system, and people ought to face the consequences. But, unless there’s real persistent outrage, does anyone really think they will?

For all that this has affronted peoples’ ideas of ‘fair play’ in the UK, that’s something more honoured in the breach, isn’t it?

Look at the culture in so much of British business, where management seem to be rewarded for failure, failing on to another job, with another huge salary.

Look at the MP expenses scandal, and the ongoing abuse – seemingly with little consequence – of the public purse over PPE during the pandemic, and contrast with things like punitive prison sentences for people who took a bottle of water in the 2011 riots.

Look at the Hillsborough disaster, and the long fight for families to achieve justice, and recognition that the police were at fault.

Look especially at the NHS contaminated blood scandal where, despite much urging, the government is dragging its heels on paying compensation, with the result that many of those affected have already died before receiving anything, and many more will.

And ask yourself if you really believe Number 10 when they say they’ll try to make things happen more quickly. More likely, to my cynical mind, they’ll talk the talk, but when it comes to doing anything, the ongoing inquiry will be the reason why “thing’s can’t be rushed.”

Not to mention, of course, that it’s clear that the Post Office knew, from at least 2010, that there were problems with Horizon. That’s the Post Office that’s ultimately the responsibility of ministers.

Will Sunak push hard to fix a problem that may have people asking “Why, if you’ve been in power since the problems with Horizon were known, did you wait until now to say ‘something must be done’?”

Not only that, but there’s surely a risk that in pushing for people to be held accountable, there are a lot of people in or adjacent to government who are likely to have fingers pointed at them, whether over Horizon, PPE, or something else.

I’ve focussed here on the current government, because they’re the ones in power, and who were in power when it was admitted that Horizon has problems; but that doesn’t mean Labour’s in the clear either. The rollout happened on their watch, and that’s when the prosecutions began. 

We may not have evidence that anyone in government knew of serious problems with Horizon back then, but I think it would be unwise for politicians of any government party to try and make hay with this.

For years, many of us have believed things about the British like “We have the best police in the world”, and that sense of fair play.

The Horizon scandal is the latest in a long line that suggests that’s nonsense. Sneering about corruption in other countries is unbecoming, when it’s ever more clear that, in the UK, consequences are for the little people, not the important ones, or the organisations that they run.

The real question is whether the outrage about Horizon is finally enough to shatter those myths, and make us demand the better, fairer society that we thought we already lived in.

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