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Post Office employees deserve a royal pardon

"There would be formidable symbolism in the King recognising the terrible wrong that has been done." Credit: Getty

January 10, 2024 - 7:00am

The Post Office scandal, involving postmasters and postmistresses wrongfully convicted of stealing money despite known flaws in the Horizon computer system, has been rumbling away in the background of British public life for a long time. Private Eye, to its credit, has been plugging away for well over a decade. But the issue is finally at the heart of political debate, thanks to the successful ITV drama Mr Bates vs. The Post Office. Paula Vennells, who was CEO of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019 when the organisation was still persecuting employees and obstructing attempts to uncover the truth, has agreed to surrender her CBE.   

Some convictions have already been quashed, and some compensation has been paid. Yet hundreds of victims and their families — many of whom had their lives ruined — are still awaiting genuine recognition and financial restitution for years of misery and hardship. One solution that has been floated is that all those prosecuted should receive the royal prerogative of mercy, or pardon. This was the mechanism used in the case of Alan Turing and many other men convicted of gross indecency before the liberal reforms of the 1960s.  

One drawback to this approach is that, in law, royal pardons do not overturn convictions, as a successful appeal does. All the same, there would be formidable symbolism in the King formally recognising the terrible wrong that has been done. In Britain the Crown is the fount and guarantor of justice. Not for nothing do judges sit underneath the royal coat of arms. I sat on a jury last summer and, although the courtroom lacked a certain grandeur, the lion and the unicorn on the wall above the Bench reinforced very strongly the seriousness and significance of our task.  

The system is imperfect, but the whole point of prosecutions being carried out in the name of Rex is that the monarch in some sense represents the whole community, and our desire and need to maintain law and social cohesion. Police officers swear to “serve the King in the office of constable”, and there is a crown on their warrant cards. We have His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service.

It would be easy to scorn all this as mere archaic frippery, the detritus of an undemocratic age. Much better, says the progressive mind, to cut through the fusty mysticism. The problem is that human beings relish ritual and tradition. 

Rationalists and tidy-minded reformers may grumble, but long-established ceremonial tradition has its own kind of authority, as we saw with the Coronation. Whatever you think of monarchy in general, or the person of Charles III, it seems that for many people the “awesome majesty of the law” is somehow inseparable from the long continuity of the nation and its system of government. 

This may be strange or irrational, but countries where prosecutions are carried out in the name of other legal fictions, such as The People or The State, do not have noticeably better justice systems than our own. The Crown may be an abstraction of sorts, but it is a powerful one.


Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.

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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago

A royal pardon plus an overturning of wrongful convictions through due legal process is a minimum requirement.
I believe there’s an investigation underway by the police into the conduct of those in positions of responsibility such as Vennells and also Fujitsu. If they haven’t broken any laws then the law is indeed an ass, and justice will not be obtained until due process has been completed in this regard too.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Mind blowing to think someone is okay with prosecuting people to cover for their mistakes. Maybe it was hubris and incompetence, but it’s shocking nevertheless.

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I wouldn’t want Vennells to be made into a scapegoat, though.

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
6 months ago

I don’t understand the downvotes. I know ‘the buck stops with me” and so on, but I doubt Vennells ordered to behave in a certain way, amidst cries of horror from the people working for her. The problem is systemic (see Grenfell).
If Vennells goes to prison for 20 years and nothing else happens, nothing will change because a new Vennells will emerge.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago

Nothing will change if we do not prosecute and punish the criminals in this matter (who do appear to be the Post Office management and Fujitsu and not the postmasters).
The fact that this is not sufficient for your broader goals does not mean we should let the guilty walk away.
As I see it, the level of incompetence and cowardice required to create the situation requiring such a cover-up suggests that it’s not a question of “who should be fired and held accountable” amongst the Post Office and Fujitsu management, but rather whether there’s anyone who *should not be fired* here. There is no evidence (yet) of anyone in either organisation even trying to do the right thing (it being glaringly obvious 10 years ago to anyone with an ounce of common sense what the right thing was). We’re at the point – or certainly were – where simply shutting them down and starting again might be the best option.
I read this morning that Paula Vennells apparently made the final three short list for Bishop of London a few years ago and had the support of Justin Welby.
This is the quality of the caste of management we have in these organisations. No judgement. No common sense. No honesty. No actual qualifications for their jobs.
I’d also consider bringing back the stocks and the ducking stool for these cases !

Chipoko
Chipoko
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Vennells and Welby are leading examples of the Woking Class elite. They ruthlessly deploy DEI weaponry to secure wealth, status and power, and don’t give a damn for the ‘little people’ they destroy en route. How people like them achieve such elevation to the top jobs is beyond my cognitive capabilities. They are detestable purveyors of cynicism and hypocrisy who exploit identity politics to feather their own nests and cancel those who fail to sing from their hymn-sheets. They’d be as comfortable in Putin’s Kremlin as they are in the British corridors of power.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago

Thank you for clarifying your comment.

A scapegoat is normally one who is innocent being punished for the faults of others which might explain the downvotes as there is clearly scepticism that Vennells didn’t know of and sanction the prosecutions despite knowing the unsatisfactory nature of the Horizon system.

It is a cop out to say the problem is systemic. Decisions were made by individuals to prosecute and individuals should be punished depending on the extent of their individual knowledge and behaviour. Unfortunately we know it almost certainly will not happen.

It is unlikely Vennells will be prosecuted but if she is successfully prosecuted she will not be a scapegoat as she will be guilty not innocent.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago

If by saying you wouldn’t want Vennells to be made a scapegoat you mean that only she should be punished for the way large numbers of people pursued the innocent Postmasters for alleged discrepancies in their accounts on the basis that they were “the only ones who claimed Horizon must be wrong” I would agree.

Everyone who was involved in prosecuting the postmasters knowing that there were numerous cases of claims the system was at fault but deliberately suppressing this evidence should be prosecuted for perverting the course of justice and all such persons should be forced to contribute to compensating the victims if this injustice rather than the costs falling solely on the hapless taxpayer yet again for the malfeasance of those employed in government work.

Rob N
Rob N
6 months ago

From the sounds of things Vennells, as the person in charge, should at least lose all her bonuses (financial and honorary) and ALSO be investigated for possible criminal negligence and actions.
The same for anyone else in the chain of command down to the very bottom. There must have been hundreds of people who know there prosecutions were an abuse of power and a miscarriage of justice

Sam Hill
Sam Hill
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The operation of the law is a really important point in this case that is being massively under-remarked upon.
At law there is an assumption that computers and systems are working correctly. Put another way, the onus is on the defence to show computer systems are not working correctly. There is of course zero incentive on big tech companies to cooperate and show that their products are not working.
It is both interesting and telling that the legal profession have been very quiet about this aspect of law despite the significant media coverage around the Post Office/Horizon.
It is, of course, not for us to say on an internet forum whether anyone is guilty of any crime or not – but the operation of the law itself certainly should attract more comment. The fate of these post masters likely would have been different had the law not operated on the presumptions it does.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  Sam Hill

There is no legal presumption that computer systems are infallible but the natural assumption is that they are working as they should and have no incentive to lie about the evidence they present. Like any evidence it is up to the defendant to call the evidence into question but there is an obligation on the prosecution to disclose evidence that tends to show that the computer evidence may not be reliable.

I have not followed the cases sufficiently closely but what is worrying is that those prosecuting these cases seem to have suppressed evidence to suggest that Horizon in fact was not reliable. Such evidence as they had to this effect should have been disclosed. Claims that you are the only one suggesting that Horizon was at fault on the face of it appear to be prosecutorial misconduct if those pressing charges were aware otherwise.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Only a person who’s never worked with computer systems would assume that they are infallible. Do you know how long the bugs list is even for relatively good complex software products ? There is never time to test everything and never time to fix every problem that gets found. Only the most trivially simple programs can be bug free.

j watson
j watson
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Fujitisu will almost certainly be in the clear. Having a crap system isn’t the same as breaking the criminal law. They may be in breach of contractual law but that’s between them and the PO.
The pardon/overturning of convictions v important but justice needs accountability too and that’s the bit missing at the moment. Some knew this was wrong and still carried it out. I guess that will come out of the Inquiry and just take longer to come to conclusion.
Separately, good the Author gives Private Eye credit here. The print media otherwise asleep on this more generally weren’t they. Sort of thing you’d have expected the Mail or Express to be championing years ago – small businesses being atrociously treated etc. Begs a little question too I think why they and others remained largely silent? Private Eye been making it clear for a decade how appalling this was.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
6 months ago

The wholly State-owned Post Office was dressed up as a limited company to erode or eradicate Ministerial accountability for it, and as part of the weird Long Blairite cult of “captains of industry” from 1980s satire and sitcom, yet somehow elevated to heroic figures. Evidently, Tony Blair and his circle had not got the joke in the Thatcher years.

Paula Vennells had never worked in the public sector. She continued to hold non-executive directorships of private corporations. She was made “a non-executive director of the Cabinet Office”. A what? And she was interviewed for the Bishopric of London, with a seat in the House of Lords, a seat on the Privy Council, probably a life peerage on retirement, and certainly a prominent role in the Coronation, despite never having been on the Church of England’s payroll.

Clergy have been so elevated in the past after ordained lifetimes in old school academia or on the staff of public schools, for good or ill closely connected to the Church of England, and with pastoral and liturgical aspects to them. Now, though, they are so elevated from this, and whereas those late-middle-aged professor and headmaster bishops had been ordained in their twenties, Vennells would have been raised to the purple at the reasonable age of 58, but after only 12 years in Orders and 11 as a priest. This is not a sectarian point. The Catholic Church is also beset with managerialism. We just go about it differently.

As Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer could have taken over and discontinued any private prosecution if he had judged that its continuation would not have been in the public interest. Instead, though, there have already been six appeals in which the Respondent has not been the Post Office, but the Crown Prosecution Service, and the CPS acted on behalf of the Post Office several times, including by prosecuting Seema Misra, who was sent to prison and put on suicide watch while pregnant, eventually giving birth while wearing an electronic tag. Horizon was installed under the Blair Government.

In Scotland, where private prosecution is almost impossible even before considering the enormous cost that made it so rare elsewhere, all roads lead back to the Crown Office, which is headed by the Lord Advocate, a figure so overtly party political as to have a seat in the Cabinet. Holders of that office during the period in question have included both Labour and SNP politicians, as the SNP would do well to ponder before it opposed United Kingdom-wide legislation on an ostensible point of constitutional principle.

We all know about the role of the Liberal Democrats, so the Conservatives can say in all fairness that they did not come out of this well, but Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP all came out of it worse, with more to come out about each of them. You had better believe that there will not be a General Election until the autumn.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
6 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

This is a problem in many institutions. They are led by an inner circle of people who have no front line experience of the work of said institutions. It is almost as if a cabal of crooks have taken over the echelons of power.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

And that is a key problem. Because they have no front line expertise in the domain they claim to be managing, they are completely at sea when something goes wrong. They do not have the “BS detector” that someone who’s worked their way up would have and seem unable or unwilling to investigate. Easier to employ layers of yes men (and women) and pretend everything is fine until you move on to the next sinecure.
For every Paula Vennells, there’s a Howard Davies (of FSA [later the Farcical Conduct Authority – who screwed up almost everything they touched], LSE [Gadaffi’s son’s donation buying a place] and RBS/NatWest [“houses aren’t difficult to buy”] fame). But he’s just one of hundreds and probably no worse or better than many others. Britain is infested with these parasites.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

I have no doubt that anyone in the organisation pointing out that the vastly expensive Horizon system was a complete crock to the hierarchy would have been as popular as a lumb of excrement in a swimming pool and his career would not have progressed even if he was not actually eased out.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

That simply doesn’t wash with me. I would never employ someone if I knew they were incapable of doing the right thing here. But then, I’ve never worried about being popular at work.
Note also that some of these people are members of professional organisations and supposely signed up to their ethical standards.
Similarly, the Post Office barristers who colluded in not disclosing relevant information in the court cases must now be in an interesting professional situation – it being hard to see how they haven’t brought their profession into disrepute and not met the accepted professional standards.
What is astonishing about this case is that it was not merely a few people that failed – it seems it was *everyone*.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

I got the impression from your previous post that you favoured the idea that the people at the top were insulated from reality by layers of yes men. I am sure you would want to know the facts but if a culture prevails where too vigorous assertion of an inconvenient truth gets you nailed as a troublemaker word of inconvenient truth tends to dry up despite professional ethical standards.

I have already indicated that those prosecuting have an obligation to reveal to the defence lawyers facts known to them that undermine the prosecution case. I presume those instructing prosecuting barristers were careful not to allow any discloseable evidence to suggest the Horizon system was not robust into the barristers bundle. Barristers are not technical experts and are entitled to rely on expert evidence.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

People at the top are only insulated from reality if they are already out of touch with it and lack the curiosity and will to engage with it. I regard the “yes men” thing as much as a symptom as a cause.
Lawyers are not merely highly paid process jockeys. They are supposed to have and use professional judgement. They don’t merely advance arguments without first making an assessment of whether they are real and true. I get the sense that competent, professional barristers would have sensed that Fujitsu and the Post Office were withholding evidence. They have questions to answer here.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

We must ask the question; did the Post Office have DEI quotas or inducements in its policy for the recruitment of its executive staff – like the BBC, Parliament with its All Women Lists, the Met, the Fire Brigade, NHS, Judges Benches and most ESG rightthunk City firms. If the answer is yes, we should simply recognise that a Progressive State so hostile to the principle of merit, so wedded by ideology to discriminatory action will end up a failing corrupt croneyish second rate state… as evidenced daily in our news.

Ruth Riddick
Ruth Riddick
6 months ago

Royal pardon? Terrific idea – where do I sign? Plus whatever else is needed to ensure full restitution and secure accountability. Cinema has always been a source of momentum for restorative action. Mega congrats to ITV.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
6 months ago
Reply to  Ruth Riddick

I wouldn’t want a “pardon” for something I hadn’t done. I would want full, public acknowledgement of my innocence and prosecution for those who accused and punished me.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
6 months ago

A lack of mainstream media coverage has been a huge contributor.
Sadly I suspect that the BBC did not cover this thoroughly as it would have had to criticise a high-powered female.
You just have to look at their coverage of Sturgeon, Arden and Merkel to understand their track record.

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
6 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I don’t think so. I didn’t follow it actively, but still I have known about it for quite some time.
I think people didn’t believe it possible to start with, and after that nobody wanted to clear up the mess because it would implicate everyone. The problem is the political class allowed this not just to happen, but to continue. Nobody cares enough.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
6 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

A good case for reading Private Eye, Ian Hislop was saying that they first covered it in 2010, I think, and that they have been banging on about it ever since. Also Computer Weekly picked it up a long time ago. The main stream media should keep an eye on these sort of publications and investigate the issues they raise, if they can’t be bothered to do the journalism themselves.

Tony Price
Tony Price
6 months ago
Reply to  Hilary Easton

Something for the BBC bashers here – Radio4 last year ran a major documentary on the subject – interesting that did not raise the indignation like the docudrama has.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

The BBC had a “File on Four” type program about this in December 2014 which I remember hearing. It was all known then. They also have “File on Four” programmes from 2020 and 2022 covering this.
Parts of the BBC are still good and do proper investigative journalism. It’s the “big name talent” (people like Marr, Kuensberg, Peston) in the media who aren’t doing their real jobs here.
It was also very well covered by Private Eye and Computer Weekly at the time. It was quite obvious to anyone with any experience of software projects that this was yet another screwed up software project.
It seems that too many people in positions of authority just didn’t want to hear it.
This all reminds me of how Tony Blair only discovered his moral compass about Saddam Hussein a decade after he started his murderous was with Iran and gassed the Kurds. The politicians will all be queueing up to condemn the Post Office and Fujitsu. But they knew all this 10 years ago and did nothing. With a few notable exceptions (like James Arbuthnot).
But perhaps some of them were too busy with their own cover-ups (Jimmy Savile et al) to bother with this one. I guess covering up is a full time job for some of these people …

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

“You turn a blind eye to my guilty semi-secret and I’ll do the same to yours” sort of thing.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

For the record, this is the BBC program I heard on December 9th 2014 – Radio 4 Today program:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04tjdlg
0735
A group of MP’s campaigning on behalf of at least 150 sub postmasters who say they were wrongly accused of false accounting and fraud has said that it has lost faith in the Post Office’s attempts to resolve their claims. For several years a vocal minority of sub postmasters say that they have been made scapegoats for what many claim is a faulty IT system which created thousands of pounds worth of shortfalls where none existed. Some were bankrupted and lost their homes. A few were sent to prison. Jo Hamilton is a sub postmaster who pleaded guilty to false accounting. James Arbuthnot MP is leading the campaign to help sub postmasters.
Annoyingly, there is no audio recording available. And it’s quite hard to track this down.
The BBC did a lot of work on this subject. But they’ve let ITV take all the credit ! But congratulations to them all in pursuing this through to the end for over 10 years.

Chipoko
Chipoko
6 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I agree. The vogue of the female Top Boss is a cornerstone of BBC propaganda and culturally consolidated in the wider corporate landscape. The repression of men in management and the media is palpable.

CF Hankinson
CF Hankinson
6 months ago

I think it’s an ideal opportunity for the king to step in. I can’t believe he has been so slow. The public are behind this and he should back them. It would be cowardly and stupid for him not to whatever the costs to protocol.
Let’s see. As a moral and ethical person it’s the kind of thing he would champion
but maybe the ties that bind his impartiality and his quiet life are too strong? Sooner rather than later he should put his shoulder to the wheel. This is not about awards. Alan Bates has already refused them, this is about the face on the stamps sold by the post office having some gravitas.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
6 months ago

Although some have described the Horizon scandal as “Kafkaesque”, to me it resembles more the witch trials. First, the standard of proof: there was the presumption that Horizon was perfect, which effectivel inverted the notion that somone is innocent until proven guilty: Secindly, the Post Office teams that checked on these supposed financial irregularities got bonuses for confessions and prosecutions, in much the same way that the so-called “witch-prickers” got a bonus when the woman was “found” to be a witch.
In the trials, the prosecutions were handled by the Post Office and the Post Office was the beneficiary from successful prosecutions.
Witch trials ended in Scotland because people realised that the evidence and procedures used were ludicrous. 

Differently from England and Wales, the Scottish prosecution of sub-postmasters was handled by the Crown Office, an organization ulimately headed-up by an appointee nominated by Nicola Sturgeon. Ironically, in November, 2022, Nicola Sturgeon formally apologised to those accused of witchcraft in Scotland. But the Scottish courts were convicting sub-postmasters at the same rate (pro rata) as the Post Office were prosecuting them South of the Border. So a similar apology from the SNP-led government and their legal appointees would be appropriate.

Tom Condray
Tom Condray
6 months ago

Looking at the matter from across the Pond, I had to read up on the scandal courtesy of Reuters. In the Reuters articles, I saw that the various payments to the innocent postmasters/mistresses seemed to range between fifty to a little over a hundred thousand pounds.
Based upon the devastating effects of unjust incarcerations, and the lives of people–as well as their families–ruined for a decade or more, that seems awfully small recompense.
While calls for the heads of the transgressors is all well and good, and Royal pardons may be entirely appropriate, my sincere hope would be that those injured in this terrible error receive more than a relative pittance they have thus far to help rebuild their lives.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
6 months ago
Reply to  Tom Condray

One reason for the pitiful payouts so far was that the sub-postmasters had to use a litigation funder in order to get lawyered-up and take on the might of the Post Office. The litigation funder, in this case Therium, takes all the risk (i.e. if the sub-postmasters had lost the case, Therium would have paid the Post Office’s legal costs), but risk-taking comes at a huge price. Consequently, much of what the court awarded the sub-postmasters went to Therium and its funding sources.C’est la vie.

Barbara Chandler
Barbara Chandler
6 months ago

I agree with Ruth that a pardon for what you haven’t done is insulting

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
6 months ago

Many SPMs don’t want a Royal Pardon as it leaves their convictions in place. I understand their point of view but they should remember that their case was R v Bloggs, so an intervention by R is very significant.
I would, though, want the judicial appeal process to grind on, nevertheless. I am very uncomfortable with the proposed legislation, which would see politicians set a very dangerous precedent of being able to overturn Court rulings they don’t like.

Diane Tasker
Diane Tasker
6 months ago

II was aware of this scandal years ago – I can’t remember the source but may have been this website: https://www.postofficescandal.uk Certainly, it was not our ‘National Broadcaster’ which bloated and highly remunerated organisation I am required by law to finance. Had they done their job, with the same enthusiasm they have shown for the trans movement, this travesty of justice may have been brought to light much, much earlier !

Tony Price
Tony Price
6 months ago
Reply to  Diane Tasker

The BBC DID do their job – assorted documentaries on the subject, including a very comprehensive, multi-part series on Radio4 last year. However due to the pressure of a minority group on the right wing who hate the idea of an independent broadcaster, the Conservative government could ignore the obvious facts because they came from the ‘woke’ BBC.

George Venning
George Venning
6 months ago

Hard to think of a better way of obtaining a bit of positive PR for the beleaguered monarch. The courts would need to come round and cross all the ts but a swift and expansive gesture in the direction of justice would go a lot further than Vennells reluctantly handing back her CBE ever could.