The Post Office Scandal: When culture ate the law for breakfast

Famously, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” according to management guru Peter Drucker. What should we make, then, of the culture at the Post Office when it was prosecuting innocent people based on faulty data from a flawed IT system?

When the statutory inquiry into the Post Office scandal was established, in June 2021, we fully expected to hear evidence that further established the dire state of both the Horizon accounting system and the organisation’s enhanced levels of denial over the bugs and errors that caused the accounting irregularities of which hundreds of subpostmasters were accused.

What we have learned so far has consistently proved to be even worse.

Post Office employees, lawyers and executives actively chose not to investigate Horizon, because if they did so and found problems, they would have had to disclose this information in court and accused subpostmasters would have been found not guilty.

Bugs and errors that were shown to be possible causes of accounting issues were discussed internally, but not disclosed to victims. Other information that would most likely have meant subpostmasters being found not guilty was actively withheld.

Expert witness in trials were told not to mention problems they knew about in Horizon.

Post Office staff responsible for investigating and charging subpostmasters were incentivised through the payment of bonuses – the more money they “recovered”, the more they stood to be paid. Bear in mind that no matter how much money Horizon suggested at the time was missing from branch accounts, no actual missing cash was ever discovered.

Post Office witnesses to the inquiry have so consistently and repeatedly relied on the “I don’t recall” excuse, that many observers cannot help but feel this is a coordinated and organised response.

Employees insist in their evidence that they were only doing what they were told. Their managers insist they never told them to do what they did. Fingers are pointed at nameless executives. Executives insist it wasn’t them.

People were put into positions of authority and influence within the Post Office, with seemingly little or no relevant experience in the vital role they were given. At times, their understanding of the legal responsibilities of their jobs seems to have been largely absent.

The knowledge, skills, and even personal behaviours of many of these individuals has often been shown to be dreadfully lacking.

Every week of the inquiry seems to plunge to new depths in revealing the appalling, cruel, thoughtless and vindictive attitude of the Post Office towards victims of the scandal.

And it’s not just historical attitudes – the inquiry itself has time and again been delayed by ongoing omissions of disclosure by the Post Office.

There are several months of hearings still to come – how much worse can the revelations get?

The picture that has emerged of the Post Office is an organisation with a fundamentally broken culture. Money-grabbing – don’t forget current Post Office board members were paid bonuses simply for cooperating with the inquiry – evasive, lying, vindictive, uncaring, and with an unfailingly casual attitude to the law. There’s been evidence presented to the inquiry to justify every accusation, and more.

Culture ate strategy for breakfast?

The Post Office’s only strategy towards the subpostmasters it wrongly accused could be summarised as, “let’s get the thieving bastards”. As a result, the organisational culture very much ate the law, chewed it up and spat it out.

Slowly, convicted subpostmasters are having their convictions overturned – but it’s a painful process. Every case has to be analysed individually. Already, cases where the Post Office claims Horizon was not involved are being excluded. Hundreds of victims are still waiting for adequate – and in many cases, any – compensation.

Now I’m not a lawyer, but surely the inquiry has already proved that it’s not only the Horizon IT system that lies at the heart of the scandal. The Post Office has abused the law, with evidence suggesting it knowingly prosecuted subpostmasters while withholding vital evidence. It targeted people to meet internal and personal targets, regardless of the truth. Post Office executives openly said they wanted to make an example of its victims – not to fairly and adequately test their guilt or innocence in a court of law.

Surely, enough evidence is accumulating to make all the convictions unsafe as a result of the Post Office’s historic behaviour.

Surely, the government and the British legal system has a responsibility to correct the miscarriage of justice for every victim, forthwith.

And, as every victim of the scandal will tell you, it must hold Post Office executives accountable for the appalling corporate culture that led to this terrible injustice.

Footnote: Let’s hope that the forthcoming ITV drama about the scandal – Mr Bates vs the Post Office – which airs for four nights starting 1 January 2024, will finally raise the profile of everything that happened, and lead to much greater public pressure on the government to act.

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