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Alan Bates: The ‘details man’ the Post Office paid the price for ignoring

In 2003, subpostmaster Alan Bates had his contract terminated when he refused to comply with Post Office policy. A decade and a half later, against the odds, he took the Post Office to the High Court and won a multimillion-pound legal case

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How the Post Office caused so much misery

When Alan Bates and his partner Suzanne Sercombe decided to buy a Post Office and shop to give themselves time to pursue their hobbies while maintaining a stable salary, little did they know that they would soon be dedicating their lives to fighting against a government organisation over an IT problem.

Former subpostmaster Alan Bates spearheaded the recently concluded group litigation against the Post Office, which saw the government-owned organisation throw money at a legal battle to fight Bates and around 550 others. The Post Office ultimately lost.

Before telling his story, it is important to acknowledge that this isn’t the end of the matter for Bates, just the start of a new phase. The court battle is won, but the pain and suffering of subpostmasters at the hands of computer errors are far from over.

Speaking from his home just outside Llandudno in North Wales, Bates said the Post Office will not escape further interrogation for the way it has treated subpostmasters that have suffered unexplained losses.

Now that everything is public, Bates and the growing number of subpostmasters behind him are armed with evidence. “We had to go to the extreme of the court to expose all of this, and the Post Office can’t hide it any more. It shows all the incompetence that has been going on at the Post Office,” he says.

Nowhere to hide

Bates says the Post Office has a way of dealing with challenges and criticism where bosses “take the flak, get their heads down, batten down the hatches and ride out the storm”.

“This is what they do every time and that is what they are going to do now, but this isn’t going away because we have almost 1,000 pages of damning evidence about what has been going on,” he says.

The battleground for Bates will move almost a kilometre to the west from the High Court to Westminster. “We are rallying our troops, if you like, to see their MPs and try to get them to take up the battle for us,” he says.

There is now the small matter of forcing the government to pay the huge legal costs that subpostmasters built up fighting the case, as well calls for a judge-led public inquiry into what happened, why it happened and how to prevent it happening again.

“First, we want the money back that we had to pay for the investigation and court case, which the government should have done itself, and we then want a full public inquiry,” says Bates. “It is up to us as a group to explain to our MPs over the next month or so what happened, why it happened and what we want them to do.”

This has already begun with subpostmasters across the country telling their stories to their local representatives in Parliament – and it is having some effect already.

Gill Furniss, Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, and shadow minister for steel, post and consumer protection, recently gave a speech in Parliament where she asked the government whether it would call a full inquiry into the “circumstances that led to this tragedy”.

Jumping back more than two decades, it would have been hard for Bates to imagine he would be making waves in Parliament in the future.

A new lifestyle

It was 1998 when Bates and Sercombe bought a Post Office in Craig-y-Don, north Wales. It was a plan to give them both time to spend on things outside work – in Bates’s case, this was walking the hills; for Sercombe, arts and crafts – while still working.

Bates says: “We were looking around generally for opportunities and honed in on a Post Office [branch] because it offered, in theory, security with an income, and if you had enough space you could develop the retail side of your business.”

They looked around the country and found the most viable option to be the Post Office in Craig-y-Don. It was a busy business where the previous owners had been in place for many years before retiring.

The couple saw the opportunity to develop the business and it ended up going all to plan, with the retail part of the business expanding after a significant financial investment. A large extension added 50% more space and the premises were modernised internally. The couple moved the Post Office from the back of the building to the front of the premises and employed five part-time staff.

Things start to go wrong

Back then, the Post Office was run using manual systems, but by the end of 2000 the Post Office’s Horizon retail and accounting system, from Fujitsu, replaced this and things quickly went wrong.

“It was within a matter of weeks that we suddenly found a large shortfall of about £6,000 that turned out to be a duplication of a Giro transaction,” says Bates. The error had happened during a software upgrade.

Bates is a man of detail, and he chronicled events through his correspondence with the Post Office. “I spoke to the area manager about it and fortunately I thought it so serious that I should detail it in writing,” he says.

Little did Bates know at the time, but details like this would be cited nearly 20 years later in the High Court as part of the legal fight he would later take up with the Post Office.

Detail is coupled with persistence in Bates’s character, the perfect mix for getting to the bottom of a complex problem. “I managed to find the bulk of the duplications and why they had happened, but there was about £1,000 shortfall and I didn’t know what to do with it. I asked the Post Office for advice, but they never responded,” he says.

He kept asking the Post Office what he should do about the shortfall, but received no response. Every time a new area manager was put in place – which was regularly in Bates’s case, with five different appointees in three years – he would bring up the matter with them.

Not wanting to accept figures that he did not understand, Bates always rolled what he described as “shorts and overs” through and would not reset the system to zero. “My concern was that if I reset it, I was accepting the figures that Horizon had put in there,” he says.

The Post Office ordered me to stop and put that [order] in writing, and after some toing and froing tried to terminate me on one clause of my contract
Alan Bates

Bates had also asked for access to the system to check the data that had been put into the system. “This did not seem unreasonable, but they never responded to the request. Eventually a new area manager grasped the nettle and realised it was ridiculous and had been going on for too long,” he says.

This particular area manager arranged for the loss to be written off in 2002. It was at this time when the Post Office had an early sign that Bates would not roll over.

“They ordered me to stop rolling over and put that in writing, and after some toing and froing they tried to terminate me on one clause of the contract,” he says. “After taking legal advice, I was told if the Post Office did that they would be purporting to change the terms of the contract, which is illegal. When I put that in writing to them, they terminated me with three months’ notice without giving me a reason.”

Bates suspects his rolling over of accounts that had unexplained losses or surplus was the reason.

Ended without reason

The couple’s last day of service to the Post Office was on 5 November 2003. “We kept the shop bit, but we had to close the post office,” says Bates. “The [Post Office] walked away with the branch that we had paid the previous subpostmaster for.”

Sercombe described this period as the toughest time. “When we got the termination and went into the notice period, it was a very harrowing time and it affected us physically as well,” she says.

They had to soldier on because they had a business to run. “But [we] couldn’t succumb to that, and we didn’t even go to the doctors about the stress because we were worried about how it might affect us getting work in the future,” says Sercombe.

After having planning permission refused for a redevelopment, the couple sold the shop in 2006.

The Post Office part of the business had cost more than £60,000, with the valuation model used being one-and-a-half times the Post Office annual turnover, but only the shop could be sold on.

It was not surprising then that when the Post Office terminated the contract, Bates immediately contacted his MP, Betty Williams, who took it up with the Post Office. The Post Office said they would appoint someone to look at it, but in January 2004 Williams wrote back saying the Post Office had reviewed his case and couldn’t do anything about it.

“Realising there was going to be no appeal and they weren’t going to reinstate me, I thought, ‘Let’s get on with the battle’,” says Bates.

Going public

In 2004, on the advice of a friend, Bates contacted Computer Weekly by letter.

“A friend who works in the computer industry has suggested that I write to you as someone knowledgeable of government computer schemes and their associated problems,” he wrote in the letter.

“We have lost our investment and livelihood by daring to raise questions over a computer system we had thrust upon us, and we are trying to track down two specific lines of enquiry which I hope you may be able to offer some assistance or steer us in the right direction.”

Bates had already become a thorn in the side of the Post Office by putting up a large banner outside his shop promoting his website. “I was doing things to annoy the Post Office and was winding them up,” he says.

Alan Bates website banner
Alan Bates hung up a banner promoting his website outside his Craig-y-Don Post Office branch

But this led to people asking for advice about buying Post Offices. For example, a retired bank manager who was thinking of taking over a Post Office wrote to Bates for advice. “He had read a letter I did for a local newspaper, about my problems, and he couldn’t believe what had gone on,” says Bates.

In 2008, after being contacted by other subpostmasters, Computer Weekly had enough material to continue to investigate. The following year an article was published about the plight of subpostmasters that had suffered at the hands of Horizon. Bates was one of seven subpostmasters featured, but there were many more. Following this article, BBC Wales’s current affairs programme Taro Naw picked up on the situation.

We are not alone

After the publicity, the subpostmasters affected began talking to each other and decided to meet up. Between 30 and 40 people turned up to the meeting in Fenny Compton in Warwickshire.

This was the 2009 meeting that ultimately led to the creation of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) campaign group, and was the beginning of the next phase of Bates’ fight for justice – only this time, he and Sercombe were not alone.

This next stage eventually took them to the High Court in London in 2018, but Bates had long suspected a courtroom might be the only place to get justice if the Post Office retained its stance that the Horizon system could not be to blame for unexplained losses. Legal action had been in his mind since 2003, after a government response to his complaint suggested this might be the only route. However, although Bates and Sercombe had legal insurance, they did not have the money to take the Post Office to court.

In 2013 the Post Office set up a mediation scheme to try to get to the bottom of the problems being experienced by subpostmasters, but prematurely abandoned it. This happened on the eve of the publication of a report into Horizon by forensic accounting firm Second Sight, which the Post Office had commissioned. The report was full of criticisms about the Post Office being too quick to take legal action against subpostmasters.

When the mediation scheme fell apart in 2015, Bates decided the best way forward was the legal route. The advantage now was that Bates was in possession of all the reports Second Sight had done as part of its work commissioned by the Post Office as part of the mediation scheme, including individual case reports of the problems experienced by subpostmasters. “I felt we had a package that was good enough to interest a law firm,” says Bates.

While trying to find a law firm to take on a case against the Post Office, Bates was contacted by James Hartley, partner at Freeths solicitors, who had read about the situation in the press.

Bates was already engaged with another firm at the time, but he and Hartley decided keep in touch in case things didn’t work out with the current law firm. “As things stalled for a few months with this legal firm, I decided to give James a call. We ended up working with Freeths and never looked back,” says Bates.

Once Freeths were on board it became a lot easier for Bates “because the lawyers did all the heavy lifting”, he adds.

The legal team was in place and a group litigation order – where a number of claimants with similar claims get together to initiate an action – was seen as the next step for the subpostmasters to redress their grievances with the Post Office. With Freeths Solicitors and Henderson Barristers Chambers, they prepared a civil action.

This is a very expensive route, but it was seen as the only one. Funding came from litigation funder Therium, which works by a number of funders investing in litigation, paying fees and other costs. If the case is a success, they make a profit, but are risking their investment if the case is lost.

Let them be judged

It was a couple of years before the action was approved in January 2017 and over a year more before the first trial of four planned got underway in November 2018.

The first trial analysed the contractual relationship between the Post Office and subpostmasters. After weeks in court, including lead claimants and senior Post Office staff being questioned, the judgment was published in March the following year. It was damning, with Judge Peter Fraser describing the Post Office's contract with subpostmasters as “oppressive”.

In the judgment, he said: “The Post Office describes itself on its own website as ‘the nation’s most trusted brand’. So far as these claimants, and the subject matter of this group litigation, are concerned, this might be thought to be wholly wishful thinking.”

It was vindication for Bates and affected subpostmasters. The Post Office even tried to get the judge to remove himself from the case, alleging bias. When he refused, the Post Office went to the Court of Appeal, where their request was once again rejected.

Alan Bates outside court
Alan Bates (pictured left) outside the High Court

The Post Office later went on to make an application to appeal large parts of the first trial judgement, but the Court of Appeal rejected it. Lord Justice Coulson in the Court of Appeal likened the treatment of subpostmasters by the Post Office to the way Victorian factory owners treated their workers.

All of this was costing millions of pounds as legal teams on both sides constructed their arguments.

The second trial began in March 2019 and put the Horizon system and its supporting technologies and processes under the spotlight. Fujitsu, the company that supplies the Horizon system, featured heavily. Revelations during the trial included, in contrast to Post Office prior claims, the existence of a Known Errors Log containing thousands of Horizon bugs.

Before the judgment for the second trial was announced in December 2019, the Post Office settled with the subpostmasters for £57.75m. When the judgment for the second trial was published a few days later, the Post Office’s decision to get out became obvious.

The judgment came on 17 December 2019 and it was explosive, shattering the Post Office claim that Horizon was robust and not to blame for accounting shortfalls. In his judgment, Judge Fraser said: “This approach by the Post Office has amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat.”

Bates commented: “The judgement was a broadside, not just a smoking gun.”

New battleground

This signalled the end of another phase in Bates’ battle and the beginning of a new one.

Bates is driven by the desire to get justice for subpostmasters victims. “It is frustrating in some ways because you think you could be doing other things, but the more time you spend on it and with other victims and the misery it has caused, you realise how horrible it is what the Post Office has done,” he says.

According to Bates, many subpostmasters experienced far greater suffering than he and Sercombe did. “We were quite fortunate in comparison to a lot of people, so you have to be able to manage this,” he adds.

It was, however, a constant struggle, but Bates says they were able to break from it when necessary. “You can get overrun by things, with all the misery and the rest of it. A long time ago I learned to be able to lift a problem down from a shelf, open it up and work on it, then put it away back on the shelf and not worry about it,” he says.

When it comes to high points, the judgment in the first trial ranks near the top, but Bates said this was not a surprise because “it was clearly the truth”.

Sercombe is not surprised about how Bates has dealt with the long battle, but she was surprised by his strength. “I didn’t realise just how strong he was,” she says.

She adds that while Bates has not changed, he has emerged. “Over the past 20 years, he has shown that his previous work as an operations manager made him organised. He would always just get on with the job and step by step achieve things. He used all these skills throughout this process. There were many times I considered giving up the fight, but I am not sure Alan did,” she says.

Sercombe admits there were times she questioned whether it was all worth it and came close to giving up at one point. “There was a period before we got Freeths on board that we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. We had a discussion about whether we should carry on or not, but by that time it was too late because so many people were on board,” she says.

“We didn’t see anyone else in the group that could jump in and take over. We seemed to be the only couple that didn’t have families and lots of other dynamics going on, and we freer in our lifestyle.”

When it comes to continuing the battle now that the court case is over, she says: “You have to think about where we would be if we didn’t have the settlement, we’d still be going to court and immersed in it anyway.”

Watching Bates face stiff questioning from the QC representing the Post Office, Sercombe said she was impressed with how he paced himself, but she adds: “I wasn’t really worried, I was quite confident.”

While the two court judgments were the high points for Sercombe, she adds being in London for the High Court allowed her to revisit some of her passions from the time when she was a student near the city. “Going back to London has allowed me to revisit some of the places I used to visit, like the art galleries,” she says.

Asked whether he would take on the Post Office again if he could go back in time, Bates says: “Well that depends how far back you go. If we could go back far enough, we would never buy a Post Office.”

Click here to sign a petition calling for a full judge-led public inquiry into the Horizon scandal.

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009

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