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Civil servants more to blame for Post Office cover-up than ministers, says Alan Bates

Campaigning former subpostmaster believes the civil service has more to answer for than ministers in the Post Office Horizon scandal

Civil servants were more to blame than politicians for the length of time the Post Office scandal was allowed to run, according to Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who led the two-decade fight for justice.

Bates - the star of the ITV drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, spent five years as a subpostmaster and the 20 subsequent years campaigning for justice for the thousands of victims of the scandal. He appeared on the first day of the final phases of the statutory public inquiry.

Bates, chair of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), told the inquiry he has dealt with numerous different government ministers over the years as he campaigned for the truth, and accused the civil service as well as the Post Office of influencing them.

He said: “A lot of ministers come in for stick, but I hold the civil service more to blame in a lot of the instances and [for the reasons] why things didn’t progress at the time. I am sure between [the civil service] and the Post Office they were briefing ministers in the direction they wanted.”

Bates has never relented in his campaign to get to the truth. The inquiry heard how the Post Office saw him as a trouble-maker and “not fit to be a subpostmaster.”

The statutory public inquiry so far

During the hearing, Bates accused the government and the Post Office of being vindictive towards him with derisory offers of financial redress. “I think there is a bit of vindictiveness on the part of the department and the Post Office. I say that because they don’t think anything I have done over the years has any worth.”

If it wasn’t for Bates, the extent of the scandal may never have been known. He has always stood his ground against the Post Office and the government. The first thing he called for after the JFSA’s 2019 High Court victory that proved Horizon was to blame for phantom accounting losses, was a public inquiry - and he got it a year later.

When the inquiry was originally established as a non-statutory review lacking powers, he initially refused to take part, believing the plan would allow the government to “brush it under the carpet.” In a February 2021 letter to then prime minister Boris Johnson, Bates requested that the prime minister pause the non-statutory Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, re-establish it as a statutory inquiry, and hold a public consultation on the terms of reference.

“A non-statutory inquiry with limited terms of reference and with limited powers, under the sponsorship of a government department with a clear conflict of interest, will not suffice to redress the unprecedented and historic injustices of which the subpostmasters are victims,” he said. The public inquiry was given statutory status in May 2021 after pressure from campaigners and politicians.

Edward Henry KC, representing victims of the scandal, said Bates had not only exposed the problems with the Horizon system, but also the government’s “reckless indifference” to the flawed IT and the resulting subpostmaster suffering.

Henry also took the inquiry to a shocking revelation from 2013, when the Post Office legal team was preparing a letter for its insurer regarding Horizon problems.

Andrew Parsons, a lawyer at legal firm Womble Bond Dickenson, advised the Post Office not to notify its insurers of risks associated with Horizon by letter, but to do so verbally so as “not to leave a paper trail.”

Henry described this as being a ploy to enable “plausible deniability, with nothing written down.” This would help the Post Office maintain its position that there were no problems with Horizon.

The Post Office scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to the accounting software  (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal below).

Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal 

Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story 

Read all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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