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What is the Post Office board doing to right the Horizon wrongs?

Business lawyer Nick Gould compares the treatment of subpostmasters by the Post Office in the Horizon IT scandal with the huge HBOS fraud that saw £1bn stolen from small businesses

Over the last few years, particularly in my role as chairman of a support, knowledge-sharing and lobby group called SME Alliance, I learned a huge amount and heard some terrible stories about the effects of major frauds and corruption by various bankers and some of their advisers on the owners of hundreds of small and medium-sized businesses.

I stepped down from that role at the end of 2019, but have recently been reading about the nightmare forced onto hundreds of subpostmasters as a result of the behaviour of directors and senior management of the Post Office over nearly two decades. I knew nothing about it until the end of last year.

Their behaviour ranks right up there with that of certain directors/senior management of HBOS relating to what is often called the billion-pound HBOS Reading bank fraud, which took place between about 2002 and 2007.

This fraud was uncovered during 2008, nine years before the 2017 trial of some of those bankers and their advisers took place. The similarities between what happened to many victims of bank fraud and what is still happening today to victims of the behaviour of Post Office senior management are striking. 

Except that, in the case of the bankers’ behaviour, I don’t think anyone ended up being wrongly imprisoned or branded wrongly as a criminal, so “take a bow” (presumably) the board of the Post Office and its advisers. I am not going into the details here, as they were covered in a recent opinion piece for Computer Weekly by James Arbuthnot.

One comment from a bank victim made both before and after his 2017 settlement was: “How do you put a value on 15 years of our lives?”  What were you doing 15 years ago? Think about it. The same applies to the Post Office victims (awful word, but how else to describe them?).

Sadly, too many directors and too many of their advisers in too many situations all too often choose to ignore ethics, morals, corporate governance and social responsibility. I often believe that to certain senior executives (and in this case let’s apply it specifically to Post Office executives), they are, but they shouldn’t be, just a string of meaningless words.

“Too many directors choose to ignore ethics, morals, corporate governance and social responsibility”

Nick Gould, business lawyer

And because they are seen as just words and because of action or inaction, arrogance or inability of certain directors, certain senior executives of the Post Office and certain legal and other advisers to hear and understand the real effects of those words, I am told that there are people who have committed suicide, have died prematurely, are sick and have had nervous breakdowns. These are real people with real lives – not numbers or units.

Of course, senior management would often like all this stuff to be anonymised and then stuffed behind the sofa. They work on the silo principle – don’t tell anyone else, make individual victims think they are alone in their wrongdoing and are alone in their misery. All too often, senior management can’t or won’t deal with, or even acknowledge, the real-life impacts of this appalling behaviour.

I have also been told that until the judgments of Mr Justice Fraser were issued in 2019, the Post Office tried to bully journalists into silence over many years.

But you know what – it would actually be in the interest of the Post Office management, and that of everyone else connected with them, for the organisation to behave morally and ethically and try to rebuild effective relationships with those they destroyed. Why they won’t, don’t or can’t is a good question – and one with no apparent answer.

In the case of the bankers who went rogue, at least, like it/agree with it or not, there was some sort of regulatory regime through the Financial Conduct Authority. In the case of the Post Office, from what I have read and heard about, the relevant government department, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), has done absolutely nothing useful across the years. The Post Office is owned by the government, so ultimately by the taxpayer. I can’t believe people expect their taxes to be spent on prosecuting and jailing innocent people.

One final phrase – it applied in the case of the banks and it applies just as strongly here to every person or organisation in a position to resolve this wrong: “People are sick, are dying – time is short.”

Nick Gould is a business lawyer in private practice who tends to believe in the use of common sense. The comments and opinions in this article are his alone.

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