Mr Bates vs The Post Office Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Source: IMDB / cropped from original

Lindsey German recommends the dramatisation of one of the great modern miscarriages of justice

It’s not often that a prime-time ITV series makes you gasp out loud, comment in disbelief and feel compelled to watch all four episodes in one evening. But that was the effect Mr Bates vs The Post Office had on me and, if social media is anything to go by, on many other people as well. It tells a story of the persecution and hounding of hundreds of sub postmasters and their families, who were completely innocent of any wrongdoing, but who lost their jobs, often ended up with a criminal record, were in some cases imprisoned, suffering anguish, mental breakdown, bankruptcy and public disgrace. A few committed suicide, and considerable numbers died before they could see any justice.

The trouble started when the Post Office introduced a new computer system, Horizon, supplied by the Japanese multinational Fujitsu. While defended for many years as completely infallible, it introduced financial errors into the bookkeeping systems in many sub post offices. Desperate people phoning the helpline were told that no one else had these problems, although clearly there was some system failure. Instead, sub postmasters and mistresses across the country were told that they often owed many thousands of pounds and were forced to find the ‘lost’ money from their own funds.

The protagonist of the series, Alan Bates (played by the excellent Toby Jones) is one such postmaster. He is sacked when he refuses to accept responsibility for the supposed debts and shortfall in his accounts. We see the Post Office auditors sweep up to his modest Llandudno shop in sinister black limousines as they try to brand him a criminal. Forced out and living in the Welsh mountains with his lovely wife Suzanne (Julie Hesmondhalgh), he gradually pieces together a campaign alongside other victims of this injustice.

The individual stories are tales of brutal treatment, lives wrecked by something beyond their control. But of course it should not have been beyond their control. The fact that computer error was allowed to do so is entirely the fault of the major businesses – the Post Office and Fujitsu – that not only allowed it to happen, but also did everything to prevent the truth from coming out. If thousands of innocent people were collateral damage in this process, too bad.

The Post Office took the decision to prosecute without having to go through normal criminal procedures. We see the case of one woman, Jo Hamilton (Monica Dolan), who repeatedly phones the misnamed ‘helpline’ because she can’t balance the books and is given completely useless advice. She is encouraged to accept a plea bargain to plead guilty to false accounting rather than theft, which is a more serious charge. It’s only later found out that the auditors said there was no evidence of theft, so she could not have been convicted of it anyway.

Lee Castleton (Will Mellor) decides to defend himself because he believes in ‘British justice’ but finds himself up against a top legal team for the Post Office. He not only loses his case but has to pay their costs of £300,000.

Nature of the system

Behind every one of these cases is a well-told human interest story. However, what lifts the series from one of gritty campaigners bonding and ultimately triumphing is the sheer awfulness of the corporations and the contempt that they have for these people. They lie and deceive as a matter of course. 

This awfulness is personified in the figure of Paula Vennells, the Post Office CEO and the epitome of everything you despise about the managerial values of the neoliberal era. Played by Lia Williams, she repeatedly insists that the computer system is robust and that the fault must lie with the sub postmasters. She does so to her board, to a parliamentary committee, and anyone else who cares to listen. She also sets up a ‘mediation scheme’ where each victim must jump through hoops and agree not to disclose the outcome. It cannot of course quash convictions and is loath to hand over much cash in compensation.

Gradually though the truth will out, but again at huge effort and cost to the victims. The forensic accountant hired by Vennells finds the evidence increasingly points to their innocence and Bates manages to bring a legal case proving the faults lay with the computer system not the postmasters. This requires also finding a Fujitsu whistle-blower who confirms that – contrary to the insistence that its operatives had no means of remotely accessing individual post-office systems – its operatives regularly did access those systems.

This broke down the assumption that only the sub postmasters could have been guilty. But even here, legal costs meant each claimant ended up with around £20,000 – far less than they had lost.

The wrongful convictions have been quashed, but the campaign for proper compensation still drags on. No one in the Post Office or Fujitsu has ever been held to account for anything. Vennells resigned in 2019, but went on to head an NHS trust (talk about failing upwards). However she later had to resign from that and from her post as minister in the Church of England because of the scandal.

I very much hope this forces a government, which can dole out millions to its mates for equipment during the pandemic, to grant decent compensation and to demand the companies pay towards it. The lessons of this are ones for all socialists: we can win when we organise collectively as Bates did so effectively. But we face major enemies in the form of big business and a legal system which gives them the benefit of the doubt and which is prohibitively expensive for working people. 

One person helping them was Tory MP James Arbuthnot (Alex Jennings), who began to piece together different cases that had been brought to him and other MPs -something which of course Post Office management should have done as soon as they became apparent. Yet, successive governments have allowed these companies to act with impunity and that allows these injustices to happen.

This is a great story of life under neoliberal capitalism. First, they came for the postmasters….

Mr Bates vs The Post Office is streaming on ITVX

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

Tagged under: