The Post Office Scandal. The contaminated blood scandal. Hillsborough. Orgreave. Time and time again, we have witnessed unforgivable episodes in modern British history that demonstrate the total disregard those in position of power and influence have for the lives of ordinary working-class people. Profits and furthering personal careers take priority while working-class communities are forced to undertake a very long and painful battle for justice. The Post Office Scandal is the latest deplorable chapter in this history of crimes against the powerless.
Although the unbelievably sad plight of the wrongly persecuted Sub Postmasters has been a scandal for many years, the issue only came to the top of the news agenda recently, after the broadcast of the deeply moving ITV drama ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office.’
The public outcry that followed pushed this issue belatedly to the front of political leaders’ minds and onto the agenda of the Parliamentary Business and Trade Select Committee on which I sit. From that vantage point, I have been able to observe up close both the callousness and lack of candour of the company CEOs, together with first-hand stories of the suffering their companies have caused to people in our communities — people who could have been any of our family members, neighbours and friends.
There are many disturbing aspects to this horrendous saga, but something I find particularly hard to stomach is that after many years of embarrassing revelations and court admonishments, those who are now in control of the Post Office and Fujitsu have not changed their mindsets. The attitude they displayed before the Select Committee did not seem to be different from that of their predecessors — those who perpetrated the wrongs against the Sub Postmasters in the first place. They continue to prioritise their own interests exclusively, despite knowing the harm their organisations have done and are continuing to do to the hundreds of Sub Postmasters trying to gain justice and compensation.
The Post Office continues to frustrate compensation claims, yet massive bonuses have been paid to its CEO Nick Read, a reward for obstructing justice. In the case of Fujitsu, lucrative state contracts continue to be awarded, but without it showing any contrition for its part in this tragedy. Before the Select Committee, the corporate heads simply continued to try to justify or make excuses for their behaviour.
A case in point was the behaviour of the CEO of Fujitsu Europe, Paul Patterson, who professed remorse and regret. He went on to admit that the Post Office was told many years ago about his company’s ability to access Sub Post Office computers without the Postmasters knowing. If this information had been revealed long ago, it could have helped bring the Sub Postmasters’ torturous ordeal to an end well before now. It did not seem to register with him that this admission was not putting things right for the victims, it was just revealing another inexcusable cover-up. It did nothing to help the Sub Postmasters now; it was just a PR exercise for his multinational corporation.
The defensive, self-justifying evidence given by the CEOs of the Post Office and Fujitsu was in stark contrast to the dignified and moving evidence that the Select Committee heard from those who were made bankrupt or wrongly convicted of crimes as a result of the inhumane acts of the Post Office.
The stories of people such as Jo Hamilton whose case was prominent in the ITV drama are now well known, but to hear, in person, innocent people such as her tell tales of being totally powerless when up against corporate might was chilling. Those who presided over this scandal seem to be incapable of empathy. I am astonished by their apparent disinterest towards the anguish and suffering of fellow human beings that they have caused. They act as if they are on a different planet to people like Jo Hamilton. The class divide is that strong.
The power of capital is such that it’s not only individuals whose lives are shaped by it. It has a coercive influence over governments as well. Fujitsu, despite its complicity in the Post Office Scandal, has continued to run the Post Office’s computer systems without any penalties. It is claimed that it would be too expensive to sack them. They continue to be given government IT contracts as there is little in procurement law to stop them being awarded them on the basis of bad behaviour in the running of previous contracts.
The people in charge of such companies often have close personal relations with those in government, having gone to the same schools or universities and belonging to the same social circles. They can relate to each other, but not to the lives of working-class people. They look after their own and show no evidence of really caring for ordinary people like those whose lives have been destroyed by the Post Office.
Is there any evidence that things have been learned as a result of the Post Office scandal? I do not believe so. The dangers created when powerful multinational companies are allowed important roles within the public sector have not been addressed. The Post Office Scandal shows that they can operate in ways that damage working class lives with little meaningful accountability to the public.
We need strong legal frameworks to allow such public scrutiny and we need it urgently. A full Hillsborough law, as championed by my friend and colleague Ian Byrne MP, would mean a legally enforceable ‘duty of candour’ on public authorities, officials and public servants to tell the truth at investigations and inquiries. It’s a matter of safeguarding. Safeguarding working-class people from the rich and powerful who continue to act as if working-class lives do not matter.