Former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who ‘pulled up trees and moved mountains’, turns down OBE offer

The former subpostmaster who exposed one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in history has rejected the offer of an OBE for services to justice because he believes it is “inappropriate” while victims still suffer and one of the scandal’s architects retains her honour.

Alan Bates, who has campaigned relentlessly for over two decades to achieve justice for subpostmasters who were blamed and prosecuted for unexplained accounting shortfalls caused by computer errors, said it would be inappropriate to accept the offer because former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells still holds her CBE, bringing the “whole honours system into disrepute”.

Bates thanked all the people who put his name forward for the award, but told the Honours Committee: “Whilst I do appreciate that there may well be people who believe that after the many years of my unpaid campaigning, which I led in order to expose the truth, I deserve some recognition for my work, but I hope you can understand why it would be so inappropriate for me to accept any award at present, while so many of the victims continue to suffer so badly and [Paula] Vennells still retains an honour and remains a ‘role model’ to the Honours Committee.”

In May 2022, Tom Scholar, chairman of the Honours Forfeiture Committee, said his team would reconsider Vennells’ award once the current public inquiry into the Post Office scandal is complete.

Vennells led the Post Office during a scandal and left just before a damaging High Court judgment, which slammed the Post Office management that punished subpostmasters for mistakes made by its own computer system. She took over £400,000 in pay and bonuses with her.

Years of campaigning

Bates revealed the offer and his response in a circular to the 555 members of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), the campaign group he set up in 2009.

Following the introduction of the Post Office’s Horizon computer system from Fujitsu in 2000, which was to automate retail and accounting, subpostmaters began suffering unexplained shortfalls, for which they were blamed. Many had to repay large sums of money and 736 were prosecuted, some of whom were sent to prison.

In what has become known as the Post Office Horizon scandal, hundreds of subpostmasters had their lives ruined after being blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls, which were actually caused by computer errors. Computer Weekly first reported on problems with the Horizon system in 2009, when it made public the stories of a group of subpostmasters affected by reporting errors (see timeline of articles below).

Bates became subpostmaster at the Post Office in Craig-y-Don, north Wales, in 1998. But by the end of 2000, after the introduction of the Post Office’s Horizon computer system, supplied by Fujitsu, things started to go wrong, with unexplained losses appearing in his accounts.

The subpostmaster contract said he was responsible for paying the money, but he refused and demanded the computer evidence to prove the cause of the losses.

In 2003, 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 in a group litigation order (GLO) and won a multimillion-pound legal case, proving computer errors – not subpostmaster dishonesty or fault – had caused the losses.

This court victory was the catalyst for more that 80 former subpostmaster prosecutions, so far, to be overturned at the Court of Appeal, and instigated a statutory public inquiry into the scandal, which is ongoing. It also led to a government and Post Office agreement to compensate victims financially.

Originally set up for subpostmasters affected by shortfalls to recoup the money they had paid the Post Office to cover losses, the JFSA became a campaign group that exposed huge failures in government, the legal system, the Post Office and Fujitsu.

Bates first contacted Computer Weekly about the issues in 2004. He was featured in an article in 2009, which, for the first time, told the story of seven people affected by errors in the Post Office’s Horizon system. This highlighted the problem, prompting hundreds of affected people, each of whom had been told by the Post Office that they were the only ones having problems, to come forward.

Further investigation pending

In his communication to JFSA members, Bates also revealed that the Parliamentary Ombudsman had confirmed it would investigate government maladministration in its handling of the Post Office scandal.

In July 2000, to support its submission to the Ombudsman, the JFSA raised £100,000 in just six weeks using Crowdjustice, a crowdfunding platform focused on raising money for legal cases. In November that year, its complaint about the government began its journey to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

“It was a long time in coming, but in late October 2022, I received a letter from the [Parliamentary Ombudsman] in which they informed me they have ‘decided to confirm the decision to investigate the complaint’ and that they would be sending me ‘a more formal letter explaining that soon’,” Bates wrote.

“I have been waiting for that letter since then in order to inform you of the details of their proposed investigation, but as yet nothing has arrived. In response to querying no receipt of any letter, the [Parliamentary Ombudsman] responded in December informing me that they had still to clarify how best to ‘navigate the practical difficulties of our investigating at the same time as the inquiry’ and that they ‘need to resolve that before we write formally’.”

“I am aware that [it] had already undertaken considerable initial investigation work before they wrote in October, but at the time we had submitted the complaint there had been no inquiry set up – in fact, at that time, [the] government had been trying to say the whole issue was over and done with. However, since then, we have managed to obtain an inquiry and turn it into a statutory inquiry, and I think there may well be others who are now trying to dismiss the need for the [Parliamentary Ombudsman] to investigate, under the guise that the [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] inquiry will deal with it.”

In his email, Bates also signalled the end of an era when he told members that once all compensation is paid to JFSA members, the campaign group will end its work, stating that “…the main aim behind the reason we set up the JFSA has almost been achieved, and hopefully by the time the closing date of the GLO compensation scheme is reached in August 2024 the JFSA can close its doors”.

Neil Hudgell, chairman at Hudgell Solicitors, which represents hundreds of victims of the Post Office scandal, said Bates has “pulled up trees and moved mountains”.

Bates hailed a ‘hero’

Campaigners and subpostmasters paid tribute to Bates.

Eleanor Shaikh, who has vigorously campaigned for justice since her local subpostmaster fell victim to the scandal, said: “The Horizon scandal might still be buried if it weren’t for Alan’s extraordinary persistence and courage. He created the JFSA, allowing victims to meet, share information, join forces and become the trailblazers that exposed [the] Post Office’s can of worms. Without his selfless determination, there wouldn’t have been a High Court case; every other step towards justice has been built on the success of that litigation. He continues to devote his life to attempting to right [the] Post Office’s wrongs and deserves the utmost credit for what he’s achieved so far.”

“Against all the odds, Alan took on Goliath and won. He battled tirelessly and selflessly for more than two decades to secure justice and restoration for hundreds of innocent subpostmasters. What a man, our hero”
Jo Hamilton, former subpostmaster

Former subpostmaster Jo Hamilton, who had her wrongful conviction for false accounting overturned at the Court of Appeal in April 2021, said: “Against all the odds, Alan took on Goliath and won. He battled tirelessly and selflessly for more than two decades to secure justice and restoration for hundreds of innocent subpostmasters. What a man, our hero.”

James Arbuthnot, who became involved in the campaign for justice as MP for North East Hampshire when Hamilton, a constituent, contacted him, said Alan Bates has devoted his life to putting right the many wrongs done to the subpostmasters by the Post Office: “He is a man of incredible determination who, in fighting for justice, has made history. He realised he alone could not prevail, and he created the JFSA, which brought the subpostmasters together. Then he raised the funds to bring the GLO and led the subpostmasters in their battle, winning an extraordinary victory against the Post Office, the self-styled ‘most trusted brand in the country’. Because the case had to be settled on unfair terms, he then continued to pursue the government through the ombudsman, Parliament and the courts to ensure that wrongful convictions were overturned in unprecedented numbers and compensation would be given to many hundreds of subpostmasters.”

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