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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Zoe Williams

Post Office has run out of road thanks to an honest, stubborn man

Alan Bates arrives at High Court to give evidence to the Horizon IT inquiry.
Alan Bates was a post office operator for five and a half years and has spent decades campaigning for justice over the faulty Horizon system. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

As Alan Bates took the stand for the latest phase of the Horizon inquiry, it would be de trop to say that it was as if Madonna had entered the room, but even the judge, Sir Wyn Williams, seemed impressed. Not the Alan Bates? There was an expectant hush as he was asked to state his full name. I don’t know what the world was expecting, to be honest. “Alan ‘scourge of the corrupt’ Bates”? “Just call me ‘The Enforcer’?” “Alan Bates,” he said, with the faintest imaginable amusement on his face. Somewhere in that national hero’s head, there’s a voice saying, “I’m not the Messiah, I’m just an honest, stubborn man.” The living nightmare of shitehawks and con artists everywhere – an honest, stubborn man.

It has become absolutely de rigueur for everyone from politicians to phone-in punters to observe: “It’s an outrage, that it would take an ITV drama, to get justice for the sub-postmasters”. It is, indeed, chilling.

The other terrifying thing is what a moonshot it was to get this on primetime TV: Bates is a quiet man, modest, understated, palpably anti-melodramatic. If you want justice done, you need it lit up like 4 July. But when you need injustice painstakingly uncovered, it takes a man who definitely breathes a sigh of relief on the 5th. A large part of what makes Bates so popular and so watchable is how much it costs him, to be the centre of attention, and the depth of public duty it connotes, that here he is.

Jason Beer KC cantered through Bates’s career as a post office operator, remarking the “irony” that he was in post only five and a half years and has spent four times that campaigning for justice. Is that ironic, though? If Bates had resigned of his own accord – his reputation unblemished, because he wasn’t fussed, and yet was fussed enough to dedicate his next two decades to fighting the Post Office – that might pass for an irony. As it stands, Bates was terminated.

An undated report by former Post Office manager, Dave Smith, recommends his removal in the following terms. “Bates had discrepancies but was dismissed because he became unmanageable. Clearly struggled with the accounting and despite copious support did not follow instructions.” The sheer brass neck of these people sent a smile around the room. Which of us wouldn’t struggle with an accounting system that made up numbers, shored up by people whose “copious support” was stonewalling and lying?

Bates’s letter to the Post Office in 2002, shortly before and likely precipitating his dismissal, mentions how stressful it is to have doubt cast over his honesty. The Post Office at this point was years away from admitting responsibility, who knows how far from making proper compensation, really just at the beginning of a journey that would involve chasing hundreds of innocent people though the courts and some to their deaths by suicide.

When Bates calls them “judge, jury and executioner”, it is painful to think how literally that could be taken. But it’s painful, too, to think how casually reputations could be destroyed by the simple assumption that an organisation like the Post Office – arms length to the government, as ministers keep reminding everyone – must be telling the truth.

On those ministers: Ed Davey is on the hook for this, having been business minister when Bates wrote to him, first in July 2010 – he sent a template response– then in October, after which he submitted to a meeting. Could Bates, Beer asked, recall that meeting, either the minister’s engagement or anything positive to emerge from it? Nope. “I’m quite certain,” Bates said, “if anything positive had come out of it, I’d have remembered that.”

Amnesia often has the ring of dissemblance, in a public inquiry – when Matt Hancock can’t remember anything, for instance, you can’t help but think how convenient that is for him. But when you are genuinely faced with one wall of silence after another, one inconclusive, nothing exchange, full of hidey-hole words like “arms length”, empty of promise or action, how could you possibly remember one event from the next? You’d really need Kafka chronicling it, and it would still all merge into one continuous grey day.

Nonetheless, Bates blames the civil servants more than the ministers. Ultimately, the Post Office went rogue. “They were definitely trying to outspend us,” he told the inquiry. “They had a bottomless pocket, as such, being a government organisation. Anything they could do to spin it out, they did. Anything to cost us money and try to get us to stop the case.” There’s a long way to go before just reparations are made, but at least we can say that the Post Office has run out of road.

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