Because of a bug in the Royal Mail's accounting software, more than 700 postal workers in the UK were falsely accused and convicted of stealing money over a 14-year period. The scale of the scandal is unprecedented and a public inquiry is underway into what the BBC reports as "the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK history." Even now, only a few dozen have had their convictions overturned.
Those whose convictions, based on Horizon evidence, have been overturned will be in line for compensation, which the Post Office has promised as soon as possible. It is inviting applications for interim compensation of up to £100,000, which will be funded by the government. Final settlements will come via mediated agreements, or through claims in the civil courts.
It sounds like a simple pattern of mindless compliance with computers, a human phenomenon refined to perfection by the classic British jobsworth. But the journey from "software bug" to "hundreds of people being convicted of crimes" demands it from so many people, from the post office to the police to prosecutors and the courts, so many times over, that it becomes hard to believe. Hanlon's razor—"never assume malice when stupidity will do"—runs head-on into a corollary: "why not both?"
• From the outset, postmasters reported the mistakes made by the software and were punished.
• The Post Office instructed staff to destroy documentary evidence of the problems with the software.
• It all happened within the accounting software, never in accounts: those convicted were not shown to have received the money, and it was never shown to be missing.
• The system was insecure and low-level technicians could remotely manually change financial data. Moreover, the Post Office lied about this until it was forced to admit it in court.
• Claims that those prosecuted were disproportionately ethnic minorities.
The British government, though, wants to blame the software developers.
So far, nobody at the Post Office or Fujitsu has been held accountable, although the High Court judge said he would refer Fujitsu to the Director of Public Prosecutions for possible further action because he had "grave concerns" about the evidence of the company's employees.
They're talking about it as if blaming a foreign contractor and issuing financial compensation will close the book on this, but a) the consequences for the victims were more profound than money, including family breakups and suicides, b) actually paying all these people would render the Post Office insolvent, and c) the people responsible for all this shouldn't get their asses covered by the taxpayer.