Who's to blame for the Horizon scandal? It’s more Oliver Cromwell than Tony Benn

As the Post Office scandal continues to unfold, Prof Colin Talbot dives into the murky world of internal "policing" in posts and telecoms
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By Colin Talbot

29 Jan 2024

 

An article by Robert Colvile in The Times caught my attention: The unlikely villain of the Horizon scandal? Tony Benn. Despite the silly headline, it’s actually worth reading

This headline is, of course, a ridiculous stretch. Tony Benn did help create ICL Ltd, forerunner of the current UK Fujitsu, and gave it government contracts. But others – including Thatcher – kept ICL and then Fujitsu in their position as favoured provider of IT to government and public services. 

But Colvile’s article did get me thinking about the context of the Post Office/Fujitsu/Horizon scandal. But first, a confession … 

I worked for BT from just after it split from the Post Office (1979-85) – as a technician. I was branch secretary of the then-PO Engineers Union's powerful Westminster Branch. In that role I learnt a lot about the history of Royal Mail/Post Office/BT. 

One of the surprising things is why posts, then telegraphs, and then telephones had always been taken into government ownership. The public reasons were they were a strategic asset and important to developing a modern economy. Which is true. 

The “penny post” (the idea you pay the same for postage anywhere in the country) was an example of early “levelling up” policy. It was later applied to phones. You paid the same in town or country – even though the latter was much more expensive to install and run. 

But there was a dark side to all this too. 

From Oliver Cromwell onwards, the reason governments wanted to keep control of post and, later, phones was simple – so they could spy on their citizens. 

Opening the post and tapping phones was an integral function of the Royal Mail/Post Office/BT. Which is why the internal "policing" of posts and telecoms was always kept "in-house" and well out of public sight. 

Royal Mail had its own internal investigative and prosecutions functions going back almost 350 years. The only time they appeared in public was in court cases, where questions were rarely asked. As can be seen from what is now being exposed in the Horizon Inquiry.  

So while this isn’t the immediate cause of the Horizon scandal – that’s much closer to now – it does help explain why it remained "under the radar" for so long.  

The "rules of the game" were: don’t talk about the murkier side of posts and telecoms. So the powers that be turned a blind eye to the emerging enormous miscarriage of justice that is Horizon.  

Colin Talbot is emeritus professor of government at the University of Manchester and a research associate at the University of Cambridge

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