The Post Office scandal - the lessons for politicians

Just one week after Mr Bates Vs The Post Office - ITV’s docudrama on the plight of post-masters caught up in one of the largest miscarriages of justice in modern times - aired on our screens, the PM stood up in Parliament and promised to exonerate and compensate those wrongly convicted.

ITV and the power of drama deserve our praise for (finally) galvanising Government action on what is clearly one of this country’s biggest-ever scandals.

But, bluntly, it shouldn’t have taken a TV show to get to this point.

The human cost of this scandal has been enormous.

More than 700 post-masters were prosecuted.

Four took their own lives.

Dozens more died in shame without the chance to clear their names.

It is, of course, now vital that compensation is given to all victims ASAP. Ministers, remember, promised to resolve all the compensation cases left by Christmas. We need to turbocharge the compensation scheme, and hold the individuals responsible to account.

But, in any case, financial reparations and quashing false convictions aren’t enough.

As Keir Starmer says, we need proposals brought forward to ensure the right to bring private prosecutions is never again abused in this most horrific of ways.

But, I think, there are wider lessons for politicians, like myself.

The first is for ministers. I say this having served as one, and now, as your Regional Mayor.

Always test, don’t simply accept, the advice you receive from civil servants. They might not like it, and it doesn’t lead to an easy life (or comfortable headlines), but that’s your job. You are there in part to stop a faceless bureaucracy from getting out of control - and putting itself before voters.

Next the buck stops with you. I know there are hundreds of things crossing ministers’ desks. But when it goes wrong, hold your hands up. This is why I think people are so angry with Lib Dem leader Ed Davey, who refused ten times to apologise for his lack of action as Post Office Minister.

This is also a story of wider failings of the government machine too; of overly complex governance obscuring the truth; of cosy relations with arms-length bodies; of poorly drafted contracts (of which I have seen my fair share as Mayor); and of blind faith in technology.

It’s about the perils of group think. An inability to spot patterns of problems. And the dangers of outsourcing personal judgement and not asking: does this explanation pass the sniff test? Or rather, are we sure people long regarded as pillars of their communities have all suddenly turned into common thieves?

More positively, this scandal shows the importance of the ‘constituency link’. Politicians of all parties who heard cases in constituency surgeries were among the first to raise concerns.

We have seen this human tragedy playing out on our TV screens, and know nothing can right the wrongs. But we can - and must - ensure it never happens again.