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Common decency vs the Post Office

For the sake of our souls, the idolisation of “business” must end

Rishi Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murty, received nearly £6.7m in dividends from shares in her father’s company last year. Photo: David M Benett/Getty

The Post Office scandal is the political parable that keeps on giving – not least as a terrible warning of our collective desensitisation to ethical indolence, lack of accountability and potential conflicts of interest.

Why, for instance, has there been so little focus (with some noble exceptions on social media) on the intimate connection between Fujitsu, the Japanese multinational responsible for the Horizon software at the heart of this grave miscarriage of justice, and Infosys, the global software giant founded by Rishi Sunak’s father-in-law, NR Narayana Murthy?

Launched in February 2022, the partnership between the two multinationals was extended last October with the announcement of a new global development deal. In which context, it is surely worth mentioning that the prime minister’s wife, Akshata Murty, received nearly £6.7m in dividend payments from shares in her father’s company last year.

It is also worth noting that, as the Financial Times reported last week, Fujitsu was involved in UK government contracts worth £2.4bn when Sunak was chancellor; to which we must add £1.2bn since he became prime minister in October 2022. As recently as November, unbelievably, the company even secured a £36m extension to the discredited Horizon system.

Why is this particular nexus of personal, political and commercial connections not leading the news? Because it is, in every sense, business as usual. And this, in turn, leads us to one of the deepest sores on the body politic spotlit by ITV’s extraordinary drama series, Mr Bates vs The Post Office – if we only care to take notice.

Scroll back to the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher declared her mission to “roll back the frontiers of the state”. Central to this undertaking was the “outsourcing” of public services to the private sector. On this matter, at least, the Tory right and One Nation wing of the party were agreed: as environment secretary, Nicholas Ridley led the charge to contract out local services, while Michael Heseltine, in his various cabinet positions, started from the proposition that business is always better than government at running things.

More to the point, New Labour also embraced the principle that, as Tony Blair put it, “what counts is what works” – meaning that the outsourcing revolution accelerated after 1997. Much more recently, we have witnessed the compulsive belief of Dominic Cummings, former chief adviser to Boris Johnson, that the private sector always knows better than the state how to provide public services.

The bitter irony of this fetish for big business is that its practical consequences have been quite the opposite of what was promised. Consider the position of aggrieved subpostmasters such as Alan Bates who, since he was sacked in 2003, has led the remarkable campaign to seek redress from the Post Office and to clear the names of the 736 convicted branch managers.

These people were not in any meaningful sense customers, clients or shareholders: they could not withdraw their business from Fujitsu. They had access to none of the levers that are supposed to make markets function efficiently. Instead, they were gaslit on helplines, told the wicked lie that “nobody else has a problem”. Where was the transparency and accountability business is supposed to bring to public services? In practice, the cult of outsourcing has delivered nothing of the sort.

Look at the disaster of the test and trace system during the pandemic. In what was called the “little boats” initiative – a reference to Dunkirk, not to be confused with Sunak’s deranged fixation with “small boats” – Sir Paul Nurse of the Francis Crick Institute proposed that deserted government and university labs be repurposed as Covid test centres. Instead, the government handed the key contracts to Deloitte, Serco and Sitel; as it turned out, one of the most calamitous decisions of the crisis.

How often does the practice have to fail for the message to get through? In 2012, G4S imperilled the Olympics with its failure to provide adequate security; the outsourcing giant Capita has been embroiled in intermittent scandal since 2013; the management of disability assessments by the French IT corporation Atos was an unmitigated disgrace; when Carillion, the construction and facilities management services company, collapsed in 2018 it held more than 400 public sector contracts. And still governments throw billions at these companies; still, to borrow Kipling’s line, “the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire”. Why?

In the hope of cutting costs, naturally (though that hope is often dashed). But also because of a dreadful category mistake: a delusion that has afflicted most of the political class for almost four decades.

Nobody worth listening to seriously doubts that an innovative and dynamic private sector is essential. But it does not follow by any means that the private sector is better at running public services than the state; often, as in the case of Fujitsu, it is plainly not fit to do so.

Instead of kowtowing so cravenly to business, politicians should be more forthright about the extent to which so many of the world’s wealthiest people and companies depend on the public sector, rather than vice versa. All private enterprise relies on public infrastructure, regulatory power, the rule of law, and, in many cases, fiscal incentives and state-funded innovation.

Multibillionaires like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, the co-founder of Palantir Technologies, like to posture as small-state libertarians. But their respective fortunes have been swollen hugely by state contracts, subsidies and tax breaks. The hypocrisy of the tycoon class is breathtaking.

The priority in the Post Office scandal must, of course, be justice for the wronged subpostmasters, hefty financial redress from Fujitsu and the prosecution, without fear or favour of the individuals responsible for this historic outrage.

Beyond that, though, it is high time that government stopped apologising for itself; that the idolisation of “business” ended; and that statecraft became once more a practice to be pursued and perfected with pride, rather than put up for auction. Never again should we outsource our souls.

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