Post Office. Photo: Bazzadarambler/CC
Post Office. Photo: Bazzadarambler/CC

Post Office scandal shows the need for workers’ control

Kevin Pattison, Leeds Socialist Party

Thank you to Gary Clark for his excellent review of Mr Bates vs the Post Office in the Socialist (see ‘TV Review: Mr Bates vs The Post Office’).

The faulty Horizon system which the Post Office claimed to be totally accurate would have been the first complex IT system in history without some bugs. Any IT engineer knows that all new systems have some errors when first installed. What is needed is trade union oversight to ensure that IT systems are fit for purpose. It is only just becoming apparent that errors were identified during a pilot scheme, but instead of correcting them, the Post Office and Fujistu pressed ahead with introduction.

The drive to automation in an attempt to reduce costs and have a more ‘businesslike’ philosophy rather than public service has ultimately resulted in a loss to the public purse in legal costs and compensation of £1.4 billion so far, leaving the Post Office effectively bankrupt according to Channel 4 News.

Although the Post Office is nationalised, it is not under democratic workers’ control and management, but follows capitalist business methods. The Post Office was unable or unwilling to recognise the faults in the system that it continues to pay Fujistu an arm and a leg for. In order to protect its ‘brand image’ it maintained that there were no faults in the system long after the huge numbers of prosecutions compared to previous years should have made it question its claimed faith in the Horizon system far earlier than it did.

Post Office and Royal Mail staff workers have a proud public service ethos, as do the self-employed postmasters and postmistresses, but they have been treated like criminals by Post Office management. This attitude has also been common in Royal Mail following industrial action in 2022-23 when hundreds of shop stewards were victimised by management.

With proper workers’ control, post offices would be free to develop public services. Many post offices have closed especially in rural areas, cutting off a vital source of banking and other services at a time when the banks themselves are also closing branches.

Fujitsu has so far contributed nothing to clean up the mess that they created and are completely unaccountable. Indeed, they continue to be awarded lucrative contracts by other government departments and continue to be paid to run the Horizon system for the Post Office.

After the Post Office scandal – school managers need to stop and think too

Martin Powell-Davies, Cumbria Socialist Party

Right now everyone is talking about the Post Office scandal, outraged at how a powerful organisation refused to accept their own failures and instead sought to bully critics into silence.

Perhaps the reason why this story has sparked such a widespread public reaction is because so many workers recognise something of that bullying approach in the way that they are treated too. And that includes school staff. Schools may not have pursued teachers into the courts like the Post Office, but every local union caseworker has had to deal with similarly broken colleagues, bullied out of their post under draconian threats of ‘capability’ procedures. More often than not, they have also had to sign a ‘non-disclosure agreement’ that stops them from talking out about how they have been treated.

Some school managers need to stop and reflect whether their practice needs to change. Are they just piling the pressure put on them via Ofsted and league tables down onto their staff, pushing too many to breaking point, when, instead, they should be standing up against the impossible demands put onto schools?

The impossible workload, and the hounding of staff by supposed ‘support plans’ and capability targets, is one (although certainly not the only) reason why some teachers end up working for privatised supply agencies. As someone whose own personal circumstances meant that I earned my living in this way for the last years of my teaching career, I know what a difficult way of earning an income this can be.

Work is uncertain, sometimes leaving you waiting for a phone call from the agency that never comes on a day you were hoping for work. Supply teaching is demanding, constantly having to plan and adapt, sometimes at very short notice, to different classes and different school systems. Worst of all, thanks to the privatised system of profiteering supply agencies through which most supply teachers are hired, you are working for less – sometimes far less – than the ‘rate for the job’ that would apply under statutory teachers’ pay scales. On top of that, you have no access to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme and no income to tide you over the school holidays.

That exploitation continues, despite the introduction of legislation fought for by trade unions that was meant to provide equal treatment. The Agency Workers Regulations (AWR), introduced in 2011, should guarantee that, after a qualifying period of 12 weeks in the same job, agency workers receive the same basic employment and working conditions as colleagues who have been recruited directly. But most agency school staff are still not being paid ‘the rate for the job’ that applies to directly employed staff under the Schoolteachers Pay and Conditions Document.

It’s worth non-agency employees remembering that unions didn’t push for AWR just to protect agency staff, but to protect permanent staff as well. After all, if employers can find a way to pay one section of the workforce on lower rates of pay, then, especially when employers are looking to cut costs, they will find a way to get rid of more expensive employees and employ cheaper agency staff instead. So demanding equal treatment for all staff is in everyone’s interests, especially when schools are going to face more funding cuts, whoever wins the 2024 general election.