Post Office campaigner Alan Bates knighted in King’s Birthday Honours but says he isn't a 'hero'

14 June 2024, 22:42 | Updated: 14 June 2024, 23:24

Post Office campaigner Alan Bates given knighthood in King’s Birthday Honours
Post Office campaigner Alan Bates given knighthood in King’s Birthday Honours. Picture: Getty

By Flaminia Luck

Alan Bates, the campaigner who uncovered the Post Office scandal, has been given a knighthood in the King’s Birthday Honours list.

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However, the former subpostmaster has insisted he is not a hero after receiving a knighthood - which he learned of while watching ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells at the Horizon IT inquiry.

The lead campaigner, who is the title character of the ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, said he hoped the honour would be "another string to my bow to help me go forward and get some finality for people".

Sir Alan previously turned down being made an OBE while Ms Vennells held on to her CBE award because it "felt wrong" - but calls for him to be knighted after the former chief executive returned her honour were backed by Number 10 earlier this year.

He was one of more than 550 claimants who brought legal action against the Post Office, known as the group litigation, over the Horizon IT system between 2017 and 2019.

Trial judge Mr Justice Fraser concluded that Horizon contained a number of "bugs, errors and defects" and that there was a "material risk" that shortfalls in Post Office branch accounts were caused by the system.

More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu's faulty system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

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Postmasters Campaign Spokesman Alan Bates
Postmasters Campaign Spokesman Alan Bates. Picture: Getty

Reacting to the knighthood, Sir Alan, of Llandudno in north Wales, told the PA news agency: "It was a bit of a surprise, it sort of came out of the blue.

"I'm quite honoured by it - to be recognised for the work that I've done over the years.

"It's been a hard slog over many years."

Sir Alan went on to explain how he had spoken to the Metropolitan Police about the investigation into the Horizon scandal, watched some of Ms Vennells' inquiry evidence, learned of his knighthood and saw a General Election be called in the space of a few hours.

He said: "I went out and got a sandwich and came back into the inquiry waiting room, just hanging around for the start, and looked at my emails.

"And there was this letter from the honours committee, dated that day on the Wednesday, and asking me for my response by the end of the day, the same day.

"Then, within a few hours, the election is called.

"So, you can imagine, it was a bit of a mixed day that one - it's no news and then all news, isn't it."

Sir Alan added: "I just wondered whether they'd done it to divert everyone off Paula."

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Alan Bates reacts to Paula Vennell's 'rehearsed' testimony

He was keen to address how he had previously turned down being appointed OBE - saying he did not want to offend those who had asked for him to be recognised for his work.

He told PA: "The time I was asked about the OBE, it felt wrong - certainly with Paula Vennells having the CBE for her services, so called, to Post Office and I felt it would have been quite offensive to many of the group if I'd accepted it.

"But I do know that I've had hundreds of emails and letters of support over the years and a lot of people do seem to think that I should receive some sort of recognition for the work that I've done for them or on their behalf.

"And I just had a feeling when this came around, obviously timing's got nothing to do with me on these things, but when it did turn up, I felt a refusal very much would have been... people might have been offended if I refused it on this basis, when so many people had felt I should accept something."

He added: "I'm not just accepting this honour for me.

"I know I'm the recipient of it and all the rest of it, but it's on behalf of the group as well - and recognition of the horrendous things that have happened to them and the story's not over yet.

"And if this adds another string to my bow to help me go forward and get some finality for people in the financial settlement then so be it."

Sir Alan described his years campaigning for justice and redress as an "uphill struggle".

He said: "The way I normally phrase it is Post Office controlled the narrative and it wasn't until we got them in court that we managed to break that.

"We were up against a big corporation which had endless or bottomless pockets and they just kept on with 'deny, deny, deny' and we had no access to anything.

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Paula Vennells appears before the Post Office Inquiry
Paula Vennells appears before the Post Office Inquiry. Picture: Getty

"It was an uphill struggle - but we had a lot of support along the way and as people have spent more time looking at the problem they realised what we've been up against and what's been wrong."

Sir Alan conceded there were points where it felt they had pushed things as far as they could go, but said there were many stories of how people's lives had been destroyed.

He said: "It makes you more determined, I suppose - and it's one of those things that you couldn't drop it.

"There were times when you felt perhaps we'd reached a point where there was no point in us pushing any further, but then there are so many of these stories out there.

"There's so much suffering out there, and they're still coming out the woodwork even nowadays as well.

"I still hear from people and new things that have happened to people over the years."

Sir Alan said the ITV drama had allowed victims to show their face in the community more - making a huge difference for individuals and their families.

He said: "They've been vindicated with what they've been saying over the years.

"I hear from people now saying they've kept this hidden for so many years, but now they actually feel able to talk about it and people do understand and have sympathy for their position."

Lawyers on behalf of subpostmasters at the Horizon IT inquiry have questioned a number of witnesses on whether they had been incompetent or part of a conspiracy.

Asked which he thought was the truth, he said: "It's both. An enormous amount of incompetence.

"People didn't know what was going on, what they were responsible for - I mean, a huge amount of incompetence for an organisation, certainly at senior levels - and I don't know how much of that has changed today as well.

"I think there's been a lot of back-covering along the way as well.

"I do worry about what seems to be selective amnesia that seems to constantly rear its head in the inquiry."

Sir Alan said he did not believe a change of Government would make much difference in speeding up redress for victims because of "bureaucracy".

He said: "As far as the election goes, we've had enormous cross-party support over the years from MPs so I'm not sure it will make that much difference.

"But the biggest thing is the Government's bureaucracy, which seems totally separate to the MPs and the scheme seems to be bogged down in government bureaucracy rather than being affected by particular MPs.

"Although, when things like the select committee are around, it is very useful to try and move things forward.

"I'm sure all the parties want to see this done and dusted as soon as possible.

"And obviously, we always work with Government to get this done as speedily as possible, but we've got to cut through this bureaucracy that seems to be holding the whole thing up.

"Many of these people are still suffering after all these years and it does not do them any good at all, this 'day after day' waiting for it."

The lead campaigner said he would be willing to take problems regarding redress to court if things did not move at a faster pace.

He said: "It's no secret - unless we can get this moving and start coming out the other end of it in bulk with these cases, we're going to have to look at other options to resolve it.

"If it means that we have to go back to law, to the courts again, so be it I say.

"And if we need to raise the funding for doing such a thing, I'm sure the nation will support us."

Toby Jones, the actor who played Mr Bates in the ITV drama, previously described Sir Alan as a hero.

Paula Vennells apologises to subpostmasters at Post Office Horizon IT inquiry

Asked if that is something he would call himself, he joked: "He also said I was opening Glastonbury and he got that wrong."

He continued: "No, not in the slightest.

"I'm media shy really, I'm not out to promote myself in all of this. I'm not particularly good with the media but I'm out to do a job and I've been reasonably effective in moving this forward.

"I just see it as wanting to get to the end of it and wrap it up and feel like 'that's it, done' - I think that's the main thing for me.

"Many other campaigning groups have been in touch with me often to try and engage me in to helping them - I mean, I can't do that I've got too much on - but they do seem to take heart from the fact that we managed to get somewhere with it.

"So if that helps them, great - because there's a lot of wrongs out there that need righting."

'Atrocious' Post Office 'beyond saving', says Alan Bates

Although Sir Alan believes there is still a long way to go to achieve redress and finality for victims of the Horizon scandal, he told PA he hopes the original group of subpostmasters who took on the Post Office can get together for "one big do" next year.

Questioned on what he plans to do when everyone has received their payouts, he said: "Have a big party with everybody next year.

"Thoughts are already in mind for that and I think everyone's up for it - all the original group, we'll have one big do.

"Then perhaps move on and put it all behind us - but we'll only be able to do that if everyone's clear from it - that's my big priority."

A Post Office spokesperson said: "We want to warmly congratulate Alan Bates on his much-deserved knighthood."