UPDATE: New blog post on the 2nd Sight interim report 14 Aug 2013.
I have been working with a journalist at Private Eye magazine over the past few weeks, and a piece on the Post Office Horizon system leads the investigative section "In the Back" in this fortnight's issue (No 1298 30 Sep - 13 Oct p.28).
To read the original story in full and watch the TV piece I did about it in February, click here, but if you have a chance, please buy the magazine. It's an excellent read, and the Post Office story deserves wider public attention.
If the link above expires, here is the same article copied and pasted.
COMPUTER SAYS NO...
AS Britain’s multi-billion pound public IT programmes hit the next stage in the lifecycle of botched computer projects – malfunction – alarming repercussions are being felt in the nation’s post offices. In recent years the Horizon system that 11,500 sub-postmasters are forced to use has thrown up a rash of apparent financial “shortfalls”.
These have prompted dozens of prosecutions and financial ruin for businessmen and women with previously spotless records. Fifty-five of them last week launched a “class action” against the Post Office, arguing that their troubles owe more to computer error than dishonesty.In a standard week a sub-post office performs thousands of transactions – many such as pension payments and lottery and foreign currency purchases, in cash. When the computer says the till is short, the sub-postmaster (or mistress) has to cough up the difference; and the computer is always right apparently. If the sub-postmaster or mistress can’t pay up, the Post Office’s fraud investigators swiftly descend.
No sign of any missing cash
Typical is the case of Jo Hamilton from South Warnborough in Hampshire, who one week was £2,000 down. After the helpdesk told her to press a few buttons the total doubled, and the Post Office took £4,000 off her.
When the problem kept repeating, her mistake was to claim that everything was fine so she could at least keep trading in the hope that the errors would correct themselves and she’d get her £4,000 back. Then the total hit £36,000, the auditors swooped and she was convicted for false accounting (without ever being accused of taking any money) and forced to pay the £36,000 back with the help of supportive villagers.
Others have been jailed for theft simply on evidence from a computer system that seems to be misfiring, with no indication of what they are supposed to have done with the money. One, Seema Misra, was pregnant when she was found guilty of stealing £75,000 even though no trace of the cash could be found and the judge at Guildford crown court, according to supporters present, appeared to instruct the jury that the evidence was very limited. She was sentenced to 18 months.
Since her case, others have pleaded guilty simply for more lenient sentences. Many more have coughed up thousands of pounds from their own pockets in desperate attempts to retain their livelihoods. The Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance reckons the total affected could run into the thousands.
A law unto itself
The Post Office remains the only body in the UK to run its own prosecutions and campaigners think that if it had to use the Crown Prosecution Service, many cases would not have made it to court. The last organisation with such powers, Customs & Excise, was stripped of them almost a decade ago when it was found to have over-stepped the mark in several high-profile cases.
Mrs Hamilton’s MP, James Arbuthnot, expresses a widely-held view when he says: “I find it very difficult to believe that all these sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses are suddenly found to be dishonest, if the alternative is that it may be a public sector computer system which has gone wrong. We’ve heard of that before.” But postal services minister Ed Davey is washing his hands of the problem, simply re-directing MPs’ questions to the Post Office itself.
There is no shortage of visible problems with Horizon. One sub-postmaster explained to the Eye how when selling stamps, for example, his terminal often either registered no stamp sale or not the class of stamp keyed in. And in July the entire Post Office banking system was shut down by a “Horizon online issue”. Even the 370 large “Crown” post offices managed centrally are not immune from glitches. Latest known figures show shortfalls there of £2.2m in a year, although mysteriously these haven’t produced any criminal sanctions.
These are just the latest episode in Horizon’s inglorious history. It originated in 1996 in a joint Department of Social Security-Post Office PFI deal for an automated benefits payment system with Pathway, part of ICL (now Fujitsu) on the back of a cheap but technically flawed bid. Four years and £1bn later it was ditched by the government, with the Post Office left to convert it into the Horizon automation project. Fujitsu still runs the technical side of things.
The lengthening list of “shortfall” cases, many in odd geographical clusters, has received little attention beyond diligent investigation by BBC South TV hack Nick Wallis and Computer Weekly magazine. This could be about to change, though, as solicitors Shoosmith begin action on behalf of the 55, with another 150 cases pending.
The Post Office, fearing immense further cost if its computer system is found wanting, has its head firmly in the sand. There are, a spokeswoman told the Eye, “no issues” with Horizon (which is nonsense given the ones already admitted). To say anything else would be to admit that the computer on which it depends is a pig in a poke that has not only wasted billions but might now be dispensing miscarriages of justice as well.