Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Post Office response to final Second Sight report

The Post Office have sent me a press statement dated Sunday 19 April. It deals with the final Second Sight report, which I posted here earlier. They have also sent over some additional information, which will be of interest.

At the bottom of this statement is a link to a far longer document published by the Post Office in March 2015 which comprehensively sets out their position on their Horizon IT system. It contrasts, often starkly, with the opinion of their independent investigators. Again, that will be of interest.

"Post Office Complaint Review and Mediation Scheme
Investigations over the past three years have confirmed that the Post Office’s Horizon computer system is operating as it should. It is used successfully by 78,000 people to process six million transactions every working day in communities throughout the UK. 
Both the Post Office and independent forensic accountants Second Sight have found that the majority of the branch losses in complaints put forward to the mediation scheme were, in fact, caused by errors at the counter.  
The Post Office is concerned that the report by Second Sight, recently made available to scheme applicants for mediation purposes, repeats complaints made by a very small number of former postmasters, as well as a number of assertions and opinions. Second Sight has been unable to demonstrate any evidence to support these. 
To address this concern, the Post Office has produced a response to the Second Sight report which has also been provided to all the remaining applicants in the scheme.
A Post Office spokesman said: “Over the past three years there have been exhaustive investigations which have not found any evidence of systemic problems with the Horizon system. The mediation scheme was set up to address individual complaints and that is what we have gone to great lengths to do – a number are now resolved. The complaints are considered on their facts and substance.”
Following the completion of its investigations, the Post Office announced last month that it will put forward all remaining cases to mediation, with the exception of those which have been subject to a previous court ruling. Those cases will continue to be considered individually on a case-by-case basis.
Additional information:
Fit for purpose :  A tiny fraction of the overall 500,000 people who have used Horizon since it was introduced more than a decade ago have put forward complaints. That does not constitute evidence that the IT system is flawed or unfit for purpose; indeed, if anything, it demonstrates that the system is highly reliable.  During nearly three years of investigation and review there is no evidence of system wide flaws.  The investigations have found the majority of branch losses were caused by errors made at the counter. 
Investigations and prosecutions:  We naturally take any allegation of miscarriages of justice extremely seriously. In none of the Post Office’s own work, nor through any of Second Sight’s work, has any information emerged to suggest that a conviction is unsafe. 
If the Post Office decides to prosecute a case, its conduct of the prosecution is scrutinised by defence lawyers and ultimately by the Courts themselves.  The Post Office has to satisfy both stages of the Code for Crown Prosecutors to start a prosecution: the evidential stage requires us to be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction, and the public interest stage which requires us to consider whether a prosecution is in the public interest. 
We are duty bound to communicate with a defendant’s lawyers, and any decision by a defendant regarding their plea is made after he or she has had the opportunity to take private and confidential legal advice and consider, with lawyers, all the available evidence. The evidential requirements for proving the offences of theft or false accounting are a matter of law. 
Post Office as a prosecutor has a continuing duty to disclose immediately any information that subsequently comes to light which might undermine its prosecution case or support the case of the defendant.  
It is the duty of the defence lawyers to identify to the Court where there is insufficient evidence to sustain a charge, or to seek further information from the Post Office which might assist the defendant’s case. If the Court agrees, then the Judge must dismiss that charge. Thus a charge upon which there is no evidence will inevitably fail. 
 ‘Remote access’ to Horizon:  As we have always made clear, neither the Post Office nor Fujitsu can edit or delete transactions as recorded by branches.

We’ve provided extensive information about security and data integrity and no evidence at all has been put forward that demonstrates transactions as recorded by a branch can be, or indeed have been, altered through remote means.  We have comprehensively addressed the allegation, made in one case, of Horizon being accessed remotely from a basement in Bracknell to alter branch accounts.  There was no connection to any live data from what was a separate and secure test environment.
Notes:
The Post Office established a Complaint Review and Mediation Scheme in 2013 to provide an avenue for postmasters to raise their specific, individual concerns.  This followed an independent review of the Horizon computer system which found no evidence of systemic problems but did point to areas where the Post Office could have done more, in some cases, in areas such as training and support.
Of the nearly 500,000 users of the system since it was introduced in 2001, there were 150 applications to the mediation scheme, covering events spanning over a decade. A number were resolved at an early stage.  
The Post Office published a detailed report about the investigations and the scheme in March 2015. This is available on the Post Office website."
ENDS

Exclusive: Second Sight final report in full

This is a confidential document. I am publishing it in my capacity as a freelance journalist and blogger because I believe it is in the overwhelming public interest to do so.

The link directly to it is here [scribd] and here [google drive]. If you are reading this on a mobile device I would recommend using the link which goes to the document on google drive, as scribd makes you download their free app before letting you read it all. If you are reading this on a desktop you will be fine with scribd which is also slightly easier to navigate. Both links let you download the document, which you may want to do, or you might be able to do it from the embedded version of the document below.



The Post Office have written their own 83 page rebuttal to Second Sight's final report, which I have read. It vigourously contests many of the conclusions reached by Second Sight. I have sought permission from the Post Office to publish this rebuttal on my blog.

The Post Office have sent me a press statement with additional information which I have posted here.

As I noted yesterday, the Post Office have already published their own report about the Mediation Scheme in March. This is publicly available.

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Monday, 20 April 2015

Exclusive: Is Horizon Fit For Purpose?

I'm just reading through the latest Second Sight report into the Post Office's Horizon computer system. I think I was the first journalist in the country to see a copy. And now I'm sharing bits of it with you. How nice.

The report cost millions of pounds and was written by people who know exactly what they are talking about. And it is damning. It really is.

First off - does Horizon work properly?

Independent forensic accountants spent more than two and half years looking at Horizon. This is their conclusion:

p42 21.23 “For the Horizon System to be considered fully ‘fit for purpose’ for all users, it would, in our opinion, need to accurately record and process, with a high degere of error repellency, the full range of products and services offered by Post Office, whilst providing a clear transactional audit trail allowing easy investigation of any problems and errors that arise. The cases that we have reviewed demonstrate that this design objective has not always been achieved.” 

Hmm. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it? Not really an endorsement at all. It is, in fact refusing to say that Horizon is fit for purpose. So after two and a half years of looking at it, independent forensic accountants refuse to say Horizon is fit for purpose.

Everything else is great, right?

p46 25.1 “As a result of our investigations we have established that Post Office’s investigators have, in many cases, failed to identify the underlying root causes of shortfalls prior to the initiation of civil recovery action or criminal proceedings.”

Woah... so they would accuse people of theft before doing proper investigations? Read it again. There's no equivocation there. Second Sight has concluded ("established") that the Post Office called in the prosecutors and accused people of criminal acts without properly investigating why money was going missing? That's big stuff.

What about the integrity of the system? The idea that the Subpostmaster has responsibility for her (or his) accounts because s/he and only s/he can alter them. The Post Office has always said that the people at Fujitsu who run Horizon and the Post Office who manage it cannot alter branch accounts in any way. Second Sight say:

p5 2.12 “Our current, evidence-based opinion is that Fujitsu/Post Office, did have and may well still have the ability to directly alter branch records without the knowledge of the Subpostmaster”

Oh. Someone's fibbing? Why would they do that?

What about the contract the Subpostmasters have to sign before they sink their savings into owning the business? Is that any help when things go wrong?

p7 3.7 “There is no automatic entitlement to investigative support when problems arise. There is no automatic entitlement to be provided with data held by Post Office with the exception of the data routinely made available to the branch by Horizon.”

p7 3.8 “The contract places Subpostmasters in a difficult position in these circumstances. Post Office generally insists on losses being made good, but the Subpostmaster is not necessarily entitled to receive all of the information and explanations necessary to establish the cause of the loss. We regard this as unfair.”

So it's a fundamentally unfair contract. Oh.

There's more on the Post Office's interesting approach to investigating problems later:

p36 19.6 "The failure to always investigate and correct material discrepancies is perhaps unique to the Post Office's Business Model. Unlike commercial entities that do not operate on an agency basis, Post Office has, in our opinion, little commercial incentive to establish the root causes of discrepancies because the burden of cost (and risk) is being carried in most instances either by its Subpostmasters, in the case of shortfalls, or by its customers or its clients, in the case of surpluses."

That's not worrying at all.

The Post Office have issued a response to the Second Sight report. After their own internal investigations they've actually concluded things are pretty much fine. Yes there were some training issues, and yes they probably could communicate a bit better with their Subpostmasters, but generally everything's fine. Nothing to see here.

With regards to the individual Subpostmasters who have lost their businesses and reputations, been landed with criminal records and suffered ill-health during the immense stress this has put them under, the Post Office is confident it hasn't done anything wrong. Second Sight can't call it conclusively because the Post Office won't hand over the documents they need to draw a firm conclusion.

So have there been miscarriages of justice?


Several million pounds and nearly three years into this investigation, no one knows, because the Post Office have controlled this process from start to finish. It is a slight conflict of interest, in my view.

The Post Office have kindly put their response to the Second Sight report online. But they have not yet made the Second Sight report it's responding to so widely available.

So you'll just have to take their word for it. Everything's fine. EVERYTHING'S FINE! STOP LOOKING!

Several Subpostmasters, in the light of the Post Office's recent behaviour, have given up the ghost on the mediation scheme and approached the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Watch this space.

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CORRECTION 1.30pm Monday 20 April 2015: The Post Office have contacted me to point out that the link above takes you to the Post Office's own review into Horizon, published in March 2015. It was being pushed this morning by the Post Office's Director of Communications, among others, and I admit I got confused. The Post Office's point-by-point rebuttal of Second Sight's report (like the Second Sight report itself) has not yet been published. I am reading it now.

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Friday, 17 April 2015

Post Office - it's all about to go off

It's all about to go off. Monday, I reckon, possibly sooner. So whilst you are waiting, here are the last two Private Eye articles on the Post Office if you haven't seen them already. First, back in Feb, there was this:

Private Eye, issue 1386, 20 Feb 2015

Then, in March, there was this:

Private Eye, issue 1386, 20 March 2015

I always post up Private Eye stuff after the relevant issue is no longer available in newsagents. Please support investigative journalism by subscribing to the magazine.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The One Show


In November last year, alongside a fine young journalist called Tim Robinson, I pitched a story to The One Show, to be produced by the excellent team at Inside Out South. The One Show liked the story, commissioned it and said I could present it. It was scheduled to go out over two parts in January but events changed and both parts went out in December.

The One Show were pleased with what we did and asked me to present a couple more films. After that they offered me a contract. Whilst we were sorting out a contract they continued to put work my way. I signed the contract towards the end of March.

Sorry it's taken so long to mention this on this blog, but now you know. Obviously I am delighted to be part of the team.

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Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Top Ten Albums: Love

You can always tell when I haven't got much work on. I'll be banging out one of these. So ten months after my last Top Ten album, here is another:


This record brought The Cult to the attention of Rick Rubin and sparked their ill-advised American heavy rock adventure. Two decades after its release Love merited being performed in its entirety, track by track, on a special tour. It's a good album. But let's deal with the downsides first:

Nick Cave apart, I seem drawn to appalling lyricists. Singer Ian Astbury is one of them. But you don't notice at first. Unlike Electric, the terrible follow-up, Love is so immersed in batshit symbolism and dazzling guitar-work, you are distracted from how bad a writer Astbury really is.

But, as appears to be a consistent theme in this Top Ten Albums series, when I first heard it I was 14 and didn't care. Love is a monster.
l-r Ian Astbury, Jamie Stewart, Billy Duffy
She Sells Sanctuary, tucked away as the second-to-last track, is the greatest goth rock anthem ever written. Billy Duffy's ludicrously accomplished guitar playing goes jangly poppy, muscles out a catchy little riff and we're away. Astbury has an affecting voice and his vocal tics serve him well. It's a great song. It reached number 15 in 1985 and in the nineties soundtracked a tampon advert, as well as every indie disco in the country for twenty years.

Nothing else here quite reaches She Sells Sanctuary's poppy heights - yet... almost every other track nearly does. In the old days it was quite common to buy an album on the strength of a stand-out single and spend a depressing 45 minutes becoming progressively disappointed with how much pocket money you have just wasted on a duff bet. Love does not disappoint.

The opener - Love - is solid. Astbury wailing about god knows what and Billy Duffy just tearing. shit. up. Essentially this is the band saying "We're good. We're really good. We can do this sort of thing standing on our heads."

Bearing in mind musicianship wasn't something the dark hordes of post-punk goth/indie ne'er do wells cared for, this band ticked all the aesthetic boxes, yet could evidently play. Made a nice change.

Second up is Big Neon Glitter. The title contains a reference to the "Glitter Beat", a drum rhythm popularised by the paedophile glam-rocker Gary Glitter (and most recently heard on Kanye West's opus Black Skinhead). The Glitter beat drives the track through a range of guitar and vocal sonics, perfectly produced.

Then comes the big rush: Nirvana. A proper singalongagoth anthem, which is still only the second best song on the A side and the fourth best song on the album.

"Goooooorrraaayeyaaahhh!" appears to be the opening line. The chorus? "Yeeeeeveryyyyday. Nirvana! Ooooowweeeessisssbrayy, yeah yeah yeah." Find it, try it, turn it up loud, and soon you too will be singing like Ian Astbury.

The next song, Rain, is a belter. Inadvertent Spinal Tap references notwithstanding ("Hot sticky scenes/You know what I mean..."), it's the track which comes along when you're thinking....

"This album more than alright. I've just heard three cracking numbers and we haven't even got to She Sells Sanctuary yet! Bargain!"

... and proceeds to blow you away. If I had one wish in life it would be to be able to play guitar like Billy Duffy. Or Johnny Marr. But for the purposes of this post, Billy Duffy. It's not just about songwriting or technical ability, it's about a sense of what you are doing within the song and in relation to the other musicians playing it. Duffy does it so well that when Astbury first heard him play he immediately sacked his band so he could build the rest of his career around the mad Manc axe-man. And he did.

I'm not going to go on about the second side of Love - listen to it yourself. Phoenix is awful. Hollow Man is cracking. SSS is amazing, Revolution is lovely and Brother Wolf, Sister Moon is a ballad, compulsory on every goth album in those strange, far-off days.

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Other top ten albums added so far:

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds - Henry's Dream

The Waterboys - This is the Sea
Floodland - Sisters of Mercy
Duran Duran - Rio

The rationale for doing this

Further rationale at the bottom of the This is the Sea entry.


Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Is this man a criminal?

This is Scott Darlington. He is a former Subpostmaster.
Scott contacted me recently to express frustration at his situation and the situation of many subpostmasters who have been criminalised due to their involvement with the Post Office.

Most of the recent posts on this blog have been concerned with the process of the subpostmasters' campaign to persuade the powers-that-be that miscarriages of justice may have taken place. This post is one person's story, in his own words, edited and published with his agreement.

It's easy to forget, and the Post Office would very much like you to forget, there are people whose lives (and certainly careers) have been ruined by what happened to them. The Post Office would have that a good number of these people are culpable, and admitted as much in a court of law.

The Post Office is not interested in the idea that many of the subpostmasters who false accounted and pleaded guilty claim they did so because of the nightmarish environment they found themselves in. The Post Office has already exonerated itself of any blame, so we know it's done nothing wrong.

Here's Scott's story. Judge for yourself.


"Hi Nick

I messaged you on Facebook and you asked that I email you regarding my situation re Post Office mediation*.

I will try and keep it as short as I can.

My problems started in 2008-2009. After 4 years of no discrepancy problems at my branch, in Feb 2008 one appeared on the Horizon system for £1700 saying I had a shortage of stamps to that value.

When I reported it to the helpline, I was told unless I can prove it's not my fault I would have to pay. POL [Post Office Ltd] subsequently took 2 lots of £850 out of my remuneration.

Later in the same year, large discrepancies started to appear in my system, starting with approximately £9,000. 

I knew that POL would immediately want this 'missing' money back so I didn’t tell them about it, whilst myself and a colleague tried desperately to get to the bottom of it.

As you know, we have almost no access to the Horizon system. All we could do was scrutinise all the transactions we had records of to try and see if there was anything that could have caused it.

We couldn’t find anything. In the meantime over the next 3 months the discrepancy rocketed to £44,000!

An auditor arrived at my branch and I was suspended. Shortly afterwards my contract was terminated and I was prosecuted (without CPS involvement).

On the advice of my barrister I had to plead guilty to false accounting. I was given a 3 month suspended prison sentence suspended for 12 months, plus 110 hours community service.

Since then I struggled for 3 years to get any sort of employment due to this conviction.

Here is where I am now:

My case was looked at by 2nd Sight* and I was recommended for mediation. I have waited over a year for this outcome.  I now know that it was POL's default position not to mediate with cases that pleaded guilty to false accounting. I only found this out last week.

I have been offered a meeting with POL and my MP without seeing 2nd Sight's final report first.

Clearly this is not going to result in any kind of settlement.

I presume you have read the letter sent to Vince Cable today regarding the select committee meeting a few weeks ago. It is woeful. 

The recommendations are basically saying "carry on as you are, but try to be a bit better."

We had hoped and were led to believe that POL were going to be removed from controlling the mediation process.

Its difficult to see a way forward after this. After all, they were slated at the select committee* and they came across very badly i'm sure you agree.

Unless we can get insurance cover it is impossible to go down the route of litigation.

All in all a very depressing time.

Congrats on your job with the One Show.

cheers,

Scott"

According to the court report in the Manchester Evening News, the judge in Scott's case appeared to speculate there might have been something wrong with Horizon, the Post Office computer system, rather than any criminal intent on Scott's part.

The MEN write-up also added this:

"Mr Darlington’s solicitor, John Temperley of The Oakes Partnership, Macclesfield, said: "At no stage in the proceedings did Royal Mail" [sic] "provide any evidence to suggest that Scott had actually received any money to which he was not entitled. Scott was not charged with theft for that very reason. 

“No explanation was given as to why the POCA [Proceeds of Crime Act] application was withdrawn. However, the implication was that they had to accept the representations made by Scott's barrister, to the effect that in order to succeed in confiscation proceedings they would have to show that Scott had actually obtained the money that was the subject of the false accounting charges. Put bluntly they were totally unable to do so."


*For more details on the Post Office Horizon story, this link will point you in the right direction.

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Thursday, 2 April 2015

Glasgow's Killing Streets

George Square, Glasgow
I'm not usually in the business of suggesting you ignore the democratic process, but on this occasion...

Channel 5 have decided the best way of dealing with ITV's political debate tonight is to give me a double bill of programmes. At 8pm they're screening a repeat of one of the best episodes of Caught On Camera - Gangs and Guns - then at 9pm the first showing of a documentary I made last year called Glasgow's Killing Streets. 

The programme was originally commissioned as part of a series of four called Britain's Crime Capitals, but this episode has a very different atmosphere. Someone sensibly decided to hold it back and spin it out under a different brand.

Making Glasgow's Killing Streets was an eye-opening process, not least interviewing a forensic pathologist over a mortuary table in the state of the art facility at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Want to know one of the tools involved in cutting open someone's sternum? A bread knife.

If you get bored with what's going on elsewhere and want to watch two absorbing (and in the latter's case, surprisingly uplifting) programmes you know what to do. Vote Wallis.

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