Post Office ends working group for IT system investigation day before potentially damaging report

The Post Office closed a working group involved in an investigation into claims against allegedly faulty accounting software used by subpostmasters

An independent and potentially damning report into the allegedly faulty IT system used by subpostmasters will not be discussed in detail by the group set up to oversee the investigation, after the Post Office closed the group.

Despite fears amongst campaigners that the report may not see the light of day, the Post Office told Computer Weekly that its investigation into some cases that have not been completed will continue and promised that Second Sight's second report will be released to applicants and their advisers.

In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the stories of several subpostmasters who had received heavy fines and even jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they blamed on the Horizon accounting system provided by the Post Office. Years of investigation has followed (see timeline below).

But the Post Office has closed the independent Working Group involved with the investigation, the day before a report on the issue was expected to be released to the involved parties.

The Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA) pressure group, which was set up to support subpostmasters, alleged that the move could prevent the details of what happened being revealed. 

“Investigators were so close to exposing the real truth behind the state Horizon was in and the way the Post Office dealt with these problems that it had to take desperate measures,” said a JFSA spokesman. The Post Office said there is "absolutely no question of suppressing" the report.

Investigation into Horizon complaints

The investigation into complaints from 136 subpostmasters in relation to the Horizon computer system has been running for some time. 

The second independent report from forensics expert Second Sight, which was appointed by the Post Office to investigate the alleged problems, was expected to be available on 11 March and to be discussed later in the month by the Post Office working group overseeing the investigation. 

“The announcement means the working group set up to assess whether cases move forward for mediation will be closed,” said the Post Office.

During a recent parliamentary select committee inquiry on the matter, a representative of Second Sight was critical of the Post Office's handling of the investigation, fuelling speculation about the content of the follow-up report.

Second Sight carried out an investigation of these complaints and published its first report last year, which raised concerns about the system used in more than 11,000 post offices. The investigation report said the technology, which was originally developed by ICL/Fujitsu Services, was not fit for purpose in some branches.

On announcing the end of the working group, the Post Office said 56 of the 136 cases made had already been closed, with the remainder being put forward for mediation unless they were already subject to court ruling. The Post Office said it will continue to consider cases that were subject to court ruling on an individual basis and is offering people the chance for confidential discussions of the case involving their MP.

Angela van den Bogerd, Post Office head of partnerships, said: “This has been an exhaustive and informative process which has confirmed that there are no system-wide problems with our computer system and associated processes. We will now look to resolve the final outstanding cases as quickly as possible.”

Is the Post Office hiding the truth?

JFSA alleged, however, that Second Sight and its report have been “gagged by the Post Office to stop the real truth behind the failures of Post Office and its Horizon system being exposed in the long-awaited, revised, two-part report”. The Post Office denied this. 

The JFSA has written to government minister Jo Swinson asking whether she was aware of the Post Office's recent action and whether she had approved it beforehand.  

“Despite what the Post Office claims in its statement, JFSA knows the work of Second Sight is nowhere near finished – there are scores of outstanding questions it was awaiting responses from Post Office about and there was a backlog of requests for documentation from Post Office that it was refusing to hand over,” said the JFSA spokesman. 

The Post Office said it is unaware of any significant outstanding requests for documents from Second Sight, and told Computer Weekly: "There is absolutely no question of suppressing Second Sight's report. While confidential in the context of mediation, it will be provided to applicants and their independent professional advisers as always intended.

"Our investigations are completed and nothing has been found to suggest that the Horizon computer system is not working as it should. There are 80 cases remaining in the mediation scheme. We have asked to conclude their review of cases where these have not already been provided as well as the report to help mediation. It is in this context that [Second Sight] has been given notice regarding its contract.

"We’ve also submitted evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee plus supplementary evidence – all public on their site. We have put significant information into the public domain correcting misleading and completely inaccurate allegations," added the Post Office.

In February, there was a BIS Select Committee inquiry into the alleged Horizon problems. During the investigation, Second Sight representative Ian Henderson was highly critical of the Post Office's approach. He said important data requested by the investigation team, including prosecution files, had not been delivered – 18 months after they were requested.

The inquiry was told how the lack of training, the non-existence of a regional helpdesk and technical support being offshored to the Philippines had all contributed to problems for subpostmasters when they had unexplained accounting shortfalls. The Post Office said, however, that the transfer of support services to the Philippines post-dated any applications to the mediation scheme.

In December 2014, MPs met in Westminster Hall for a debate over the investigation. During the debate, James Arbuthnot, member of Parliament for Hampshire North East, described the Post Office’s behaviour over the investigation as “duplicitous”. 

MPs also accused the Post Office of being “high-handed” with MPs and running a “flawed, degraded and deteriorating accounting system”. 

In the same month, a group of 140 MPs, of which Arbuthnot was a leading member, said they had lost faith in how the Post Office handled cases and removed its backing for the investigation. The group said it would seek redress of subpostmasters' grievances through legal and political means. 

“I do not want to build up hopes that the other methods are going to be more successful than the current ones, so I will not be specific – but it will involve legal and political campaigns,” said Arbuthnot at the time.

Computer Weekly timeline of events 

May 2009: Bankruptcy, prosecution and disrupted livelihoods – postmasters tell their story

September 2009: Postmasters form action group after accounts shortfall

November 2009: Post Office theft case deferred over IT questions

February 2011: Post Office faces legal action over alleged accounting system failures

October 2011: 85 subpostmasters seek legal support in claims against Post Office computer system

June 2012: Post Office launches external review of system at centre of legal disputes

January 2013: Post Office admits that Horizon system needs more investigation

January 2013: Post Office announces amnesty for Horizon evidence 

January 2013: Post Office wants to get to bottom of IT system allegations

June 2013: Investigation into Post Office accounting system to drill down on strongest cases

July 2013: Post Office Horizon system investigation reveals concerns

October 2013: End in sight for subpostmaster claims against Post Office's Horizon accounting system

October 2013: Former Lord Justice of Appeal Hooper joins Post Office Horizon investigation

November 2013: 150 subpostmasters file claims over 'faulty' Horizon accounting system

September 2014: Fresh questions raised over Post Office IT system's role in fraud cases

December 2014: MPs blast Post Office over IT system investigation and remove backing

December 2014: Why MPs lost faith in the Post Office's IT investigation, but vowed to fight on

December 2014: MPs to debate subpostmaster IT injustice claims

December 2014: MP accuses Post Office of acting "duplicitously" in IT investigation

December 2014: MPs force inquiry into Post Office subpostmaster mediation scheme

January 2015: Post Office faces grilling by MPs over Horizon accounting system

February 2015: Post Office CIO would talk to any subpostmaster about IT problems, promises CEO

 

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