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The Post Office is looking to contract IBM to replace the allegedly faulty Horizon accounting system at the centre of claims of miscarriages of justice that have seen subpostmasters spend time in prison for theft, according to an MP.
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During an adjournment motion, MPs alleged the Post Office had displayed disgusting and contemptuous behaviour in its handling of the cases of subpostmasters who claim they were unfairly treated and wrongly charged and prosecuted for false accounting and theft. During the debate, one MP claimed the government-owned Post Office, which is allowed to operate commercially, is “out of control”.
Computer Weekly first revealed the stories of subpostmasters who had received heavy fines and even jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they blamed on the Horizon accounting system, in 2009. Thousands of Post Offices use the ICL/Fujitsu Services-developed IT system for their accounts. The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) is currently considering 20 applications from subpostmasters related to prosecutions for account shortfalls, which they blame on the Post Office’s Horizon computer system.
Speaking at the adjournment motion in the House of Commons, Andrew James Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, said he has an email that proves the Post Office is looking to replace Horizon.
“Despite the Post Office claiming the Horizon system is 100% reliable, I have an email in my possession proving that the Post Office is now urgently seeking a replacement software system from IBM. It would appear to me that it is sunset for the Horizon system indeed,” he said.
The Post Office said this is nothing new as “various contracts [are] coming to end so there has been a procurement process for a long while”.
But in May, at an unrelated event, Computer Weekly asked Post Office CEO Paula Vennells directly whether its current transformation to modernise IT will include the replacement of Horizon. “Horizon is part of the Post Office front office and it will change over time as we invest in it,” she said.
At the time, Computer Weekly also asked her questions on the subject of the Horizon investigation, but she declined to comment.
Post Office mediation failed to deliver
During the adjournment motion, Brigden called for the Horizon disputes to be taken away from the Post Office and called for a judicial inquiry. “This is now a national scandal and the Post Office is incapable of putting its own house in order and it falls to this house and this government to do it for it.”
MPs talked about “disgusting” treatment of subpostmasters and “contempt” for MPs. “The Post Office cannot sweep this under the carpet,” said Brigden.
Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire
He criticised the mediation scheme that was set up by the Post Office to get to the bottom of claims that subpostmasters had been wrongly punished.
“The mediation scheme that was set up to handle disputes with the software system has not delivered what members of this house understood at its inception. It was flawed in a number of ways, the most significant being that it excluded those who pleaded guilty, often on the advice of lawyers and in fear of losing their liberty potentially,” said Brigden.
He was referring to claims that subpostmasters were offered the chance to plead guilty to the charges of miscounting to avoid going to court on theft charges and potential prison sentences. He said due to this and other flaws, 90% of cases are excluded from the mediation scheme, adding that the scheme “is a shadow of what was agreed with members of this house”.
Bridgen praised independent investigation company Second Sight, which was appointed by the Post Office, for its fair, professional and accurate work, but said the same could not be said for the Post Office: “The mediation scheme has been a sham, and Second Sight has been too independent for the Post Office to stand.”
False accounting a criminal offence
The MP claimed that the Post Office itself has encouraged subpostmasters to use techniques to balance books which could be considered miscounting. He said the Post Office has no adequate suspense account function, which pushes subpostmasters to balance the books – which is false accounting and a criminal offence. “However, I have seen correspondence that shows the Post Office has advised subpostmasters to keep any surplus balances they discover in their safe so they can put them back when they have a shortage. This is also false accounting, and is also a criminal offence.”
Bridgen became involved in the group of campaigning MPs as a result of the problems suffered by a constituent, former subpostmaster Michael Rudkin, who ran post offices in Barnsley and Leicester in 2004-05.
Rudkin later became chairman of the negotiating committee of the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP). In 2008, his Post Office had an unexplained loss of over £40,000, which had to be repaid. He was suspended in 2008, reinstated later in the same year, suspended again in January 2009, and the Post Office terminated his contract in 2010. He has not been able to find work since.
Rudkin and his wife have been referred to the mediation scheme.
Brigden said he and his constituent have no faith in the matter being resolved. “Justice delayed is justice denied, and this matter has simply dragged on for far too long as the Post Office looks for ever more reasons to delay the truth of this matter coming out,” he said.
MP for North Durham, Kevan Jones, asked who controls the Post Office, claiming it is “an organisation that is out of control”.
In a statement in response to the adjournment motion claims, the Post Office said: “Our computer system has been used by around 500,000 people in our network over more than a decade, processing billions of transactions during that time for our customers.
“We have now spent three years investigating and addressing various complaints by a small number of former postmasters. We have done everything and more than we committed to do at the outset.
“We set up an independent enquiry, which found no systemic flaws in the system, and subsequently set up a scheme for individual complaints, providing financial support for people to obtain independent professional advice.
“We have continued to offer mediation in the majority of cases to resolve individual complaints. A minority of cases involve criminal convictions, which can only be overturned by the courts.
“We’re continuing to develop our IT, telecoms services and systems across the business – that, with many other changes, is all part of transforming the Post Office in a digital age.”
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
- March 2015: Post Office ends working group for IT system investigation day before potentially damaging report
- March 2015: MPs seek reassurance over Post Office mediation scheme
- March 2015: Retiring MP aims to uncover truth of alleged Post Office computer system problems
- April 2015: Post Office failed to investigate account shortfalls before legal action, report claims
- April 2015: Criminal Courts Review Commission set to review subpostmasters' claims of wrongful prosecution
- May 2015: IT system related to subpostmaster prosecutions under review by CCRC