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Campaigners for subpostmasters who claim to have been falsely accused of theft and misaccounting are calling for an independent inquiry into the Post Office's Horizon IT system.
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The calls for an inquiry came after a government minister repeated the Post Office’s claims that an independent investigation had shown no evidence of problems with the Horizon accounting system and the processes that support it.
But disputes over evidence of systemic flaws in the Horizon system continue. Campaigners believe an independent inquiry is the only way to resolve the matter, after life sciences minister George Freeman told the House of Commons no such evidence had been revealed.
Representing the government during an adjournment motion, Freeman, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for life science, said that independent reports by forensic investigation firm Second Sight contained no evidence of systemic flaws – a claim campaigners and some experts repudiate. The Post Office recruited Second Sight to carry out an independent review.
Answering questions from MPs about the Horizon system on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), Freeman said: “Second Sight produced two independent reports – one in 2013 and the other earlier this year – both of which found there was no evidence of systemic flaws in the system.”
When Second Sight published its second, 93-page report in April 2015, the Post Office replied with its own 83-page response denying many of Second Sight's findings. “Nothing has been found in any of the cases to suggest Horizon has not worked as it should. Many cases are based on allegations which, following our investigation, are not supported by the evidence,” said the Post Office.
But Second Sight said its two reports were never intended to contain the evidence from confidential documents in individual case reports, of which there are over 200. This evidence could not be revealed in the two broader reports, because of the undertakings of confidentiality Second Sight gave individuals when it interviewed them. But the Post Office – and now minister George Freeman – cited an absence of evidence in the reports. Campaigners claim this is misleading.
Post Offices use an IT system developed by ICL/Fujitsu Services, called Horizon, for their accounts. 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. After pressure from groups such as the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA) and MPs, the Post Office agreed in 2012 to fund an independent investigation conducted by forensic experts Second Sight.
Second Sight report points to problems with Horizon system
Second Sight subsequently produced a second report, published in April 2015, which said there were systemic problems for users. Second Sight's second report said: “As we have previously stated, when looking at the totality of the ‘Horizon experience’ we remain concerned that, in some circumstances, Horizon can be systemically flawed from a user’s perspective and Post Office has not necessarily provided an appropriate level of support.”
Another example cited in the Second Sight report involved the Post Office recruitment process. The report said it failed to reject candidates that could not carry out the role: “Where such a person, who was either unsuitable, inexperienced or inadequately trained, was faced with problems, perhaps associated with hardware or telecommunications failures and the system’s resultant restart and recovery procedures, it was at that moment that an otherwise repairable situation often turned into a catastrophe. For them, and in those specific and limited circumstances, Horizon could not be described as fit for purpose.” There are other examples mentioned by Second Sight in its report.
When Computer Weekly put the campaigners' claims to Freeman, the reply from the BIS press office said: “Systemic flaws would refer to errors or faults in the Horizon system capable of causing the accounting discrepancies that have been alleged. Rather, the sentence summarises the conclusions Second Sight reached, based on their findings having looked at not only the Horizon system but other directly and indirectly associated elements such as training and support processes, and individual subpostmasters’ circumstances.”
Campaigners call for independent inquiry
Recently retired MP James Arbuthnot, one of the most vocal MPs on the subject of Horizon for a number of years, said: “It is troubling to find that the government minister in charge of the Post Office has gone along with this since, after all, Post Office Limited is an organisation which we, the British public, own. I believe the Second Sight report which came to light earlier this year contained clear evidence of systemic flaws.”
One campaigner said Freeman may have misled the House of Commons. “The only way we will get to the bottom of it is to have a truly independent inquiry, which Post Office is not involved in,” the campaigner said.
The Post Office said it had gone out of its way to be fair and is still offering to meet subpostmasters and discuss their cases. It said MPs can get a full picture, because individual cases will be discussed with them if individual subpostmasters agree. It also said subpostmasters with criminal convictions can apply to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) if they think prosecutions are unfair. The 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.
The Post Office said: “Where the facts indicate genuine grievances, for example that the support provided in a particular instance fell short of the desired standards, those issues are being discussed with applicants and a number of complaints have been resolved".
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
- June 2015: Post Office looking to replace controversial Horizon system with IBM, says MP