Vilified then vindicated - victory for subpostmasters in Post Office trial shows risk of tech hubris

In 2004, Computer Weekly received a letter from Alan Bates, a former subpostmaster in Craig-y-Don, a coastal suburb of Llandudno in north Wales. It’s that long ago that the letter arrived typewritten on paper in the post – which was somewhat ironic in the circumstances.

The letter came four years after Bates wrote to his bosses at the Post Office to raise concerns about the Horizon IT system that he and other subpostmasters around the UK had to use to keep their accounts and manage the retail operations of their branches.

For four years he had been rebuffed, and his frustration was evident in his letter to Computer Weekly. “We have lost our investment and livelihood by daring to raise questions over a computer system we had thrust upon us,” he wrote.

“The core of our problem stems from our refusal to blindly accept liability for figures derived from the system without having full access to the system to check the data we have entered.”

He concluded with one of those statements that, with hindsight, seemed like the worst of premonitions: “I fully expect it to take a number of years to bring Post Office Ltd to account for what they have done to us, but we are determined to do it.”

That number of years proved to be 15. “Determined” was an understatement.

When Computer Weekly subsequently investigated, we found a long list of fellow subpostmasters whose lives had been turned upside down after being fined, sacked, made bankrupt or even imprisoned because of unexplained accounting shortfalls recorded by Horizon.

At every stage, the Post Office insisted its software was practically perfect, and could not possibly be responsible for the accounting errors. Victims – and journalists – were bullied and shouted down. Subpostmasters were branded as criminals. It took until 2009 before Computer Weekly had gathered enough information – and felt legally secure enough – to reveal the first stories of the affected subpostmasters.

“Horizon is an extremely robust system which operates over our entire Post Office network and successfully records millions of transactions each day. There is no evidence that points to any fault with the technology,” the Post Office told us at that time.

Fifteen years after writing to Computer Weekly – 19 years after raising the issue with the Post Office – Bates has finally been vindicated. After years of vilification, the 500 or so subpostmasters he has led and campaigned for have been awarded almost £60m in damages in a settlement with the Post Office. That’s as much trading profit as the organisation made in its last financial year.

Subpostmaster Noel Thomas from Gaerwen in Anglesey worked for the Post Office for 42 years. His problems started in 2003, when he discovered a deficit of £6,000. Further problems occurred in 2005, when the Post Office told him he owed £50,000. He was later convicted of false accounting, and spent his 60th birthday in jail.

Forty-year-old Lee Castleton was declared bankrupt in 2007 after he refused to pay the Post Office £27,000 caused by unexplained errors he blamed on Horizon.

Jo Hamilton, then 51, was only spared a prison sentence after local villagers organised a collection to pay her debt of £36,000. The Post Office had prosecuted her for theft and 14 counts of false accounting, but later dropped the theft charge.

Bates fought back after unexplained shortfalls in his accounts, and claimed in 2009 that the only reason the Post Office didn’t take him to court was because it knew there were faults with his Horizon system.

So, eventually, he took the Post Office to court.

Last month, the Court of Appeal rejected the Post Office’s application to overturn the judges’ verdict in the first part of a High Court case, that found the Post Office engaged in “oppressive behaviour” when demanding sums of money that could not be accounted for by subpostmasters. The verdict was damning. The Court of Appeal rejection was conclusive.

“There can be no excuse, in my judgment, for an entity such as the Post Office to mis-state, in such clearly expressed terms, in letters that threaten legal action, the extent of the contractual obligation upon a [subpostmaster] for losses. The only reason for doing so, in my judgment, must have been to lead the recipients to believe that they had absolutely no option but to pay the sums demanded. It is oppressive behaviour,” said the ruling.

The second stage of the trial, which examined in detail the functionality and robustness of Horizon, is due to receive the judge’s verdict on Monday 16 December. One can only assume that the Post Office has seen the writing on the wall and settled before its multimillion-pound bill for costs becomes untenable.

A new CEO at the Post Office, Nick Read, finally decided to accept the organisation’s responsibilities. The irony that drips from the statement from his boss, chairman Tim Parker, accompanying the settlement, echoes back over the two decades of Bates’ efforts:

“We accept that, in the past, we got things wrong in our dealings with a number of postmasters and we look forward to moving ahead now, with our new CEO currently leading a major overhaul of our engagement and relationship with postmasters,” said Parker.

Surely there must also be some reckoning for the previous Post Office executives who doggedly and ferociously pursed the subpostmasters and persistently denied their claims. “We got things wrong.” Indeed they did.

The subpostmasters have been vindicated, but not yet fully exonerated. The Criminal Courts Review Commission has been examining around 30 cases, and was waiting for the result of the group litigation that has now been settled. Justice must, finally, be served.

For anyone with any knowledge of large-scale, complex software development programmes, the Post Office’s insistence that because Horizon worked in the vast majority of cases, it must therefore be infallible, was always absurd.

All it takes is an undetected, unrepeatable problem – user error, a power spike, a momentary hardware glitch, coffee spilled on a keyboard – and something can go wrong. The entire software industry operates on the assumption there are always undetected errors and puts in place comprehensive bug programmes and regular software updates. It was never possible that Horizon was so perfect as to be correct every single time in the many millions of transactions it recorded – especially when hundreds of its users were small business owners with little IT knowledge and, in many cases, insufficient training or support.

On such technical hubris has the Post Office now, at last, been conclusively damned. Computer Weekly sends our congratulations to Alan Bates and his many colleagues for their victory.

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