The Post Office Horizon buck stops where?

The layers of cover up began in 1999 with that to conceal the impossibility of delivering what was agreed with Number 10 in December 1998 , despite the the warnings given . While it might have been reasonable for Ministers to assume that a “cut down” version using parts of the system developed jointly with the Benefits Agency would be easier to deliver, the reality was that a major re-write was required, to short order, during the peak of the Y2K skills crisis.

The first layer can be found in the Government Response to  the report of the DTI Select Committee Report published September 1999 . The response is more than usually economical with the truth when it comes to the reasons for the decisions taken by Ministers, let alone the plans to ensure that the result could be successfully implemented.

The key to the driving force behind the subsequent layers of cover up can be found in the  ICL evidence to the DTI Select Committee enquiry. The main cause of the delays to the original system had been the failure of the Benefits Agency to complete the development and testing of its Customer Accounting and Payment Strategy (CAPS)  Database. The withdrawal of Benefits Agency from the joint programme (whatever the true reason) had led to a senior Treasury Office being appointed to devise an alternative system. The successful implementation of that system was to be supervised by a stakeholder engagement group, chaired by the Minister and including the sub-postmasters and trades unions.

But before the Government Response was published (in November 1999), Britain’s oldest police force, its origins in the 17th Century postal surveillance and censorship operations under Oliver Cromwell and later James Duke Of York, had already begun prosecuting sub-postmasters as a result of “discrepancies” being picked up with the pilot of the new system, which had already been approved for roll out by Number 10 in May 1999. [See P.S. below for the probable main cause of the “discrepancies”, duplicate entries over slow and unreliable communications lines from rural post offices].

As I pointed in my 2021 blog on Lessons from the Post Office Horizon Case , the Post Office Investigations Department was also one of the UK’s largest private police forces. A few years earlier it had bid to be the UK’s lead fraud investigator. It had not succeeded but was about to be given new and enhanced powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Power Act .

The original case for the Post Office (Benefits) Card and associated computer systems had been to address benefit fraud, then estimated to be running at 14%. The main cause of those losses was not individuals making exaggerated or false claims. It was fictional and duplicated claimants collecting on behalf of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland and organised crime across the rest of the UK. The Post Office therefore expected that implementation would pick up significant long-running fraud. The removal of auditing against the Benefits Agency index had, however, crippled the identification of fictional and duplicate entries: hence the eagerness of the Post Office investigators to find other “frauds” to prosecute.

Then came the Postal Services Act 2000  and the preparations for the privatisation of the Post Office. These accelerated sharply when Adam Crozier was appointed as chief executive with a remit to cut out swathes of middle management.

The excellent commentaries by Richard Moorhead in Thoughts on the Post Office Scandal have, inter alia, indicated how the behaviour of the Post Office investigators and legal teams were also driven by the small print of the PFI. This discouraged them from paying Fujitsu for analyses requested by Courts, let alone Defence. Hence the fate of those Sub-Postmasters who did not go into court with copies of their logs and records of the responses from the Post Office help desk.

Meanwhile, as Esther George (who was running the high tech training programmes for CPS at the time) pointed out in her contribution to my  2021 blog on  Lessons from the Post Office Horizon Case , the guidance from the Crown Prosecution Services on the use of Computer Evidence was being revised.

The recent press release announcing that the Horizon IT Inquiry jointly appoints Dame Sandra Dawson and Dr Katy Steward as Governance Expert Witnesses to look at the Corporate response to the scandal includes reference to looking at the role of UK Government Investment (with its assurances to successive Ministers that all was well) as well as of Post Office management.

It is apposite that the appointees have experience with health service governance, because the roots of the problem appear similar to those of the National Plan for IT in the Health Service: a political vision that did not fit with reality (technical or organisational). The main difference was that Accenture and Fujitsu bought their way out of their NPfIT contracts. It appears that Fujtsu was persuaded not to do the same with regard to the Post Office contract in order to maintain confidence in the public image of the Post Office as it was being prepared for privatisation.

The pre-privatisation cover up was maintained over the next decade, with increasing brutality, until Paula Vennells became Chief Executive. Then instead of a follow up to the Second Sight investigation, we saw the start of the next round of cover up.

Finally, as the sub-postmasters got their act together, legally as well as politically, the cover-up began to crumble. The result has destroyed trust in the Post Office, still the main interface between Government and those Citizens unable to make effective use of its on-line systems. It also threatens trust in the legal system the Post Office had used to defend its position, the politicians who had failed to take action and the Department which had advised them, supposedly informed via its directors on the Post Office Board.

The blame, if any, that should sit with Fujitsu has yet to emerge.

Did Fujitsu do anything more, or less, than it was contracted by the Post Office to deliver?

Did Fujitsu staff report problems on which Post Office failed to take action?

Did the evolving PFI contract encourage unethical behaviour on either or both sides?

If so, who was responsible and was that encouragement particular to this contract and the culture of  the Post Office and/or Fujitsu or are the problems inherent in the PFI process itself?

Looking ahead the scandal should be viewed in the context of the need to rebuild confidence in the competence and honesty of Westminster and Whitehall if anyone is to believe that any technology related promises made in the course of the longest election campaign in recent memory can be delivered.

I remind readers that this blog is about what happens “When IT meets politics” and vice-versa. The almost wilful refusal of most IT professionals to even attempt to understand how political and boardroom decision-taking really works does not help.

Please get involved with the political party of your choice and learn, as well as help inform.

P.S. Added on 21st January. Since this blog was posted we have learned that Fujitsu staff did indeed report problems, perhaps on a very large scale, which the Post Office failed to take into account when deciding what action to take with regard to “discrepancies”. Most of the problems and discrepancies appear to have related to duplicate entries after staff pressed the repeat key when they thought a transaction had not registered because of slow response over the often unreliable BT lines to rural post offices. Such entries had to be removed by Fujitsu staff  on instruction from Post Office staff. The denial that this process existed, as opposed to the production of  audited logs and authorisations for such interventions, lies at the heart of the subsequent scandal. It is, as yet, unclear who was responsible for the failure to upgrade the communications lines and/or take other corrective action to address the problem.

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