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

The CEO of the Post Office defended the organisation’s support for users of its accounting system in a select committee inquiry into alleged problems

The CEO of the Post Office has defended the organisation’s support for users of its controversial Horizon accounting system, in a House of Commons select committee inquiry into alleged problems.

MPs in the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee meeting heard that the Post Office CIO would talk to any subpostmaster about IT problems they are having. 

Post Office CEO Paula Vennells was being grilled about the lack of IT support offered to subpostmasters that are having difficulty with the Horizon accounting system used at all Post Office branches.

“The Post Office CIO is prepared to talk to any subpostmaster she can,” Vennells told the inquiry. The token gesture was in response to accusations that the Post Office does not provide adequate training and support to users of the Horizon system.

MPs were told the training for subpostmasters to prepare them to use Horizon extended to a couple of days despite having over 500 pages in the user guide.

In 2009, Computer Weekly 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 provided by the Post Office. Thousands of Post Offices use the IT system, developed by ICL/Fujitsu Services, for their accounts.

The inquiry was told how the lack of training, the non-existence of a regional helpdesk, and technical support being offshored to the Philippines, have all contributed to problems for subpostmasters when they have unexplained accounting shortfalls.

Ian Henderson of Second Sight, the forensic accounting company appointed by the Post Office to investigate the alleged problems, was highly critical of the Post Office's approach. He said important data requested by the investigation team, including prosecution files, have not been delivered, 18 months after they were requested.

Alan Bates, a member of the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA) pressure group, which was set up to campaign for the subpostmasters affected, told MPs that his ideal outcome to the inquiry would see the government take over the investigation from the Post Office.

But George Thomson, general secretary of the National Federation of Subpostmasters disagreed. He said it would be ridiculous for the government to take over when there are so few cases. A total of 150 subpostmasters made claims. Many have had their livelihoods taken away as a result of alleged problems. Some have been in prison.

Thomson was criticised by Bates of the JFSA for siding with the Post Office, but Thomson refuted this. “I will kick the Post Office up the backside when it does something wrong, but on Horizon it has done nothing wrong,” he said.

In December, MPs met in Westminster Hall for a debate over the investigation. During the debate, James Arbuthnot 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". 

The inquiry continues and will report on its findings.

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

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