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The Post Office has said in court that the controversial Horizon IT system at the centre of a trial, has made mistakes which the Post Office was responsible for correcting, but admitted it does not necessarily have to tell its subpostmaster network about the errors.
On day eight of a High Court trial, where subpostmasters are seeking damages for the suffering they experienced because of unexplained discrepancies in accounts, Post Office director Angela van den Bogerd was questioned.
Van den Bogerd, who is the most senior Post Office employee at the trial, was cross-examined for the whole day and faced questions including how Post Office dealt with account balancing problems at branches - some of which were known to be caused by errors with Horizon.
She admitted that Horizon is not error free. “Overall [Horizon] is robust but it will make mistakes and we have to correct them,” she said in court.
In one specific example, put to her in court, errors caused by Horizon led to inaccurate accounts at some branches. The error, which was mentioned earlier in the trial, was revealed in a Post Office internal memo from August 2010, entitled Receipts payments mismatch issue memo day 1 OP_0008387.
The memo revealed that discrepancies showing at the Horizon counter disappeared when the branch followed certain process steps, but will still show within the back-end branch account. “This is currently impacting circa 40 branches since migration onto Horizon Online, with an overall cash value of circa £20k loss,” the memo said. “If widely known [it] could cause a loss of confidence in the Horizon system by branches.”
Van den Bogerd said that Post Office could have told subposmasters about errors, but didn’t.
This is not an isolated case of Post Office keeping errors quiet. In 2015, Computer Weekly revealed the contents of an email to a postmaster from Atos, the company that provided IT support to the Post Office, about a case of duplicated payments. The email described the problem, and said it had happened before. But the subpostmaster network had not been informed and the problem only came to light through an investigation by the Communications Workers Union, which was revealed by Computer Weekly.
Van den Bogerd said one reason the Post Office might not inform the network is because subpostmasters might "think it is always the Horizon system [at fault] so they don't look look in branch [for a problem] and might miss things."
Alleged errors in the Horizon software are at the centre of the long dispute. In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the stories of some subpostmasters, who had received heavy fines and even jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they blamed on Horizon (see timeline below for all Computer Weekly coverage).
At the time a Post Office spokesman said: “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. We would always look into and investigate any issues raised by sub-postmasters.”
Post Office director Angela van den Bogerd
But an independent report into the alleged problems with the Horizon accounting system, commissioned by the Post Office and published in 2015, said the organisation did not properly investigate shortfalls and had been too quick to take legal action against subpostmasters. The Post Office published an 83-page report of its own, claiming that the report, carried out by forensic accountants Second Sight, made inaccurate claims.
The court also heard that subpostmasters are expected to provide details about losses when contesting them, but they might not have access to the information they need. As such they rely on Post Office to provide it. But it was alleged by Patrick Green, the QC representing the claimants, that the Post Office is “focused on recovering assets rather than finding the route of the problems."
Many subpostmasters who have had unexplained losses since the introduction of Horizon in 1999/2000, blame the system. But the Post Office has consistently said Horizon is robust. Van den Bogerd said that subpostmasters would blame Horizon for all imbalances if problems were widely known.
The trial is the first of three planned in the group litigation order where over 500 subpostmasters are suing the Post Office for damages caused by an allegedly faulty IT system. This case is focused on the contractual relationship between subpostmasters and the Post Office. This includes how the Post Office deals with unexplained accounting errors. In 2014, the contract subpostmasters sign with the Post Office was described by MPs as “Dickensian” and slanted in favour of the Post Office. (See the full adjournment debate here.)
Next March a trial will look at the Horizon computer system and supporting technologies, followed by a third trial later in the year concentrating on some individual subpostmaster cases.
The importance of Horizon’s integrity to the Post Office was made clear in court last week when the claimants' litigation, and the fallibilities in Horizon it might reveal, was described by Post Office as an "existential threat" to its business model
Van den Bogerd was also asked about Horizon training for subpostmasters. QC Patrick Green, for the claimants, described a Post Office internal survey from August 2014 where over 60% of subpostmasters said Horizon training was inadequate. She admitted that it is sometimes difficult to get through to the helpline, a subpostmaster's first port of call for advice, during periods when there “is a high influx of calls".
A Post Office statement in regard to the trial said: "The Post Office is robustly defending its position in the court and welcomes the opportunity to do so. We take these cases extremely seriously and we have worked hard over a number of years to address the issues raised. We have conducted thorough investigations and sought to resolve some of the claims through mediation. Our employees and postmasters are important to us and we take our relationships with them very seriously. We have confidence in our network of 11,500 Post Office branches and the systems underpinning it. The Horizon computer system is operated successfully by thousands of employees, postmasters and their staff to process 47 million transactions every week."
The case continues.
Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly published its first article in 2009
September 2009: Postmasters form action group after accounts shortfall
November 2009: Post Office theft case deferred over IT questions
January 2013: Post Office announces amnesty for Horizon evidence
December 2014: MPs to debate subpostmaster IT injustice claims