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Post Office held back information about Horizon IT system errors

Post Office director admits to Horizon errors and not sharing details with subpostmaster network

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.

Previous problems

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.”

Overall [Horizon] is robust but it will make mistakes
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.

Group litigation

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."

For live tweeting from court see the Twitter account of broadcast journalist Nick Wallis. Also read his Post Office Trial blog.

The case continues.

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly published its first article in 2009

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 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

January 2015: 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

July 2015: Campaigners call for independent inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT system dispute

October 2015: James Arbuthnot takes Post Office IT fight to House of Lords

November 2015: The union that represents Post Office subpostmasters has warned of a problem with the Horizon accounting system

November 2015: An email from Post Office IT support reveals a problem with the Horizon system and supporting processes that could lead to accounting errors

November 2015: Group litigation against Post Office being prepared in Horizon dispute

February 2016: Post Office faces group litigation over Horizon IT as subpostmasters fund class action

June 2016: Post Office chairman Tim Parker says there would be “considerable risk” associated with changing its Horizon computer system

November 2016: The legal team hired by a group of subpostmasters will take their case to the next stage

January 2017: The group action against the Post Office that alleges subpostmasters have been wrongly punished for accounting errors gets a green light from the High Court of Justice

March 2017: 1,000 subpostmasters apply to join IT-related group litigation against Post Office

April 2017: Investigation into claims of miscarriages of justice in relation to a Post Office accounting system has appointed a forensic accountant firm

May 2017: Hundreds of subpostmasters have applied to join IT-related legal action since March

July 2017: Post Office defence in computer system legal case due this week

August 2017: Campaigners submit initial evidence in group litigation against Post Office over controversial Horizon IT system

October 2017: Subpostmasters’ group action against the Post Office reaches an important milestone

November 2017: An end is in sight for subpostmasters’ campaign against alleged wrongful prosecution, which they blame on a faulty computer system

November 2017: The high court judge managing the subpostmasters versus Post Office legal case over an allegedly faulty computer system tells legal teams to cooperate

January 2018: Forensic investigation into Post Office IT system at centre of legal case nears completion

April 2018: Criminal Cases Review Commission forensic examination of the IT system at the centre of a legal case against the Post Office has raised further questions

May 2018: Post Office branches unable to connect to Horizon computer system for several hours after morning opening time

October 2018: After over a decade of controversy, next week marks the beginning of a court battle between subpostmasters and the Post Office

November 2018Case against Post Office in relation to allegedly faulty computer system begins in High Court

November 2018: High Court case in which subpostmasters are suing the Post Office has revealed a known problem with a computer system at the core of the dispute

November 2018: A High Court trial, where subpostmasters are suing the Post Office for damages caused by an allegedly faulty IT system, ended its second week.

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