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Around 800 Post Office branches have been affected by an unresolved problem with the controversial Horizon accounting and point-of-sale system that is the subject of an ongoing High Court case.
Horizon is currently suffering from a serious operational error affecting customers, subpostmasters and counter staff across the network. The source of the issue appears to be a software patch which was rolled out to the 11,500 branches in June, though the Post Office has not confirmed this.
The problem is causing hundreds of Horizon terminals in Post Office branches across the country to freeze, hang or run very slowly. The problem has not yet been fixed.
Horizon is the subject of a continuing High Court case examining the system’s alleged role in subpostmasters being wrongly prosecuted and fined for accounting shortfalls. The case is part of a multimillion-pound group litigation order brought by 550 subpostmasters, which has already seen two trials, with two more planned over the next year. At the heart of the case is the question of whether Horizon is sufficiently robust (see timeline below for full story).
Last week, the Post Office’s head of retail IT Martin Godbold sent an email to subpostmasters acknowledging that “around 800 branches have reported slow-running over the past few weeks.” He added that “so far we haven’t been able to identify a specific time, a specific counter or a specific transaction that is the cause”.
Computer Weekly spoke to Geoff Crouch, a subpostmaster at Cranbrook Post Office in Kent. He said his Horizon terminal has been running slowly and freezing for “a few weeks now”.
“It’s customer service that’s suffering. When you’re halfway through a transaction, you’re waiting for the screen to catch up with you, and the customer’s looking at you like you’re not very bright. You have to tell them the system’s running slow. It’s embarrassing,” he adds.
Crouch also runs a Co-op franchise: “My Co-op tills are lightning quick compared to the Post Office. Horizon feels like using IT with someone walking in front of you holding a red flag.”
Mark Baker from the Communications Workers Union (CWU), who is a serving subpostmaster himself, said there’s a risk that counter staff could find themselves hitting a screen button multiple times while waiting for the system to respond, which could mean “incorrect figures end up being transmitted, causing a shortage to a postmaster or to a customer.”
Mark Harrison runs two Post Offices – Goole in East Riding and Moorends in South Yorkshire. He describes the current problem as “the worst I can remember” since he became a subpostmaster in 2004.
He told Computer Weekly: “I was on the counter for four hours on Friday morning and I had 20 freezes in that time. It can be any button. We get it on mails, card payments, bill payments. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing. You press an icon [on the screen] and it just sits there for anything up to 25 seconds.”
Harrison said he is losing money because customers are seeing queues in his branches and taking their business elsewhere. On one occasion, he says he lost £117 due to a screen freeze which caused a transaction to disappear on one of his portable Horizon kits.
Harrison said his terminals started running slowly at the end of June. Along with Mark Baker, he believes the problem goes much wider than the 800 branches reported by the Post Office. “When I rang IT support, they admitted it was affecting the whole network,” he said.
The Post Office is aware that the problem is causing consternation. Godbold said in his email to subpostmasters: “Over the past three weeks we have been working with our technology partners to try to identify what may have caused this issue so we can then fix it.
“In practice, this has meant working backwards to see if any of the changes we have rolled out to the network over the past few months have caused the intermittent slow running; and to monitor branches in real-time to see if there are any hardware issues. Rest assured, we take this very seriously and we are working hard to address the issue.”
A Post Office spokesperson added: “We have apologised to our postmasters that some of our branches are experiencing intermittent slow running of the system. We are working hard to find a solution as quickly as possible.”
The Horizon system has a controversial history. After a difficult birth as a government IT project, it was rolled out at the turn of the century to every Post Office branch in the country. Horizon has been operated and maintained by Fujitsu ever since.
In 2009, an investigation by Computer Weekly revealed that the Post Office had prosecuted a number of its subpostmasters for theft and false accounting, but the affected people insisted their problems lay with Horizon, a system they had no control over. More than 30 historic Post Office prosecutions are now being considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
In 2015, the Post Office signed a multimillion-pound Horizon replacement deal with IBM. The deal subsequently collapsed, for reasons which were not been made public, forcing the Post Office to ask Fujitsu to continue maintaining Horizon indefinitely.
In the aftermath of the IBM fiasco, Horizon was migrated away from Windows NT onto Windows 8, and latterly Windows 10. Atos was contracted to run the Horizon IT helpline and a third-party contractor was given the task of replacing the Horizon hardware.
A 2017 Post Office document described Horizon as “clumsy”, “operator unfriendly”, displaying “fragility” and still very much in need of replacement.
Many subpostmasters feel they are getting a poor service. “I’ve never trusted Horizon,” said Crouch. “It’s not proper kit, or proper software. It’s unreliable. This latest episode just underlines it, and I don’t see any mad dash to do anything about it.”
CWU’s Baker added: “When it comes to software updates, no information is supplied to subpostmasters. The software engineers don’t seem to have full knowledge of the impact their fixes will have. It’s as if we postmasters are just beta testers. There needs to be more testing of updates, patches and fixes before they are let loose on the users.”
In July, the Post Office fixed a problem identified by a subpostmaster where cash being accepted by the branch from the Post Office cash centre was not properly recorded in the Horizon system.
- 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 will 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 2018: Case 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, ends second week.
- November 2018: Post Office director admits to Horizon errors and not sharing details with subpostmaster network.
- November 2018: The High Court trial in which subpostmasters are suing the Post Office has reached an important stage.
- December 2018: CCRC may hold off subpostmaster decision until after Post Office Horizon trial.
- December 2018: Court case where subpostmasters are suing the Post Office set to span at least four trials and extend into 2020.
- January 2019: Subpostmasters’ campaign group attacks Post Office CEO Paula Vennells’ New Year honour amid ongoing court case.
- January 2019: Thousands of known errors on controversial Post Office computer system to be revealed.
- March 2019: Tech under spotlight at High Court in second subpostmasters versus Post Office trial.
- March 2019: Post Office considered Horizon IT system “high risk”, court told.
- March 2019: CCRC watching Post Office Horizon trial closely.
- March 2019: Judge rules that Post Office showed “oppressive behaviour” in response to claimants accused of accounting errors they blamed on Horizon IT system.
- March 2019: Post Office ‘lacked humanity’ in the treatment of subpostmasters, says peer.
- March 2019: A High Court judge heard that the Post Office did not investigate a computer system error that could cause losses, despite being offered evidence.
- March 2019: The Post Office legal team in the case brought by more than 500 subpostmasters has called for the judge to be recused after questioning his impartiality.
- March 2019: A senior civil servant asked the Post Office to repay public money it had wrongly allocated to paying legal costs.
- April 2019: Subpostmaster claimants’ legal team makes application for the Post Office to pay millions of pounds of costs associated with trial.
- April 2019: Post Office to appeal judgment from first Horizon trial.
- April 2019: The Post Office’s claim that the judge overseeing the case concerning its controversial Horizon IT system was biased has been dismissed – but will now be considered by the Court of Appeal.
- April 2019: MP questions government over Post Office Horizon case.
- April 2019: Government says no conflict of interest in trial despite Post Office chairman’s dual role.
- May 2019: The Court of Appeal has refused the Post Office’s application to appeal a major decision in the Horizon IT trial.
- May 2019: The Post Office has applied for permission to appeal judgments from the first trial in its IT-related legal battle with subpostmasters.
- May 2019: The judge in the Post Office Horizon trial has ordered the organisation to pay the legal costs of its courtroom adversaries, and refused to give permission to appeal a major judgment.
- June 2019: Post Office asks Court of Appeal for permission to appeal judgment in first Horizon trial.
- July 2019: The Post Office has admitted that some subpostmasters are at risk of accounts not balancing due to an error it does not understand.