Dmitry Nikolaev -

Post Office explanation of IT system outage so vague it is ‘pointless’

Post Office criticised over vagueness of its explanation of the cause of a UK-wide IT failure that saw subpostmasters unable to do business

A Post Office explanation of a nationwide system crash has left subpostmasters and IT experts scratching their heads.

IT experts say the Post Office’s explanation that there were “memory issues in devices” that support the network is so vague it is almost pointless.

Post Office branches across the country were unable to do business during busy business hours on 5 November when the accounting and retail system they use, known as Horizon, went down.  

It meant subpostmasters lost business, with some reporting losing transactions that were in progress when the system crashed, with accounts short when it rebooted.

The Horizon retail and accounting system, used in about 11,000 Post Office branches, is at the centre of a national scandal, first made public by a Computer Weekly investigation in 2009.

Subpostmasters were blamed for accounting shortfalls caused by errors in the Horizon system. The Post Office denied this and subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting, with some receiving prison sentences, community service orders, criminal records and heavy fines. It has become one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history (see timeline of Computer Weekly coverage below).

Since a High Court trial last year, which proved subpostmasters were right that the Horizon system was causing unexplained shortfalls, the Post Office, which had previously vehemently denied this, said it would change its ways, committing to being more open with subpostmasters.

Following the UK-wide crash earlier this month, the Post Office said the issue was a problem with Fujitsu technology and that it had hit other retailers. When asked by Computer Weekly about the cause of the problem, Fujitsu refused to comment and the Post Office said it would write to subpostmasters to give them details about the cause of the problem when it had completed its investigation.

It did give an explanation late last week in a circular from Amanda Jones, the Post Office’s group retail and franchise network director.

In the message to subpostmasters, the Post Office wrote: “As you all know, last week saw a UK-wide interruption of the Horizon system. We have investigated it with our provider, who has confirmed it was a memory issue in devices that support and deliver the overall network across the country, which caused the network to fail for around 90 minutes.”

This explanation, which appeared low down in the circular among other updates, did little to reassure subpostmasters, and IT experts contacted by Computer Weekly criticised its lack of detail. If a nationwide outage occurs at a business, which other businesses rely on, such as the Post Office, a detailed explanation would be expected.

This is particularly the case for the Post Office following the devastating effects Horizon failures have had on some subpostmasters’ lives.

“Saying ‘a memory issue’ is so vague, it is pointless,” a CIO-level IT professional in the financial services sector told Computer Weekly. “They are clearly trying not to explain what happened or they would be more specific.

“This could be a hardware failure – RAM or hard disks in their network infrastructure – but that would admit they have hopeless resilience and non-functional failovers. It can happen, but to take out the whole of the UK system is careless. They may as well have said it was ‘a computer problem’ as that’s about as useful.”

The IT professional added that when people are vague about failures, it could be because they don’t know what happened or don’t want to reveal it because “it’s embarrassing or could give rise to legal action and compensation”.

Another systems expert agreed, telling Computer Weekly: “This is indeed totally worthless. It is, in fact, insulting. They haven’t even narrowed the interruption down to the telecommunications network, or to Horizon, or whatever. They haven’t bothered to say that they have repaired/replaced/upgraded the necessary hardware, if indeed it was a hardware problem, as their terminology implies. This does not display confidence that it won’t happened again.”

Computer Weekly has requested a more detailed explanation from the Post Office.

Separately, this week sees the Court of Appeal hear the cases of subpostmasters prosecuted by the Post Office for financial crimes, after the Criminal Cases Review Commission referred 47 cases of potential miscarriages of justice to it. The Post Office has already said it will not contest 44 out of 47 appeals, which means most are likely to have their names cleared, but others still face a battle for justice in the Court of Appeal.

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009

Read more on IT supplier relationship management

Data Center
Data Management