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Post Office board ‘appalling’ and ‘short-sighted’, said minister researching Horizon project in 2000

A government minister investigating the controversial Horizon IT project in 2000 described the Post Office board of directors as ‘appalling, short-sighted and partisan’

A government minister researching the Horizon project in 2000 said that, given the choice, he would have sacked the entire Post Office board.

The Horizon project saw the Post Office branch network computerised, but the system led to subpostmasters being wrongly blamed and even imprisoned because of unexplained accounting shortfalls that were actually caused by software errors.

Frank Field, then minister for welfare reform, described the Post Office board members as “appalling people” who were “short-sighted and partisan”.

At the time, Field was investigating the project to roll out the Horizon IT system from ICL in Post Office branches across the country.

Field said in Parliament: “I have a tale to tell about the state of the [Horizon] project that I inherited. I did not merely talk to colleagues and read the papers; I visited the project partners. Had it been my responsibility to do so, I would have sacked the members of the Post Office board, who were appalling people. They were short-sighted and partisan.”

Field added that Post Office board members were genuinely unwilling to enter into a discussion about how to secure the long-term future of sub-post offices. “They thought themselves smart; they thought themselves clever,” he said. “They doubtless accepted their fine salaries, but I doubt whether they served post offices or sub-post offices well, and I am disappointed that many of them are still in post today. Perhaps someone else will deal with them.”

The scandal that followed the roll-out of the Horizon system saw thousands of subpostmasters blamed for accounting shortfalls that were caused by errors in the Horizon computer system they use in branches. More than 750 were prosecuted, with many serving custodial sentences. Many more lives were destroyed through bankruptcy after paying back unexplained shortfalls and others were sacked. It has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in British history.

In 2009, Computer Weekly told the stories of seven subpostmasters affected by the problems, which led to many more who had suffered losses coming forward (see timeline below for Computer Weekly’s coverage of the scandal)

Subpostmasters won a High Court case against the Post Office in 2019, proving that the Horizon computer system was to blame. Since then, 63 former subpostmasters who had been prosecuted for financial crimes have had their convictions quashed, with many more expected to follow.

The Post Office board was rebuked by Ron Warmington of Second Sight after he investigated reported problems with Horizon for the Post Office. He said in 2019: “If the Post Office board had believed, and acted on, what Second Sight reported instead of being led by the nose by its own middle management and in-house and external legal advisers, huge amounts of money and human suffering would have been avoided.”

No Post Office executive has been held responsible for the failings and campaigners are demanding answers from former Post Office executives and civil servants. 

There is currently a statutory public inquiry into the scandal, which will have its first public hearing on 8 November. Follow it live here on the inquiry YouTube channel.

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

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