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Post Office attacked subpostmasters who questioned Horizon, say victims

When the Post Office’s lie about the Horizon system failed to silence subpostmaster critics, it took more extreme measures, say victims of the scandal

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The Post Office aggressively pursued a policy of protecting the reputation of its Horizon computing system at all costs, and subpostmasters who persistently spoke out about problems with the software believe the organisation used extreme methods to silence them.

An initial tactic of telling subpostmasters who questioned Horizon that they were the only one experiencing problems in balancing their books was the first line of defence – a lie that the Post Office went to great lengths, financially and immorally, to protect.

The Post Office Horizon scandal is well known today. The general public are now aware of the damage done to people’s lives by the Post Office as it punished its own branch owners in an attempt to protect its business at all costs.

Subpostmasters and Post Office branch workers’ lives were ruined when they were blamed for accounting shortfalls caused by computer errors, with many made bankrupt, and had to pay money to the Post Office. More than 700 were prosecuted, with some serving prison or non-custodial sentences for crimes they did not commit (see timeline below).

Computer Weekly first reported on the problems with the Fujitsu-supplied Horizon system in 2009, when it made public the stories of a group of seven subpostmasters who had suffered losses due to Horizon errors. During investigations for a decade from 2008, Computer Weekly was repeatedly told that the Horizon system was error-free and was left in little doubt that reporting otherwise could lead to legal action from the Post Office.

The Post Office did not want individual subpostmasters to reveal problems because it feared that if the truth came out, it would undermine the Horizon system. If its tactic of telling subpostmasters they were the only ones having trouble failed and subpostmasters continued to kick up a fuss, the Post Office found other ways to shut them up.

During a Horizon public inquiry hearing in Glasgow in May, a closing statement from one victim of the scandal summed up how many feel.

Mary McCrory Philip bought a Post Office branch in Fife in 2001 with her mother, Mary Logie Philip, who was subpostmistress. Her mother was suspended in 2006 after being blamed for an unexplained loss. She had paid tens of thousands of pounds of their own money to cover shortfalls over the years and died before the truth about the Horizon system’s problems was revealed and later proved.

Hired a private detective

As well as highlighting the potential problems with the Horizon system every time she suffered an unexplained loss, former policewoman Logie Philip even hired a private detective to investigate whether other subpostmasters were suffering unexplained losses. She did not believe she was alone in experiencing problems with the computer system.

Her daughter, McCrory Philip, told the Horizon scandal public inquiry: “I have come to the conclusion that my mother was targeted by the auditors, bearing in mind that we paid all the shortfalls, because she was making such a noise about the Horizon system.” She added that the Post Office was “so intent on protecting a computer system that they completely disregarded all of the human resources”. 

When the mother and daughter took over the Post Office branch, Horizon had only been around for a year or so. “Within two months, my mother had losses, and because it happened so quickly, she thought it must be her mistakes,” said McCrory Philip. “She called the helpline every time there was a loss. They would send someone out because she would insist on it. They would watch her for a day or half a day, and even watched her for two days on one occasion. They said she wasn’t doing anything wrong.” 

This went on for months. “She kept questioning the system, saying there must be something wrong with the system because on numerous occasions she would get the old paperwork out, which was still there when we took the branch over, and she would do it as a paper exercise and it was fine,” said McCrory Philip.

“She also started phoning her local Federation of Subpostmasters rep and ultimately they started talking to her like she was a thief,” she added. 

McCrory Philip said her mother didn’t go public. Every time there was a shortfall, she would question it, but she always put her own money in to cover the shortfalls. Her biggest single loss was over £2,500. They had to take out loans to pay the shortfalls. In total, they paid back about £70,000.

“In the midst of all that, we hired a private detective to go and speak to lots of subpostmasters in the area, but nobody admitted it,” said McCrory Philip. 

In 2006, her mother had a £94 shortfall and after staying up all night trying unsuccessfully to correct it, she wrote a cheque to cover the apparent shortfall. The next day, there was an early morning audit and she was told to resign. “We must have been one of the first [to complain about Horizon],” said McCrory Philip. “I think she became a total nuisance and that is the only reason she was targeted, because she paid all the money back.”  

They are not alone in believing this to be the case.

A bug in the system

Mark Kelly, a former subpostmaster in Swansea, is “100%” convinced that he was targeted by the Post Office for challenging the Horizon’s robustness when he discovered a bug in the system. 

In 2006, Kelly, who took a computer science degree at Cardiff University, was having account-balancing problems in his branch. To get to the bottom of it, he began using a system that would create a balance in parallel with the Horizon system.

He discovered that when he sold smart stamps – non-physical stamps created there and then – to a customer using a debit card, other items would double up on the till screen. It would show two items sold, whereas only one had been sold. This would leave the cash short.

Kelly told his Post Office area manager about the bug and explained it to the helpline. He also told a couple of other subpostmasters, one of whom called the helpline to report the bug.

He asked Fujitsu if it was going to warn the subpostmaster network – but he said the company said no.

Kelly made it clear to the Post Office that he wanted to alert others to the existence of the bug. His contract was terminated in July 2006, when Post Office auditors turned up and carried out an unplanned audit. They said there was a £13,000 accounting shortfall.

“Once I had contacted them with the screenshots [of the bug], they looked at anything to cancel my contract,” said Kelly. He added that he had had no problems with the Post Office before he raised concerns and believes he was targeted for persisting with his complaints about Horizon.

Former subpostmaster Michael Rudkin is certain he was singled out by the Post Office for asking difficult questions about Horizon. In August 2008, when he was chairman of the negotiating committee of the Federation of Subpostmasters, Rudkin visited a Fujitsu technology centre as part of a working group looking at how to improve bureau de change processes. During his visit, he was shown how Fujitsu staff could make changes to subpostmaster branch accounts remotely, without the subpostmasters knowing.

Vented his anger

Rudkin vented his anger over this while at the meeting, and the very next day an auditor turned up at his house and said there was a £44,000 shortfall at Rudkin’s branch in Ibstock, Leicestershire. He was suspended. Rudkin was reinstated three months later, but he said there were problems balancing the accounts and in 2009, after experiencing unexplained account shortfalls, his wife Susan, who worked at the branch, was prosecuted for theft.

She was convicted, received a 12-month suspended sentence and was ordered to carry out 300 hours of unpaid work and placed on an electronically monitored curfew for six months. She has since had this wrongful conviction overturned. The couple lost hundreds of thousands of pounds as a result of the Horizon errors and the Post Office’s actions.

“I am strongly of the opinion that I was targeted because I raised issues with Horizon,” said Rudkin. “Because of my negotiating skills, they took umbrage and needed a way of getting rid of me.”

Another who questioned Horizon early on was Alan Bates. The former subpostmaster of a Post Office branch in Craig-y-Don, north Wales, was sacked after refusing to make up shortfalls he said were nothing to do with him, and asking questions about the Horizon system. He also refused to accept that he was to blame and constantly raised concerns about the computer system.  

Bates first wrote to the Post Office alerting it to problems with Horizon in 2000. He wrote: “The balance at this on Wednesday 13 September was not only very stressful, but very worrying. The evidence that appeared that day proved beyond any doubt that the Horizon system cannot be relied on to give 100% accurate figures.” 

He refused to sign off accounts that he didn’t agree with and was sacked in 2003, with no reason given. “I think it was to set an example. Keep shtum, or else,” he said. “I have absolutely no doubt they sacked me because they didn’t like me and I kept asking questions that they refused to answer.”

The Post Office sacked Bates and gave no reason for doing so, using Section 1 Para 10 of the Subpostmaster Contract as it stood at that time.

This states: “The agreement may be determined by Post Office Counters Ltd at any time in case of breach of condition by him or non-performance of his obligation or non-provision of Post Office services, but otherwise may be determined by Post Office Counters on not less than three months’ notice.”

This means the Post Office could end a contract for no reason as long as it gave three months’ notice.

With no reason given, Bates received a letter from the Post Office which said: “In accordance with Section 1, Paragraph 10 of your Contract for Services, I am writing to issue you with three months’ notice of termination of your Contract for Services.”

A Freedom of Information request made by Bates during his campaigning in 2012 revealed that 252 subpostmasters were sacked using this clause in their contract between July 1999 and 2008.

Victory in the High Court

Bates went on to set up the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) campaign group, which in 2018 defeated the Post Office in the High Court in a multimillion-pound legal action. This proved that there were errors in the Horizon system, exposing the scandal that is today at the centre of a statutory public inquiry. As a direct consequence of this court victory, more than 80 former subpostmasters so far have had wrongful criminal convictions overturned and a public inquiry into the scandal has been established.

Lee Castleton, a former subpostmaster in Bridlington, believes he was made an example of by the Post Office after challenging its assertions that the Horizon system could not be to blame for unexplained accounting shortfalls.

Castleton was declared bankrupt after he refused to pay the Post Office £27,000 – money it said he owed because the accounts of his branch showed unexplained deficits over a 12-week period in 2004. The Post Office spent about £300,000 on legal cots to defeat Castleton in court to recover the shortfall.

Castleton never believed he was the only one having trouble balancing the Horizon system and during the time when he was suffering losses, he had been calling other subpostmasters to see if they were having problems.

“I feel I was targeted in particular because I was going out of my way to call subpostmasters to see if they were having problems balancing,” he said. “The area manager would have been visiting these subpostmasters, so I am sure they found out.” 

Since the Bates and others versus Post Office High Court trial concluded in 2019, an extensive cover-up has been revealed, which gets deeper as more of the story is aired in public. 

Conservative peer James Arbuthnot, who has campaigned for subpostmaster justice for over a decade, said he would not be surprised if the Post Office had indeed targeted subpostmasters who were making a fuss about Horizon. “It would fit into the mindset that the Post Office brand was to be protected at all costs, and that the robustness of Horizon was essential to that brand,” he said. “In fact, it would be odd if they were not targeting those they perceived as trouble-makers, even if there were no explicit evidence setting out such a strategy.

“Of course, this makes all the more reprehensible their determination to thwart fairness and justice at every step of the way. Their focus on cowing the vulnerable is now coming to light. This is precisely the sort of behaviour against which any government should be defending people – but the government owned the Post Office and oversaw its behaviour.”

Arbuthnot added: “We must hope, and I do expect, that [statutory public inquiry chair] Wyn Williams gets to the bottom of it in the public inquiry.”

A Post Office spokesperson said: “It is for the public inquiry to examine events of the past. The Post Office is openly and transparently assisting its work to provide, as far as possible, closure for those affected.”

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

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