Post Office warned of Horizon software-induced ‘tragedy’ in 1999

Problems experienced during live trials of the Post Office Horizon system predicted the ‘tragedy’ that unfolded

The Post Office scandal public inquiry has been told that live trials of the Horizon computer system in Post Office branches in 1999 led to a warning from subpostmasters that software problems meant “a tragedy was not far away”.

Over the 15 years that followed, in what has become known as the Post Office Horizon scandal, hundreds of subpostmasters had their lives ruined after being blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls, which were actually caused by computer errors.

According to documents referred to in the latest public inquiry hearing, feedback from live trials running Horizon in 300 offices in 1999 revealed serious concerns over the software, which was causing “difficulties and trauma” for subpostmasters struggling to balance their accounts. 

The trials were being run in preparation for the Horizon system’s roll-out in 18,000 Post Office branches. If they were a success, the Post Office planned to start rolling the system out nationally in August that year. This, it said, would be built up slowly until Christmas, when a review of how it was working would be carried out. About 2,000 branches would have operational Horizon by then, before a rapid roll-out beginning in January 2000.

During questioning, former Post Office Horizon programme director David Miller was asked about a National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP) executive council meeting over two days in June 1999. That meeting’s report said: “There was general discussion on the severe difficulties being experienced by subpostmasters who are already running an automated system. Seven sheets of comments from [North East-based subpostmasters] have been passed to David Miller.

“The difficulties and trauma being experienced by some subpostmasters were giving rise to concerns for their health and emotional wellbeing. It was felt by some that a tragedy was not far away if something is not altered soon.”

The report said that subpostmasters found the software to be of poor quality and not intended to run on a large network and they wanted to know whether the NFSP would request that ICL and the Post Office review or restart with more subpostmaster-friendly software.

During the latest hearing, Tim Moloney KC, representing subpostmasters who were victims of the Horizon scandal, asked Miller: “You now know that many subpostmasters were unjustly convicted [of financial crimes] and many have had their lives ruined as a result?”

The Post Office always denied that Horizon could be to blame for unexplained accounting shortfalls, for which subpostmasters were blamed and punished. They had their lives turned upside down, with criminal prosecutions for hundreds and many more financially ruined. In 2019, a High Court case found that the computer system could cause the losses.

Between 2000 and 2013, more than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted for financial crimes and thousands more had their lives and businesses ruined as a result of being blamed for shortfalls.

Miller acknowledged this and was told by Moloney that many of the difficulties that Miller had seen in the testing of Horizon were the problems that those subpostmasters suffered before they were prosecuted.

Moloney asked whether Miller thought there was anything he could have done, given the knowledge he had, to have prevented the subpostmasters being blamed for shortfalls. Miller said he “bitterly regretted what had happened”, but said he only became aware of the problem during the 2018/19 High Court trial, when subpostmasters sued the Post Office for their losses and suffering as the result of Horizon problems.

The NFSP has also recently distanced itself from any blame for taking no action to help subpostmasters. Earlier this month, the NFSP told the public inquiry that it was unaware that there were significant  problems with the Horizon system, suggesting that it was misled. “NFSP sincerely regrets that its belief in the Post Office, the government, Fujitsu and the justice system was so misplaced,” said lawyer Catriona Watt, representing the NFSP.

She added: “Without the knowledge that, it turns out, Post Office and Fujitsu had, the NFSP was limited in what it could do and it is, of course, with hindsight, with all of the information that is now available to it, that the NFSP and others can look and say, ‘Well, why did we not know this?’”  

In fact, the NFSP continued to defend the Post Office’s position, rather than challenging it on behalf of its members. During a Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee meeting in 2015, Alan Bates, founder of the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA) pressure group, which was set up to campaign for the subpostmasters affected, criticised former NFSP general secretary George Thomson for siding with the Post Office over the Horizon problems.

Thomson refuted this, saying: “I will kick the Post Office up the backside when it does something wrong, but on Horizon it has done nothing wrong.”

Computer Weekly first reported on problems with the Horizon system in 2009, when it made public the stories of a group of subpostmasters (see timeline of articles below).

Read all Computer Weekly’s articles about the scandal since 2009

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