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Subpostmaster federation deliberately kept public in dark over computer problems

The federation representing subpostmasters deliberately suppressed information about computer errors that could have saved its members from devastating life-changing events

The National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP) deliberately kept stories of Horizon errors quiet because it “did not want to kill the project”.

The NFSP, a membership organisation representing subpostmasters, even proposed to propagate positive news about the accounting system to hide the problems experienced during its roll-out.

During a Horizon scandal statutory public inquiry hearing, Colin Baker, former NFSP general secretary, said project sponsors didn’t want the public to know about the problems with the software. “The public... didn’t know, and we didn’t want them to know it was perilous and threatened. We wanted them to think it was fine,” he told the hearing.

The Horizon accounting system was rolled out in 1999-2000 to replace manual accounting practices at about 19,000 Post Office branches. However, errors in the system caused unexplained losses for subpostmasters, for which they were blamed and punished, with many forced to pay back shortfalls and 736 prosecuted for financial crimes.

During the statutory public inquiry into the scandal, Baker was asked whether, around the year 2000, he told members not to criticise the Horizon system. Baker told the inquiry that although he could not remember the date, he had “certainly said be careful what you say about Horizon outside because we don’t want to kill it, we want it to happen, but we want it to be right”.

“Having got the system, we needed to make it work,” Baker told the inquiry. He said the NFSP was arguing with the Post Office and “anybody that would listen” about the faults and problems, but it still wanted the project to happen.

Baker said he had no choice but to believe Post Office claims that Horizon was infallible and always right because “they were the masters of it all” and “you tend to believe them because that is what you want to hear”.

During the inquiry, minutes from a Horizon working group revealed that the then Department of Trade and Industry minister, Ian McCartney, had said speculation in the press about the future of the Post Office network was not helpful background. “[Colin] Baker said the [working group] should have a role in disseminating good news stories to counter the scaremongering,” the minutes said.

Baker said negative press was putting the project at risk. “Computer Weekly, or something like that, was saying the system was buggered,” he said.

Inquiry barrister Ruth Kennedy put it to Baker that despite the federation’s knowledge of the problems its members were having with the Horizon system, it was proposing going forward to speak to the press about how positive it was.

“The dilemma we had is that we wanted it to be a success, we wanted this to happen because without it we were dead in the water. But we also wanted it to be right,” said Baker.

One of the methods used by the Post Office to keep secret the problems it was experiencing with Horizon was to tell those subpostmasters who reported problems that they were the only ones experiencing errors.

It was only in 2009, when Computer Weekly reported on the problems, that subpostmasters realised they were not alone and began their fight for justice through the Justice for Subpostmasters campaign group set up by former subpostmaster Alan Bates. The Post Office continually told Computer weekly from 2008 that there were no errors in the Horizon system that could cause unexplained shortfalls.

The JFSA took the Post Office to the High Court in 2018 and proved that Horizon errors were causing losses. That judgment has since led to more than 80 former subpostmasters having wrongful criminal convictions overturned.

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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