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More than 1,000 subpostmasters could have used second faulty Post Office system

More than 1,000 subpostmasters could have used a previous faulty computer system in their branches as more people come forward with information following Post Office scandal TV drama

More than 1,000 subposmasters could have used the Post Office’s Capture software, as more details emerge about how they were blamed for unexplained shortfalls on the system.

Following the recent ITV drama about the Post Office Horizon scandal, a growing number of former subpostmasters and former Post Office employees are coming forward with stories of problems they had with the Capture software, which pre-dated the controversial Horizon system.

Described by users as a “glorified spreadsheet”, Capture was a standalone software used to computerise accounting in branches.

According to one source, IT supplier Unisys provided hardware with the Capture software pre-installed, but the IT firm was not involved in the development of the software.

Unisys has not responded to multiple requests for information, but a source told Computer Weekly that from 1994 the number of systems shipped by Unisys was “in the high hundreds, if not over 1,000”. The software was introduced in 1992, so the system could have been more widely used.

The source said that Unisys ran a proof of concept of software which didn’t work, missing out on the contract as a result, and added that the Capture software was likely developed at  a Post Office centre known as iTFarnborough.

Subpostmasters were blamed for unexplained shortfalls that occurred when using the Capture software, which the Post Office knew the system was flawed. It still blamed and even prosecuted subpostmasters when auditors found unexplained accounting shortfalls.

Stories have emerged now that the Post Office Horizon scandal is in the public eye. Steve Marston, a former subpostmaster in Bury, Lancashire, was prosecuted in 1996 for theft and false accounting following an unexplained shortfall of nearly £80,000. He said he had never had any problems using the paper-based accounting system until his branch, which ran from 1973, began using the Capture system.

“We were pushed into using it by the Post Office in 1996,” he said, describing it as a standalone system that required subpostmasters to buy their own computers to run the software. Marston added that he felt pressured into using the system at a time when many branches were being closed by the Post Office.

Computer Weekly has repeatedly asked the Post Office for more details about the Capture system, including who developed the software, how many branches it was used in and how many people were prosecuted using its data as evidence. The Post Office has not answered these questions, but a spokesperson said: “We take very seriously any concerns raised about cases from before the Horizon system was first rolled out in 1999. We are investigating, including specific cases brought to our attention, and will transparently publish our findings.”

A Branch Focus newsletter – which gave weekly updates for subpostmasters - revealed in September 1995 that subpostmasters were experiencing problems with the software. The newsletter read: “We were aware that, as new software, there would inevitably be faults in the programme.”

Rupert Lloyd Thomas, an IT expert who worked at the Post Office for 27 years, said that if the high hundreds, or even more than 1,000, PCs with Capture installed were sent to subpostmasters by Unisys from 1995, it could have been much more widely used.

“It was introduced three years earlier and the software could also be bought separately and installed on a home PC,” he added. “The total number of subpostmasters using Capture must have been north of 1,000.”

He said he wants to find a copy of the software so it can be investigated: “Somewhere out there is a floppy disk sitting in somebody’s cupboard with Capture on it, because it would reveal who the publisher was. It is important we get to the bottom of this because the people affected are older.”

Kevan Jones MP, said: “The Post Office and Unisys should come forward about what they know about the Capture system and its roll out. The figures suggest that there could be at least 1,000 people who had losses related to Capture.”

Computer Weekly first exposed the scandal in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered as a result of the Horizon system (see below timeline of all articles since 2009).

Neil Hudgell, solicitor at Hudgell solicitors, which represents many subpostmasters, said there is no reason to doubt that the Post Office’s approach to unexplained losses was any different to how it dealt with subpostmasters that suffered them when using Horizon, which included terminating their employment, forcing them to repay huge sums and prosecuting hundreds.

“As time passes, we are becoming more concerned with events that unfolded before Horizon’s introduction in 2000. For a long time we assumed that problems with the IT system were time limited from that period,” said Hudgell. “This is clearly not the case and we are being contacted by more and more people with potential wrongful prosecutions or loss of office from before Horizon. We are also being contacted by people within Post Office or other interested parties providing us with intelligence.”

The Post Office would not answer specific questions about Capture but directed Computer Weekly to a statement on its website.

The statement reads: “We take very seriously any concerns raised about cases from before the Horizon system was first rolled out in 1999. Our current understanding is that Capture does not appear to have been ‘networked’, but the software was used by some subpostmasters, alongside manual processes, for simplifying accounts before they were manually submitted.

“We are particularly concerned about allegations of prosecutions, and we are looking into this along with all available facts about Capture, including whether shortfalls could have been caused by faults in this software, and the potential impacts if so.

“Given the passage of time, around 30 years ago, and changes to data storage systems since the split from Royal Mail, we do not yet have a complete picture of Capture but are looking into the issue given the concerns raised."

Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal

Watch: ITV’s Post Office scandal documentary, Mr Bates vs the Post Office: The real story

Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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