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Remote access is the Post Office’s known unknown

Calls for criminal investigation after covert recordings are latest evidence to reveal extent of Post Office knowledge of remote access to subpostmaster accounts

The Post Office sent people to prison based on evidence from computer data that lacked integrity – and senior executives knew it.

Covert recordings revealed by Channel 4 News will increase calls for a criminal investigation into former Post Office bosses.

Since 2008, when former subpostmaster Michael Rudkin first witnessed Fujitsu staff altering Post Office branch accounts remotely, without the knowledge of subpostmasters, a time bomb has sat, ready to blow open a scandal.

Channel 4 News’ broadcasting of covert tapes of Post Office executives in discussions about remote access in 2013 is the latest explosion. It revealed recordings of conversations between forensic investigators from Second Sight and the Post Office’s former general counsel Susan Crichton and then company secretary Alwen Lyons, in which the investigators warned that remote manipulation without subpostmaster knowledge was possible.

Speaking to Computer Weekly last year, Ron Warmington, managing director of Second Sight, said he had always recorded interviews with subpostmasters and although the company had never before – or since – recorded client interviews, it decided to record Post Office conversations. He said this was when “in contrast to the clear undertakings of full openness and cooperation at the commencement of the investigation the Post Office was starting to feign a misunderstanding of our clear-cut questions, and even altered the questions being asked by us, and to obfuscate the search for the truth”.

In 2015, the Post Office CEO at the time, Paula Vennells, told MPs that remote access was not possible. In written evidence to the BIS Select Committee Inquiry that year, the Post Office stated: “There is no functionality in Horizon for either a branch, Post Office or Fujitsu to edit, manipulate or remove transaction data once it has been recorded in a branch’s accounts.”

It only admitted it was, in fact, possible when it was left with no choice during a High Court case in 2019. Like the Post Office’s continued claim to subpostmasters that the Horizon system did not cause accounting errors, its denial of remote access was designed to keep a lid on what we now know as the Post Office Horizon scandal.

It was in 2014 when Rudkin first told Computer Weekly that he had witnessed Fujitsu staff entering subpostmaster accounts remotely. It wasn’t a surprise. Enterprise software systems are designed to provide tightly controlled access to systems for things like maintenance and no IT professional would be surprised by this.

At the time, Computer Weekly could not unearth the evidence required to expose this, but over the years, the evidence has emerged, exposing the Post Office’s claim that remote access was not possible for the lie that it was.

In 2015, a BBC Panorama programme exposed remote access through former Fujitsu IT support worker and whistleblower Richard Roll, who had contacted campaigning subpostmaster Alan Bates. Roll also gave evidence about it in the High Court in 2018 when Bates and others took on the Post Office and won. Then last May, at the statutory public inquiry into the Post Office scandal, the unaudited remote access by Fujitsu staff was laid bare. When Stephen Parker, a former Post Office tech support manager at Fujitsu, faced the public inquiry, he admitted that control of Fujitsu staff remotely accessing branch systems relied on them being trustworthy and following the access policy, with no policing of their activity.

But the Post Offices first desperate act to keep remote access secret came in August 2008.  When as chairman of the negotiating committee of the Federation of Subpostmasters, Rudkin visited a Fujitsu technology centre as part of a working group, he saw this remote access first hand. During his visit, he was shown how Fujitsu staff could make changes to branch accounts remotely, without the subpostmasters knowing. 

Rudkin vented his anger over this during 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 Post Office scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered as a result of the accounting software (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal below).

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

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story

Read all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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