Post Office bosses misled subpostmasters a day before IT project problems were exposed

Subpostmasters were reassured by Post Office executives that the Horizon replacement project was satisfactory the day before Computer Weekly reported news to the contrary

The Post Office’s most senior executives misled subpostmasters over progress on its IT project to replace the controversial Horizon system a day before Computer Weekly revealed the project required £1bn funding and had been labelled “unachievable” by government auditors.

The Post Office’s claims that it has been working closely with the people who run its branches have been called into question after subpostmasters revealed they had learned of the problems from Computer Weekly.

In a meeting of Post Office senior executives, attended by CEO Nick Read, IT bosses told subpostmaster representatives that the Post Office was satisfied with the progress of the Horizon system replacement project despite it and the government being fully aware of serious problems with the project. The subpostmasters, who invest their own money in their businesses, only heard about the problems from Computer Weekly.

In the meeting on 29 May – a day before Computer Weekly’s report – Post Office bosses were asked by subpostmaster representatives for a progress update on the New Branch IT (NBIT) project, which is replacing Fujitsu’s controversial Horizon software in Post Office branches. Calum Greenhow, CEO of the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP), and Sara Barlow, secretary at The Voice of the Postmaster group of 1,000 branch owners, met with Read, his deputy CEO Owen Woodley, chief technology officer Chris Brocklesby and chief people officer Karen McEwan.

Greenhow told Computer Weekly: “We were given the wrong impression [from Brocklesby] about NBIT’s progress, and that it was going to be okay.” He said he was shocked a day later to read Computer Weekly’s exposé of the failing project.

“It’s disappointing from our perspective that we went into a meeting in good faith and the most senior individuals within the Post Office are still keeping subpostmasters in the dark,” said Greenhow, adding that the Post Office had admitted the project hadn’t gone as smoothly as it hoped but that it was on the “right trajectory”.

Just one day after Greenhow and Barlow were reassured about the project’s progress, Computer Weekly revealed the truth – that it is running late, over budget and lacking quality, and that government auditors have been sent in to assess a request for £1bn funding as it has been “red flagged” as currently “unachievable”.

Computer Weekly also revealed that, despite the Horizon scandal’s association with Fujitsu, the Post Office wants to extend its current project with the IT supplier for another five years, at a cost of about £180m.

The Voice of the Postmasters’ Barlow said: “The director of NBIT [CTO Chris Brocklesby] did make us believe that all was well with the new system and that it was being tested, although we were given the impression it will take time. We never got the impression the development was in the state as suggested in the Computer Weekly article.

“We are beyond disappointed as a group and fearful as business investors that mistakes of the past could happen again. We want to be seen as partners, but articles like this are showing us to be another tick-box exercise.”

Mark Baker, former Communications Workers Union postmaster branch secretary, told Computer Weekly: “Subpostmasters who invest in branches shouldn’t be finding out about problems like this from journalists. When we asked the Post Office about NBIT, we were told it was all tickety-boo. Internal briefings from the Post Office say NBIT is on course and going well.”

A Post Office spokesperson said: “We are acutely aware that we will be introducing a new system across the biggest retail network in Europe and ensuring subpostmasters are kept fully informed is crucial. We have around 250 volunteers in our working group who have helped inform our initial design of the new IT system and we’re currently showcasing the system directly to postmasters in their local region.

“It’s of paramount importance to us that we also ensure groups that represent subpostmasters, whether that’s formally or not, are kept up-to-date with the replacement for Horizon. We were pleased to have a stand at the recent NFSP conference to showcase the new system and will do the same at our annual conference for postmasters on 18 June, where they will be able to ask questions of our senior leadership team.”

Referring to the disastrous Horizon system, NFSP’s Greenhow said “history could be repeating itself”, adding that it is not just the Post Office that is to blame, but also the government and civil services. “This is the piece I am most concerned about, because that’s the bit which, in essence, treats subpostmasters and their investments as if it is theirs to do with as they want,” he said.

“The report that Computer Weekly reported was commissioned by the government but nobody had said anything to the representatives of subpostmasters,” said Greenhow, adding there is still a “culture of misdirection at the very top of the Post Office”.

Alan Bates, chairman of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, who fronted the battle against the Post Office over two decades, said it was “the same old Post Office” and things need to change. “The government needs to ask for expressions of interest from a large commercial organisation. It has huge potential, but not in the hands of the current owners,” he added.

The Post Office scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to 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

Timeline: Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

Read more on IT for retail and logistics

Data Center
Data Management