Karl Flinders

Mystery Post Office software developer revealed in 1995 Horizon project document

Capture software was used by about 2,000 subpostmasters in the 1990s, with allegations that errors in the software caused account shortfalls

As former subpostmasters await answers from a government-backed investigation into the Post Office Capture software system, a 27-year-old Horizon project document answers a critical question.

Since the airing of ITV’s drama about the long-running Post Office Horizon scandal, former subpostmasters who had suffered similar problems with the Capture software that pre-dated Horizon have come forward.

Questions have been asked by politicians and the former Capture users themselves, but it has so far been unclear which organisation developed the software, with the Post Office unable to identify the developer, blaming the passage of time.

Computer Weekly has previously revealed that IT supplier Unisys pre-installed the software on hardware for users, but can now reveal that the IT supplier also wrote the software.

Following a government tender notice in 1994, a Horizon project statement of service requirements (SSR) was issued to shortlisted companies. It described the functional requirements of the project, such as migrating from existing automated systems, including the Capture software.

“The Post Office currently operates a range of automated services which need to be taken into consideration by service providers,” the SSR document stated.

Within the document, there is a section dedicated to Capture (Appendix 3-4). Under the heading Intellectual Property Rights, it stated: “The application has been developed for the Post Office by Unisys Ltd using their own 4GL development application (generic postal architecture). The intellectual property rights in the development tool reside with Unisys, but the Capture application itself is ‘owned’ by the Post Office.”

The Capture system was introduced in 1992. Described as a glorified spreadsheet, it enabled subpostmasters to automate accounting. Unlike the Horizon system, it was not a complex core system rolled out across the Post Office branch network, but standalone software on an individual user’s computer.

The SSR document from 1995 explained: “Capture is a back office, not an EPOS, system and data is not captured in real time.” At the time the SSR was created, in March 1995, about 1,600 Post Office branches were using Capture. That number was forecast to rise to 2,000 by March the following year.

The software had been completely rewritten in 1994 following “significant investment”, according to an August 1994 letter seen by Computer Weekly. In the letter – from Tom Coleman, the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP) account manager at the Post Office Agency Development Centre at the time – a rewrite of the software was revealed to NFSP assistant general secretary Kevin Davis.

Computer Weekly contacted Unisys, which said it has been unable in its investigations to find any link to a role in developing the Capture software. There is no suggestion that Unisys played any role in sanctioning and prosecuting subpostmasters.

The Capture software did suffer from errors, and after the Post Office Horizon scandal hit the headlines, former users of the pre-Horizon system, who were blamed for accounting shortfalls and even prosecutions in the 1990s, came forward.

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 he ran from 1973, began using the Capture system.

Steve Lewis was a subpostmaster and Capture user in South Wales. He had worked for the Post Office since 1983, originally as a counter clerk, and was a Post Office auditor for a number of years.

When he suffered unexplained losses using Capture, he was told by the Post Office that his was an isolated case. He lost his business, had to sell his home and suffered mental health issues, with related relationship troubles.

The Post Office has claimed the passage of time and changes to data storage systems since it separated from Royal Mail Group mean it does not have a complete picture of the Capture system.

The Post Office did run a Capture helpdesk. The SSR document stated: “The Post Office operates a central helpdesk facility, located at Farnborough, which provides the first line of support to outlets for all education, hardware and software problems.”

The document also revealed that Capture users were given one-day, on-site training provided by a fully trained agency trainer, comprising “installation of the hardware and software, basic training in the use of a PC and intensive training on the functions of the program itself”.

In February this year, after being questioned by Computer Weekly, Unisys said it would carry out an internal investigation of its role in the Capture system’s development. Following its completion in April, the IT firm said it had revealed no evidence that it developed the software. A company spokesperson said at the time: “Our review, which has now concluded, has not uncovered any evidence that Unisys was involved in the development of the Capture software at issue.”

Due to the lack of information, subpostmasters and their supporters, such as Kevan Jones, the Labour MP for North Durham, who recently stepped down from Parliament, have pressured the government to find out more about Capture. 

Jones has been campaigning for Horizon victims for over a decade, and more recently, has helped Capture users get answers.

He said the fact that it has taken time to simply reveal the supplier of Capture is a reflection of the entire Horizon scandal. “Everything to do with Horizon, and now Capture, has only been revealed by dragging the Post Office kicking and screaming.”

Jones added that Unisys has questions to answer about its role. A Unisys spokesperson told Computer Weekly that it will review the SSR document before commenting.

The government recently announced it is bringing in specialist investigators, Kroll, to examine whether the Capture system may have also led to subpostmasters being wrongly prosecuted.

A Post Office spokesperson said: “The Department for Business commissioned Kroll, so we await news on what they find out/establish. We don’t have any further statement.”

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

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