Karl Flinders

Post Office Capture software training deficit echoes systemic Horizon problems

Post Office branch managers have told Computer Weekly they had no training on how to use Capture software, which pre-dated Horizon

Subpostmasters used pre-Horizon Capture software without any training from the Post Office, a failing that mirrors one of the causes of the Post Office Horizon scandal.

Despite a Post Office document from 1995 outlining the training users received, former subpostmasters, who encountered serious problems with Capture, have come forward revealing they had no training.

One of the major problems with the controversial Horizon system, which is at the centre of the widest miscarriage of justice in UK history, was the lack of adequate training on using the system.

After ITV’s drama about the long-running Post Office Horizon scandal aired in January, former Post Office branch managers came forward to reveal they had suffered similar problems with Capture, which pre-dated the controversial Horizon system. Capture was a back office system used in Post Office branches.

Last week, Computer Weekly revealed a document containing a technical description of Capture, which included details of the training subpostmasters received. Former users have since come forward and said they were given no such training.

The document, a Horizon project statement of service requirements (SSR), was issued to shortlisted companies with a government tender notice from 1995. It described, in Appendix 3-4, the functional requirements of the project, such as migrating from existing automated systems, including the Capture software.

The document stated that one-day, on-site training had been provided to each new user of the system: “The training is provided by a fully trained agency trainer and comprises installation of the hardware and software, basic training in the use of a PC and intensive training on the functions of the program itself.”

But Steve Marston, a former subpostmaster who used Capture software for a year, said the section about training provision “is a joke”.

After he purchased Capture, he said: “I received absolutely no training. I got the floppy disks through the post, instructions how to download, and that was it.”

Marston bought his own PC because the one offered by the Post Office didn’t fit in his branch. He then downloaded the Capture software himself and then just “muddled through” with the software for the next 12 months.

But Marston, who ran a branch in Bury, Lancashire, encountered serious problems, with the software showing huge defects in his branch accounts, which he could not explain.

He was prosecuted in 1998 for theft and false accounting following an unexplained shortfall of nearly £80,000. He had never had any problems using the paper-based accounting system he’d used since 1973.

He said that he felt pressured into using the Capture system at a time when many branches were being closed by the Post Office.

Marston didn’t inform the Post Office because he thought he was making mistakes and that it would correct itself. He was not experienced with computers and believed they could not make errors.

After an audit revealed a loss he couldn’t fully cover out of his own pocket, he was advised to plead guilty of theft and fraud to avoid jail. The judge took into account two bravery awards Marston had previously received for standing up to armed robbers, which saved him from a jail sentence. He received a 12-month suspended sentence, lost his home and business, and went bankrupt.

There are parallels with the problems experienced by Horizon users, whereby software bugs caused unexplained shortfalls and many subpostmasters struggled to use the system.

This was highlighted by forensic accountants Second Sight when, in 2013, they produced a landmark independent interim report on the Horizon system, amid claims from subpostmasters that the software was causing the unexplained shortfalls they were being blamed for.

As well as revealing the existence of software bugs, the Second Sight report said there was an absence of “proper” system training and support. Its interim report exposed Post Office claims that the software was robust and bug-free to be false, and was a major moment in the unravelling of the Horizon scandal.

Independent consultant and IT expert James Christie recently explained in an opinion piece for Computer Weekly that one of the systemic factors in things going wrong with software systems “might be inadequate user training”.

He wrote that when Second Sight was commissioned in 2012 to investigate Horizon for systemic defects, it clarified that “this meant the standard dictionary definition, i.e. defects relating to all aspects of the wider system, including operational processes and training”.

Marston was not alone in receiving no training. Computer weekly has been approached by other Capture users who also claim they received no training on using the software.

Sandi Broklehurst, who is now in her eighties, used Capture in her branch during the 1990s. She does not recall any formal training: “I think my line manager showed me some basics, and I was left to work it out for myself. It certainly wasn’t a day of training with a specialist trainer.” 

Another subpostmaster, who wished to remain anonymous, ran branches in Wales throughout the 1990s. “I didn’t receive any training at all,” he said. “We just had to try to get on with it ourselves, bearing in mind it was 30 years ago and computer awareness at that time was negligible for most people.”

The technical detail and training provision of the Capture system will come under the spotlight following the appointment of specialist investigators Kroll to examine whether Capture may have caused subpostmasters to be wrongly prosecuted or sanctioned for unexplained accounting shortfalls.

At the time the SSR document was created, in March 1995, it said about 1,600 Post Office branches were using Capture. That number was forecast to rise to 2,000 by March the following year.

The Post Office had not responded to a request for comment when this article was published. Last week, when Computer Weekly asked the Post Office for comment on Capture’s development, Post Office spokesperson said: “The Department for Business commissioned Kroll [to investigate Capture], 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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