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Despite “all its faults”, the Post Office would “incure considerable risk” if it replaced the Horizon computer system that thousands of subpostmasters use to run their businesses, according to the chairman of the Post Office.
According to an article in the latest edition of Sub Postmaster, the official journal of the National Federation of Subpostmasters, when addressing concerns over the system voiced by subpostmasters and calls for a replacement system, Post Office chairman Tim Parker said Horizon is not a bad system and replacing it would bring considerable risks.
According to the journal, he said: “I’ve been involved in some major IT transformation projects, and the amount of cock-ups, delays and problems we came across don’t bear thinking about.
“I think that, for all its faults, Horizon is not a bad system at all and we’d incur considerable risks if we looked to replace it.”
The Horizon computer system is at the centre of a long dispute between the Post Office and subposmasters.
In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the stories of subpostmasters who had received heavy fines and even jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they blamed on the Horizon accounting system. The Post Office denies these claims.
Thousands of Post Offices use the IT system, developed by ICL/Fujitsu Services, for their accounts.
There is currently a group action against the Post Office where subpostmasters – supported by The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JSFA) – seek justice and compensation for what they claim are wrongful prosecutions and fines.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission is also reviewing prosecutions for account shortfalls, which subpostmasters blamed on Horizon.
In response to previous Computer Weekly articles, the Post Office said: “It remains the case that more than three years of investigations have not identified any transaction caused by a technical fault in Horizon, which resulted in a postmaster wrongly being held responsible for a loss.”
As recently as May 2016, the Post Office apologised to subpostmasters when branches all over the UK were unable to operate for an hour and a half on 9 May 2016. This was the result of a problem with the Horizon computer system. Problems such as this can cause account shortfalls, according to campaigners.
For example, in November 2015, the Communication Workers Union subpostmasters branch CWU said in a case documented by investigators that a core branch transferred cash to an outreach branch and Horizon reduced the accounts of the core by the amount transferred.
The outreach branch transferred in the amount sent and Horizon accepted the correct amount. However, Horizon did this four times, causing a loss of three times the actual amount sent. The discrepancy was for money that did not exist.
In relation to this, Post Office IT support sent an email to a member of the postmasters’ branch of the CWU revealing the flaw. The email said Post Office IT support planned to fix the glitch “with a code change”.
Reports into Horizon dispute
The Horizon dispute has moved beyond the computer system itself and is more about how The Post Office dealt with the claims of subpostmasters that the losses they incurred were down to the system rather than misaccounting or theft.
An independent report into the Horizon system and individual subpostmaster cases by forensic investigation company Second Sight, which was commissioned by the Post Office and published in April 2015, said the Post Office was too quick to go to court in some cases of subpostmaster account shortfalls.
“As a result of our investigations, we have established that Post Office’s investigators have, in many cases, failed to identify the underlying root cause of shortfalls prior to the initiation of civil recovery action or criminal proceedings,” said Second Sight.
But in its own 83-page report, the Post Office said the Second Sight findings were wrong.
Alan Bates, who set up the Justice for subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) pressure group, said: “This case is about the failure of the Post Office to identify the problems with the system and the fact that they held subpostmasters responsible for shortfalls.”
He also claimed the Post Office has “failed to invest in the system to make life easier for subpostmasters”.
Post Office Horizon: Timeline of events
- May 2009: Bankruptcy, prosecution and disrupted livelihoods – postmasters tell their story.
- September 2009: Postmasters form action group after accounts shortfall.
- November 2009: Post Office theft case deferred over IT questions.
- February 2011: Post Office faces legal action over alleged accounting system failures.
- October 2011: 85 subpostmasters seek legal support in claims against Post Office computer system.
- June 2012: Post Office launches external review of system at centre of legal disputes.
- January 2013: Post Office admits that Horizon system needs more investigation.
- January 2013: Post Office announces amnesty for Horizon evidence.
- January 2013: Post Office wants to get to bottom of IT system allegations.
- June 2013: Investigation into Post Office accounting system to drill down on strongest cases.
- July 2013: Post Office Horizon system investigation reveals concerns.
- October 2013: End in sight for subpostmaster claims against Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.
- October 2013: Former Lord Justice of Appeal Hooper joins Post Office Horizon investigation.
- November 2013: 150 subpostmasters file claims over ‘faulty’ Horizon accounting system.
- September 2014: Fresh questions raised over Post Office IT system’s role in fraud cases.
- December 2014: Members of Parliament (MPs) blast Post Office over IT system investigation and remove backing.
- December 2014: Why MPs lost faith in the Post Office’s IT investigation, but vowed to fight on.
- December 2014: MPs to debate subpostmaster IT injustice claims.
- December 2014: MP accuses Post Office of acting “duplicitously” in IT investigation.
- January 2015: MPs force inquiry into Post Office subpostmaster mediation scheme.
- January 2015: Post Office faces grilling by MPs over Horizon accounting system.
- February 2015: Post Office CIO would talk to any subpostmaster about IT problems, promises CEO.
- March 2015: Post Office ends working group for IT system investigation day before potentially damaging report.
- March 2015: MPs seek reassurance over Post Office mediation scheme.
- March 2015: Retiring MP aims to uncover truth of alleged Post Office computer system problems.
- April 2015: Post Office failed to investigate account shortfalls before legal action, report claims.
- April 2015: Criminal Courts Review Commission set to review subpostmasters’ claims of wrongful prosecution.
- May 2015: IT system related to subpostmaster prosecutions under review by CCRC.
- June 2015: Post Office looking to replace controversial Horizon system with IBM, says MP.
- July 2015: Campaigners call for independent inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT system dispute.
- October 2015: James Arbuthnot takes Post Office IT fight to House of Lords.
- November 2015: The union that represents Post Office subpostmasters has warned of a problem with the Horizon accounting system.
- November 2015: An email from Post Office IT support reveals a problem with the Horizon system and supporting processes that could lead to accounting errors.
- November 2015: Group litigation against Post Office being prepared in Horizon dispute.
- February 2016: Post Office faces group litigation over Horizon IT as subpostmasters fund class action.
- May 2016: The Post Office computer system failed on 9 May 2016, leaving subpostmasters unable to open branches.