Another NPfIT IT scandal in the making?

By Tony Collins

Jeremy Hunt may have forgotten what he told the FT 2013, as reported in the paper on 2 June 2o13.

Referring to the failed National Programme for IT [NPfIT] in the NHS he said at that time,

“It was a huge disaster . . . It was a project that was so huge in its conception but it got more and more specified and over-specified and in the end became impossible to deliver, but we musn’t let that blind us to the opportunities of technology and I think one of my jobs as health secretary is to say, look, we must learn from that and move on but we must not be scared of technology as a result.”

He added, “I’m not signing any big contracts from behind [my] desk; I am encouraging hospitals and clinical commissioning groups and GP practices to make their own investments in technology at the grassroots level.”

Now the Department of Health (and perhaps some large IT suppliers) have encouraged Hunt to find £4bn for spending on technology that is (again) of questionable immediate need.

Says Computing, “A significant part of the paperless NHS plans will involve enabling patients to book services and order prescriptions online, as well as giving them the choice of speaking to their doctor online or via a video link.”

The £4bn, if that’s what it will cost, is much less than the cost of the NPfIT. But are millions to be wasted again?

[NPfIT was originally due to cost £2.3bn over three years from 2003 but is expected to cost £9.8bn over 21 years, to 2024.]

Yesterday (8 February 2016) the Department of Health announced a “review of information technology in the NHS”. Announcing it Hunt said.

“Improving the standard of care patients receive even further means embracing technology and moving towards a fully digital and paperless NHS.

NHS staff do incredible work every day and we must give them and patients the most up-to-date technology – this review will tell us where we need to go further.”

The NPfIT was supposed to give the NHS up-to-date technology – but is that what’s needed?

A more immediate need is for any new millions of central funding (for the cost would be in the tens of millions, not billions) to be spent on the seemingly mundane objective of getting existing systems to talk to each other, so that patients can be treated in different parts of the NHS and have their electronic records go with them.

This doesn’t need a new national programme for IT. Some technologists working in the NHS say it would cost no more than £150m, a small sum by NHS IT standards, to allow patient data to reside where it is but be accessed by secure links anywhere, much as secure links work on the web.

But the review’s terms of reference make only a passing reference to the need for interoperability.

Instead the review will have terms of reference that are arguably vague – just as the objectives for the NPfIT were.

The Department of Health has asked the review board, when making recommendations, to consider the following points:

  • The experiences of clinicians and Trust leadership teams in the planning, implementation and adoption of digital systems and standards;
  • The current capacity and capability of Trusts in understanding and commissioning of health IT systems and workflow/process changes.
  • The current experiences of a number of Trusts using different systems and at different points in the adoption lifecycle;
  • The impact and potential of digital systems on clinical workflows and on the relationship between patients and their clinicians and carers.

The head of the review board Professor Wachter will report his recommendations to the secretary of state for health and the National Information Board in June 2016.

Members of the National Advisory Group on health IT in England (the review board) are:

  • Robert Wachter, MD, (Chair) Professor and Interim Chairman, Department of Medicine,University of California, San Francisco
  • Julia Adler-Milstein, PhD, Associate Professor, Schools of Information and of Public Health, University of Michigan
  • David Brailer, MD, PhD, CEO, Health Evolution Partners (current); First U.S. National Coordinator for Health IT (2004-6)
  • Sir David Dalton, CEO, Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust, UK
  • Dave deBronkart, Patient Advocate, known as “e-Patient Dave”
  • Mary Dixon-Woods, MSc, DPhil, Professor of Medical Sociology, University of Leicester, UK
  • Rollin (Terry) Fairbanks, MD, MS, Director, National Center for Human Factors in Healthcare; Emergency Physician, MedStar Health (U.S.)
  • John Halamka, MD, MS, Chief Information Officer, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; Professor, Harvard Medical School
  • Crispin Hebron, Learning Disability Consultant Nurse, NHS Gloucestershire
  • Tim Kelsey, Advisor to UK Government on Health IT
  • Richard Lilford, PhD, MB, Director, Centre for Applied Health Research and Delivery, University of Warwick, UK
  • Christian Nohr, MSc, PhD, Professor, Aalborg University (Denmark)
  • Aziz Sheikh, MD, MSc, Professor of Primary Care Research and Development, University of Edinburgh
  • Christine Sinsky, MD, Vice-President of Professional Satisfaction, AMA; Primary care internist, Dubuque, Iowa
  • Ann Slee, MSc, MRPharmS, ePrescribing Lead for Integrated Digital Care Record and Digital Medicines Strategy, NHS England
  • Lynda Thomas, CEO, MacMillan Cancer Support, UK
  • Wai Keong Wong, MD, PhD, Consultant Haematologist, University College London Hospitals; Inaugural chair, CCIO Leaders Network Advisory Panel
  • Harpreet Sood, MBBS, MPH, Senior Fellow to the Chair and CEO, NHS England and GP Trainee

Comment

Perhaps egged on by one or two major suppliers in behind-the-scenes lobbying, Hunt has apparently found billions to spend on improving NHS IT.

Nobody doubts that NHS IT needs improving.  But nearly all GPs have impressive systems, as do many hospitals.  But the systems don’t talk to each other.

The missing word  from the review board’s terms of reference is interoperability. True, it’s difficult to achieve. And it’s not politically aggrandizing to find money for making existing systems interoperable.

But at present you can have a blood test at the GP, then a separate blood test at the local hospital and the full results won’t go on your electronic record because the GP and hospital are on different systems with no interoperability between them.

If you’re treated at a specialist hospital for one ailment, and at a different hospital 10 to 20 (or say 100) miles away for something else, it may take weeks for your electronic record to reflect your latest treatment.

Separate NHS sites don’t always know what each other is doing to a patient, unless information is faxed or posted between them.

The fax is still one of the NHS’s main modes of cross-county communication. The DoH wants to be rid of the fax machine but it’s indispensable to the smooth running of the NHS, largely because new and existing systems don’t talk to each other.

The trouble with interoperability – apart from the ugliness of the word – is that it is an unattractive concept to some of the major suppliers, and to DoH executives, because it’s cheap, not leading edge and may involve agreements on data sharing.

Getting agreements on anything is not the DoH’s forte. [Unless it’s an agreement to spend more money on new technology, for the sake of having up-to-date technology.]

Last year I broke my ankle in Sussex and went to stay in the West Midlands at a house with a large ground floor and no need to use stairs. There was no communication between my local GP and the NHS in the West Midlands other than  by phone, post or fax, and even then only a summary of healthcare information went on my electronic record.

I had to carry my x-rays on a CD. Then doctors at my local orthopaedic department in Sussex found it difficult to see the PACS images because the hospital’s PCs didn’t have CD players.

A government employee told me this week of a hospital that gave medication to a patient in the hope she would not have an adverse reaction. The hospital did not have access to the patient’s GP records, and the patient was unsure of the name of the medication she’d previously had an allergic reaction to.

Much of the feedback I have had from those who have enjoyed NHS services is that their care and treatment has been impeded by their electronic records not moving with them across different NHS sites.

Mark Leaning, visiting professor, at University College, London, in a paper for health software supplier EMIS, says the NHS is “not doing very well when it comes to delivering a truly connected health system in 2016. That’s bad for patient outcomes.”

That GPs and their local hospital often cannot communicate electronically  is a disgrace given the billions various governments have spent on NHS IT.  It is on interoperability that any new DoH IT money needs to be spent.

Instead,  it seems huge sums will be wasted on the pie-in-the-sky objective of a paperless NHS by 2020. The review board document released today refers to the “ambition of a paper- free health and care system by 2020”.

What’s the point of a paperless NHS if a kaleidoscope of new or existing systems don’t properly communicate?

Congratulations, incidentally, to GP software suppliers TPP and EMIS. They last year announced direct interoperability between their core clinical systems.

Their SystmOne and EMIS Web systems hold the primary care medical records for most of the UK population.

And this month EMIS announced that it has become the first UK clinical systems provider to implement new open standards for interoperability in the NHS.

It says this will enable clinicians using its systems to securely share data with any third party supplier whose systems comply with a published set of open application programme interfaces.

The Department of Health and ministers need to stop announcing things that will never happen such as a paperless NHS and instead focus their attention – and any new IT money – on initiatives that are not subconsciously aimed at either political or commercial gain.

It would be ideal if they, before announcing any new IT initiative, weighed up diligently whether it is any more important, and any more of a priority, than getting existing systems to talk to each other.

Review of information technology in the NHS

EMIS implements open standards

 

DWP “evasive” and “selective” with information on Universal Credit programme

By Tony Collins

Has the Department for Work and Pensions put itself, to some extent, beyond the scrutiny  of Parliament on the Universal Credit IT programme?

Today’s report of the Public Accounts Committee Universal Credit progress update was drafted by the National Audit Office. All of the committee’s reports are effectively more strongly-worded NAO reports.

If the Department for Work and Pensions cannot be open with its own auditors – the National Audit Office audits the department’s annual accounts – are the DWP’s most senior officials in the happy position of being accountable to nobody on the Universal Credit IT programme?

The National Audit Office and the committee found the Department for Work and Pensions “selective or even inaccurate” when giving some information to the committee.

In answering some questions, the committee found officials “evasive”.

Today’s PAC report says:

“We remain disappointed by the persistent lack of clarity and evasive responses by the Department to our inquiries, particularly about the extent and impact of delays. The Department’s response to the previous Committee’s recommendations in the February 2015 report Universal Credit: progress update do not convince us that it is committed to improving transparency about the programme’s progress.”

On the basis of the limited information supplied by the DWP to Parliament the committee’s MPs believe that the Universal Credit has stabilised and made progress since the committee first reported on the programme in 2013, but there “remains a long way to go”.

So far the roll-out has largely involved the simplest of cases, and the ineligibility list for potential UC claimants is long.  By 10 December 2015, fewer than 200,000 people were on the DWP’s UC “caseload” list.

The actual number could be far fewer because the exact number recorded by the DWP by 10 December 2015 (175, 505)  does not include people whose claims have terminated because they have become ineligible by for example having capital more than £16,000 or earning more so that their benefits are reduced to zero.

The plan is to have more than seven million on the benefit, and the timetable for completion of the roll-out has stretched from 2017 originally to 2021,  although some independent experts believe the roll-out will not complete before 2023.

Meanwhile the DWP appears to be controlling carefully the information it gives to Parliament on progress. The committee accuses the DWP in today’s report of making it difficult for Parliament and taxpayers to hold the department to account. Says the report,

“The programme’s lack of clear and specific milestones creates uncertainty for claimants, advisers, and local authorities, and makes it difficult for Parliament and taxpayers to hold the Department to account.”

These are more excerpts from the report:

“In February 2015 the previous Committee of Public Accounts published Universal Credit: progress update … The Department accepted the Committee’s recommendations.

“However, we felt that the Department’s responses were rather weak and lacked specifics, and we were not convinced that it is committed to ensuring there is real clarity on this important programme’s progress.

“As a result, we recalled both the Department and HM Treasury to discuss a number of issues that concerned us, particularly around the business case, the continuing risks of delay, and the lack of transparency and clear milestones.

“Recommendation: The Department should set out clearly how it is tracking the costs of continuing delays, and who is responsible for ensuring benefits are maximised.

“The Department does not publish accessible information about plans and milestones and we are concerned by the lack of detail in the public domain about its expected progress.

“For proper accountability, this information should be published so that the Committee, the National Audit Office and the general public can be clear about progress…

“… the Department did not acknowledge that the slower roll-out affects two other milestones, because it delays the date when existing claimants start to be moved onto Universal Credit and reduces the number of Universal Credit claimants at the end of 2019.

“The flexible adaptation of milestones to circumstances is sensible, but the Department should be open about when this occurs and what the effects are. Instead, the Department’s continued lack of transparency makes it very difficult for us and the public to understand precisely how its plans are shifting.

“Claimants need to know more than just their benefits will change ‘soon’; local authorities need time to prepare additional support; and advisers need to be able to help people that come to them with concerns…

“Recommendation: By May 2016, the Department should set out and report publicly against a wider set of clearly stated milestones, based on ones it currently uses as internal measures, including plans for different claimant groups, local authority areas and for the development and use of new systems. We have set out the areas we expect these milestones to cover in an appendix to this report…

“The Department was selective or even inaccurate when highlighting the findings of its evaluation to us.”

The DWP has two IT projects to deliver UC, one based on its existing major suppliers delivering systems that integrate the simplest of new claims with legacy IT.

The other and more promising solution is a far cheaper “digital service” that is based on agile principles and is, in effect, entirely new IT that could eventually replace legacy systems. It is on trial in a small number of jobcentres.

The DWP’s slowly slowly approach to roll-out means it is reluctant to publish milestones, and it has reached only an early stage of the business case. The final business case is not expected before 2017 and could be later.

The committee has asked the DWP to be more transparent over the business case. It wants detail on:

  • Projected spending, including both investment and running costs for:
  • Live service (split between ‘staff and non staff costs’ and ‘external supplier costs’)
  • Digital service (split between ‘staff and non staff costs’ and ‘external supplier costs’)
  • Rest of programme (split between ‘staff and non staff costs’ and ‘External supplier costs’)
  • Net benefits realised versus forecasts.

Meanwhile the DWP’s response to those who criticise the slow roll-out is to give impressive statistics on the number of jobcentres now processing UC claims, without acknowledging that nearly all of them are processing only the simplest of claims.

Comment

To whom is the DWP accountable on the Universal Credit IT programme? To judge from today’s report it is not the all-party Public Accounts Committee or its own auditors the National Audit Office.

No government has been willing to force Whitehall departments to be properly accountable for their major IT-enabled projects or programmes. Sir Humphrey remains in control.

The last government with Francis Maude at the helm at the Cabinet Office came close to introducing real reforms (his campaign began too forcefully but settled into a good strategy of pragmatic compromise) but his departure has meant that open government and greater accountability for central departments have drifted into the shadows.

The DWP is not only beyond the ability of Parliament to hold it accountable it is spending undisclosed of public money sums on an FOI case to stop three ageing reports on the Universal Credit IT programme being published. The reports are nearly four years old.

Would that senior officials at the DWP could begin to understand a connection between openness and Lincoln’s famous phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

Public Accounts Committee report Universal Credit, progress update

DWP gives out “selective” information on welfare reform even to its auditors (a similar story in 2015)

Department for Work and Pensions “evasive” – Civil Service World (This article is aimed at its readers who are mostly civil servants. It is likely it will find favour with senior DWP IT staff who will probably mostly agree with the Public Accounts Committee’s view that the DWP hierarchy is, perhaps because of culture, evasive and selective with the information it gives to Parliament and the public.)

 

Most read posts on this site of 2015

By Tony Collins

On this site these were the most read posts of 2015:

  1. Jailed and bankrupt because of “unfit” IT? What now?
  2. A tragic outcome for Cerner Millennium implementation at Bath?
  3. Beyond the Universal Credit headlines – what IDS doesn’t say
  4. Post Office’s Horizon IT and tonight’s BBC Panorama
  5. Post Office Horizon IT and last night’s Panorama

 

BT loses its outsourcing legal case against Cornwall Council

By Tony Collins

Cornwall council logo

Local independent councillor in Cornwall Andrew Wallis reports that the High Court delivered a judgement today in favour of the council’s action to end its outsourcing relationship with BT early.

The BBC reports part of the judgement. It says that Mr Justice Knowles ruled BT “faced problems of its own making” and did not provide “the service it had promised to the standard it had promised”.

The judge ruled BT Cornwall Ltd was in breach of the 10-year arrangement and the council “entitled in all the circumstances to terminate the agreement forthwith”.

He said: “It is very much to be hoped that all parties to the dispute will consider the position carefully, in the interests of the public, and take steps now to avoid a similar situation in the future, in Cornwall or elsewhere.”

The 10-year deal was signed in March 2013 for BT to run IT, human resources and other services for the council.

Councillor Wallis says that since 1 December BT Cornwall and Cornwall Council have been in a legal battle in the High Court over the BT contract. Councillors and officers believed they had a right to terminate the agreement for breaches in the contract.

BT Cornwall disagreed and sought an injunction on 12 August 2015 to stop the agreement being terminated without good reason. This led to a hearing in August 2015 in which the judge agreed to an expedited trial this month.

Andrew Wallis

Andrew Wallis

This morning Judge Knowles gave his judgement.  Wallis, who has always been sceptical that any outsourcing deal with  BT would bring the claimed benefits, says on his blog,

“I am very pleased the judgement was in favour of the Council. This judgment confirms our argument that BT Cornwall had been in material breach of the contract due to their failure to carry out services to the required contractual standards and that, therefore,  we were justified in reaching the decision that we were entitled to terminate the contract.

“The ruling also means that the Council will be seeking payment of its costs from BT Cornwall in connection with this legal action. We also intend to hold discussions with BT Cornwall to agree the level of damages the Council will receive.

“I would also like to say well done to the Council’s legal team who took on the might of a mighty corporation.”

Wallis added that it is “clear the principle of outsourcing great swathes of public sector to commercial companies who have little, if any, understanding of the public sector is flawed.

“I feel the reason why so many council’s took the outsourcing route is because they thought it was an easy way of saving money.

bt logo“The commercial companies were quick to whisper sweet nothings into any local government ear promising to solve their funding problems. The truth be told, local governments are better at knowing how to save money. They do this without thinking of how it will affect the profit margin.

“Local government do not think about profit margins, but how changes will affect the service user.”

Cornwall council now intends to provide notice of termination of the contract before Christmas, says Wallis.

Transferring about 250 staff and services from BT Cornwall to the council and its NHS partners will begin in January and will be “completed as quickly and smoothly as possible”, says Wallis.

Services going back to the council are:

  • ICT
  • HR Transactional Services including Payroll and HR Employment Support
  • First Point Helpdesk
  • Financial Processing
  • Despatch
  • Printing
  • Telecare

A report to the council in April this year said that “Service Transformation anticipated at the time of contract commencement has not reached anything like the intended levels”.

A spokesman for BT said it was “disappointed” with the result and would be “reviewing the judgement carefully and considering its implications”.

Update (thank you to campaigner Dave Orr who has maintained close contact with Cornwall’s councillors):

The judge has awarded costs to Cornwall and the right to pursue damages. He did  not grant leave to appeal.

 

BT fined for failings on £260m contract

BT Cornwall is not working for the council as it should

BT tries to rescue faltering outsourcing deal

 

Cornwall a model of openness as outsourcing deal with BT turns sour?

By Tony Collins

Photo Estelle Allen

Photo Estelle Allen

Will Barnet Council ever be as open as Cornwall Council has been over the performance of its IT outsourcing supplier?

Two years ago Cornwall signed a 10-year £260m strategic “partnership” with BT. The word “partnership” seems odd now that BT has taken out an injunction against Cornwall to stop the council ending the relationship 8 years early.

The two sides will go to court in December to determine if the council has a right to terminate the contract now.

If it loses  the case, Cornwall will have to retain as its main IT services supplier a company that has been its High Court adversary. The judge may also order the council to pay BT’s legal costs.

The odds may be against Cornwall’s winning because BT has much experience in outsourcing legalities. It’s possible that its managers have been collecting evidence of  any council shortcomings from day 1 of the contract,  in case the relationship turned sour.

But independent Cornwall councillor Andrew Wallis says on his blog that BT is dragging the council to court because of BT’s own failings. The council says BT has not achieved its key performance indicators or met to its guarantees on creating new jobs.

Cornwall council logoCornwall threatened to terminate for breach of contract but did not do so while it was in talks with BT’s senior corporate executives. When an amicable termination could not be agreed BT instructed its lawyers to seek an injunction preventing the council from terminating, which they did at a hearing on 12 August.  The result was that the High Court agreed to an expedited trial that will start on 1 December 2015.

It’s all a far cry from the time two years ago, before the contract was signed, when BT and council officers were promising much, and saying little about what could go awry.

BT Cornwall slideIn its literature, amid beautifully-executed artwork and graphics, BT highlighted its success at South Tyneside Council, its sponsorship of events such as Comic Relief, Children in Need and Childline and its presence as one of the largest employers in the South West.

Similarly, Cornwall officers, in 2013,  wrote reassuringly about any forthcoming deal with BT. They said:

“It should also be borne in mind that strategic partnerships are nothing new. BT – and other councils – have been involved in them for more than 10 years.

“Similarly the outsourcing market is mature and well understood. The UK local government IT and Business Process Outsourcing market is the biggest outsourcing market in the world and there are over 100 deals in operation.

“Risks are sometimes managed well and sometimes managed badly. The risks have been mitigated by using expert advisors and the Council has senior officers who understand this territory well.”

A BT spokesman told Government Computing this week:

“BT has commenced legal action to ensure fair and proper handling of the issues which have arisen about BT Cornwall, and while this is taking place, it would be inappropriate for us to comment.”

Comment

How is Capita’s performance on its contract at Barnet? We don’t know. The success or otherwise of the deal is blanketed in secrecy. In May Barnet blogger Mr Reasonable offered to make a charity donation of £250 if the council showed it was making the promised savings. The money went unclaimed.

There is no evidence of any failure of Barnet’s outsourcing deal. But would the public or media ever know if the supplier’s performance was falling short of the council’s expectations?

Cornwall has many independent councillors (36 compared with the 37 ruling Liberal Democrats). Debates tend to be on the merits of the matter not on the basis of party politics.

Barnet’s policy is tied in with a political ideology: ruling councillors want to turn Barnet into a “commissioning council” which involves outsourcing as much as possible.

In  practice the bedrock of this ideology is the relationship with Capita. If it went wrong would Barnet have too much to lose to go into dispute? For the sake of its ideology would Barnet accept any quality of service Capita delivers?

Cornwall

Photo Estelle Allen

Photo Estelle Allen

In threatening BT with termination because of breaches of contract, Cornwall Council could be criticised for not letting a 10-year outsourcing bed down. It’s unusual for a strategic partnership to end up in court less than 3 years into a 10-year contract.

On the other hand BT promised to create jobs in year 1 and 2 of the contract that the council say have not materialised. Councillors and officers are unhappy about many other aspects of the deal.  BT took on about 280 full-time equivalent council employees, about 130 of whom worked in Information Services.

What’s striking about the history of outsourcing discussions at Cornwall, and the run-up to the signing of a contract, is its openness. It would be easy for BT’s defenders to say that Cornwall’s open, feisty and unforgiving attitude are factors in the strained relationships so far.

On the other hand the problems Cornwall has experienced in the first 2 years of the relationship may be normal in outsourcing deals at other councils. It’s  just that ruling councillors and officers don’t talk about them in public.

All the more credit to Cornwall for its openness.

Barnet’s outsourcing deal may be more successful than Cornwall’s – but how does anyone outside a small group at Barnet really know? Local government and democratic accountability are often uncomfortable bedfellows.

Thank you to Dave Orr who drew my attention to the latest developments at Cornwall Council. 

Cornwall Council rushes to sign BT deal before elections

Cornwall Council tries to pull the plug on BT Cornwall

BT Cornwall is not working for Cornwall as it should

Overview of BT Cornwall’s performance against commitments and guarantees – as perceived by Cornwall’s officers

KPI measures Achieved (185/289) – 64%

PI measures Achieved (266/402) – 66%

Service Transformation (percentage of plans completed) – 38%

Financial contractual baseline savings (10% & 11.6%) – 100%

Trading gain share received (est £17.4m over 10 years) – £0

Guaranteed new jobs in Cornwall (yrs 1 & 2 111 new jobs target / 35.1 created) – 32%

Committed new jobs in Cornwall (yrs 1 & 2) – 0


Some of BT’s pre-outsourcing deal literature for Cornwall’s councillors

  • BT is a FTSE 100 company
  • We are one of the largest employers in the UK and the SW
  • We currently employ > 5,900 people in the South West including 1,028 Cornwall residents
  • BT already makes a financial impact of over £749m a year in the region
  • BT spent >£145m with local suppliers in 2011/12 and will increase this substantially through the Partnership
  • We generate 142,000 fraud referrals each week for the DWP across 50 data sources from 260,000,000 records
  • We undertake c.1,000,000 criminal record checks per annum at Disclosure Scotland to safeguard vulnerable groups.
  • We provide the highly secure directory services for the 260,000 military and civilian defence staff
  • We collect circa £580,000,000 in tax revenues each year on behalf of our local authority partnerships
  • The NHS Spine platform exchanges £3.5m prescription messages per week
  • We are delivering in excess of £500,000,000 savings in partnership with six UK Councils through efficiency and transformation programmes
  • We run one of the worlds largest data warehouses to enable the timely anonymous collection of patient data and information for clinical and billing purposes other than direct patient care .
  • Yes, we do poles and wires…but did you also know in the public sector we process over 532,000 benefits assessments for new applications and change of circumstances each year in our Local Government Partnerships?

Post Office closes amid Horizon broadband problems

By Tony Collins

A Post Office has closed – temporarily perhaps – because the postmistress is refusing to spend more of her own money balancing the books on the Horizon IT system.

The York Press has published an article on the concerns of Wendy Martin who runs a Post Office branch in Clifton, York.

A broadband connection from her branch to the Horizon system goes down regularly, which she says stops payments being processed centrally. This has left her business hundreds of pounds down at the end of the month and her covering the shortfall.

Under her contract with the Post Office – and all such contracts – subpostmasters are responsible for any losses shown on Horizon.

About 150 sub-postmasters have complained to the Post Office about shortfalls which they say were accounting discrepancies related to Horizon problems rather than theft or fraud.

The Post Office’s legal action following cash shortfalls has led to the ruin of  dozens of subpostmasters who have lost their livelihoods, been made bankrupt or gone to jail. There were criminal convictions in 43 cases.

Subpostmasters claim the Post Office failed to investigate irregularities properly before launching criminal proceedings.

Wendy Martin has closed her Post Office until the connectivity problem is corrected.

The self-employed postmistress, who has worked in various shops during an 18-year career, says she is concerned that the problem will increase and could leave her paying in more money each month until the shop goes bust.

She told The Press: “The public feel I’m doing them a dis-service because the shop is shut but I could be in a situation where I may end up in prison.

“It costs me £400 just to keep the shop closed and if I keep putting in the money I will go bust. I hope the Post Office takes this seriously and come out to sort this, but until they do I’ll have to stay shut.”

Since the York Press article was published on 29 August Wendy Martin says the Post Office told her it would be “out asap and will sort this out”. She says she “cannot afford to keep putting money in for lost transactions due to this”.

Some subpostmasters have set up a Facebook page to air some of their grievances.

The Post Office says it does not prosecute people for making innocent mistakes and never has. In response to a BBC Panorama documentary last month on Horizon and the complaints of subpostmasters, the Post Office said:

“There is no evidence that faults with the computer system caused money to go missing at these Post Office branches. There is evidence that user actions, including dishonest conduct, were responsible for missing money.

“We are sorry if a small number of people feel they have not been treated fairly in the past but we have gone to enormous lengths to re-investigate their cases, doing everything and more than we committed to do…

“The Horizon computer system is robust and effective in dealing with the six million transactions put through the system every day by our postmasters and employees at 11,500 Post Office branches. It is independently audited and meets or exceeds industry accreditations.”

Mediation latest

John Munton, a director of the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution, which is mediating in the disputes between the Post Office and subpostmasters, has written to the Post Office on the results of his review of the mediation so far.

Of the 20 cases that have gone through mediation, 8 have been resolved which is 40%.  Munton says this settlement rate is “somewhat lower than the average settlement rate that we see across all the mediations that CEDR conducts”.

In an average year its settlement rate “tends to range between 65% and 75% with a further 10% to 15% of cases resulting in some progression towards final resolution”.

Munton suggests there is a fundamental mismatch between the expectations of the subpostmasters and the object of mediation which is not to award compensation but to achieve an agreement between the parties.

Subpostmasters expect to enter into talks on compensation for their lost livelihoods and money they have paid to the Post Office to cover accounting shortfalls. The Post Office’s representatives make it clear they need credible evidence to justify the claims for compensation.

The mediation process has been more effective, says Munton, “where a continuing contractual relationship is still in place between subpostmasters and the Post Office, and where both parties would like it to continue.”

Comment

The Post Office, in mediation and its entire approach to the complaints of subpostmasters, is taking an empathetic but legalistic approach. To subpostmasters who say Horizon was responsible for losses, the Post Office’s lawyers say in essence: “Prove it.”

The subpostmasters can prove little or nothing, perhaps because Horizon is not owned or run by them. All the information subpostmasters possess is supplied and owned by the Post Office or its main supplier Fujitsu. The Post Office says there is no evidence that Horizon has caused the discrepancies complained of by the subpostmasters.

This is not like a train crash where there would be an independent statutory investigation, the findings of which would have a statutory authority. In these cases, the Post Office has chosen to commission an independent investigation from forensic accountants Second Sight. The findings have no statutory authority. The Post Office is entitled to reject Second Sight’s findings. And it has.

It is unclear whether all the facts in these cases have surfaced, whether the Post Office still possesses all the potentially relevant data from disputes that date back many years, or whether it has made any mistakes in its interpretations of the facts.

The Post Office will continue to benefit from a purely legalistic approach because subpostmasters may be able to prove that Horizon can go wrong but they will never prove that it did go wrong in their particular case.

Even when statutory investigations take place into public safety incidents, it may take years to find possible or likely causes. And that’s the point. There are only possible or likely causes. In fatal air crashes involving large passenger jets, for example, the outcome is a “probable” cause or “probable” causes.

By requiring evidence of a definite cause or causes of shortfalls, the Post Office is demanding the impossible.  On the other hand, why would it pay compensation when subpostmasters cannot prove that Horizon and the Post Office’s training or procedures were at fault?

Perhaps the only sensible way for these disputes to be settled is for lawyers to stand aside and allow managers to resolve cases on the balance of probabilities.

It’s clear to outsiders that 150 subpostmasters have not had criminal intent when, as happened in some cases, they signed off unreconciled accounts as correct. Many are victims of miscarriages of justice and deserve to have adequate compensation and their names cleared. The sooner this happens the sooner the Post Office can reclaim its reputation for fairplay.

If the cases are not settled the campaign for justice could go on indefinitely.

Mediation – letter from Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution to the Post Office. CEDR – mediation review

York Post Office closes amid cash row

Post Office Horizon and last night’s Panorama

 

Post Office Horizon IT and last night’s Panorama

By Tony Collins

Below are excerpts from last night’s Panorama documentary [17 August 2015] on the Post Office Horizon system and complaints by about 150 subpostmasters.

panorama imageReporter John Sweeney met postmasters who said they should not have gone to jail. He also interviewed a former Fujitsu technician who said the system might have had something to do with it.

The programme asked whether innocents have gone to jail.

Sweeney: “There’s been a bit of a crime wave sweeping middle England. But have no fear. The Post Office is on the case.” He said it has caught dozens of postmasters with their hands in the till, including Jo Hamilton who stole £36,000. Or so the Post Office said. “She is no longer a postmistress. She cares for her elderly parents. Career options are limited for convicted criminals.”

Sweeney asked Hamilton: have you got a long history of committing crime?

Hamilton (a postmistress between 2003 and 2006). No. I haven’t even had a parking ticket.

Sweeney: Have you ever done anything?

Hamilton: No.

Shoplifter?

“No.”

Sweeney met Hampshire villagers who, in the grounds of Hamilton’s local church, spoke about their respect for her. The vicar said: “She is a good hard-working honest woman. She is a woman of integrity.”

Another villager: “Jo Hamilton is an honest shopkeeper. Not a very good business person – far too kind to people.” A third: “She is one of the kindest people I know.”

When Hamilton was taken to court, the village came too. Her family and 74 people from the village filled the public gallery. “The judge, I don’t think, quite believed what he was seeing,” said Hamilton.

She found herself in the dock when an audit discovered a £36,000 shortfall. The Post Office charged her with theft and false accounting. But, said Sweeney, there was no direct evidence of theft. “The case against her relied on the Post Office’s computer system Horizon.”

post boxIntroduced in 1999 Horizon handled 6 million transactions a day, from selling dollars to issuing a fishing licence.

Sweeney interviewed Charles McLachlan, a computer expert who said that the Post Office has many more branches than any UK bank.

McLachlan: “Any computer system can go wrong. What’s important is the way that you deal with things when they do go wrong.”

Sometimes Horizon transactions go astray, said Sweeney. “And that can make it look as if there is cash missing. The postmaster using the computer can make mistakes too. Usually errors like these are spotted and corrected. But Jo Hamilton found Horizon difficult to operate. When she reckoned up, the computer kept saying that cash was missing.”

Jo Hamilton

Jo Hamilton

Said Hamilton: “I rang the helpdesk and said ‘I am £2,000 down’ and she said: ‘You can do this, this and this. I did exactly what she said, and it doubled what I’d rung her up about, so then I was £4,000 down. “

Under her contract, Hamilton had to pay back any shortfalls. But the losses continued. She stopped putting in her own cash and signed off the official accounts anyway, without declaring the missing money.

Sweeney: Why on earth did you do that?

“Because I didn’t know how to get out of the situation I was in. It was such a big amount of money that I knew it would finish the shop off. And I always thought one day, naively, that it would sort itself out. You press a button and ‘bing’ – there it will be.”

She pleaded guilty to false accounting and agreed to pay the Post Office the missing £36,000. In return the theft charge was dropped. The deal kept her out of jail. But what if the computer was part of the problem?

James Arbuthnot, a campaigning MP who stood down at the last election, told Sweeney: “ I don’t think it is a criminal act which she [Hamilton] committed. I think it’s much more likely to have been a fault in the computer itself. The fact that she was pressurised into admitting a criminal act doesn’t mean this miscarriage of justice should stand. It needs to be overturned.”

Hamilton said the Post Office told her that she was the only postmaster having problems with Horizon.

Sweeney: That wasn’t true. 150 postmasters formally complained about the problems they were having with Horizon.

Institutional blindness?

Ian Henderson Second SightThe Post Office commissioned forensic accountants Second Sight to investigate the complaints about Horizon. A Second Sight investigator Ian Henderson, in his first interview, told Sweeney:

“Horizon works reasonably well if not very well most of the time. In any large IT system it is inevitable that problems will occur. What seems to have gone wrong within the Post Office is a failure to investigate properly and in detail cases where those problems occurred. It’s almost like institutional blindness.”

The Post Office has its own investigators and it brings its own prosecutions. It doesn’t have to go through the police or the Crown Prosecution Service.

Professor Mark Button, criminal justice expert said, “The Police’s work is checked by an independent organisation, the Crown Prosecution Service. In the Post Office’s situation you have the prosecutors and the investigators all working for the same organisation. It becomes much more difficult to truly separate those functions. With the Post Office that creates potential risks of miscarriages of justice.”

The Post Office said it complies with all legal requirements and has a duty to protect public money. It said it only prosecutes where there is a realistic prospect of conviction and never for the making of innocent mistakes. It said its exhaustive investigations have provided overwhelming evidence that Horizon was not responsible for missing money.

Sweeney interviewed Noel Thomas, who was an Anglesey postmaster between 1994-2005. Said Thomas, “I felt I had been a loyal servant as a postmaster and a postman before that. I started in 1965. Happy memories. “

The Post Office had a problem at the branch in 1996. “I was running another Post Office at the time in the middle of the island. I was called back and they said there was money missing from the office.”

Sweeney: “£11,000 had gone. A member of staff was sacked and Noel agreed to pay back the cash. All was well until Horizon arrived. It kept saying money was missing so Noel phoned the helpline.”

Thomas: “I said I am positive there is something wrong with the computer system because this money is disappearing. “

Sweeney: So you said to the Post Office, ‘Is there a problem with the Horizon system?’ What was their answer?

Thomas: “They said ‘none’ – that I was the only person who had a problem.”

Thomas signed off his branch accounts without declaring the missing money. When the Post Office came for an audit, he was £50,000 short. “They don’t know where the money is. I don’t know where the money is and still they haven’t found the money. I haven’t got it.”

Sweeney: Did you steal it?

No.

Can you prove you didn’t steal it?

“My style of living. I had a secondhand Saab. If I had pinched that kind of money I would have had a better car than that, believe you me. I lived a decent life. I worked hard. My wife worked hard.”

Thomas was charged with theft and false accounting. Like Jo Hamilton he said he reached a deal before going to court. He pleaded guilty to false accounting and the theft charge was dropped.

Thomas: “My barrister said you have got to plead guilty to false accounting.”

He hoped the deal would keep him out of jail when he was sentenced. “The judge came in and he said ‘nine months’ and I waited for a suspended sentence and he said ‘take him down’. I spent my 60th birthday in prison.”

But should he have been charged with theft in the first place?

Sweeney: “In paperwork was have obtained, the Post Office now says that although theft by Noel – or somebody else – can’t be ruled out, it accepts that the missing money was probably caused by ‘operational errors’.

The Post Office told Panorama it could not comment on individual cases because of confidentiality. It said Horizon is effective and robust, and is independently audited. It has been used by nearly 500,000 people and the overwhelming majority haven’t complained.

Arbuthnot believes the Post Office has unfairly prosecuted postmasters. “It’s certainly an abuse of power. It’s a big organisation bullying individuals with no ability to cope, in ways which sometimes see them sent to prison, made bankrupt, or lose their livelihood. We own this organisation. That it is behaving in this way is disgusting.”

The Post Office said it is not a bullying organisation and it has seen no evidence of miscarriages of justice. But something seems to have changed, said Sweeney. “In the 5 years up to 2014, the Post Office prosecuted an average of 33 postmasters a year. Last year it was 2.

“These prosecutions often rely heavily on the computer being right. So Horizon has to work properly. But if it doesn’t fire on all cylinders it might not be a reliable witness. Second Sight reported that bugs in the computer system had created cash shortfalls.

Henderson: “The Post Office disclosed to us 2 software bugs that had quite a significant impact on a number of branches and it took in one case over 12 months for those bugs to be detected and for the consequences to be appreciated.”

Former Fujitsu insider

Horizon is run by computer giant Fujitsu.

Sweeney: “It won’t talk about the system about it doesn’t comment on the specifics of customer contracts. But now for the first time a former insider has agreed to speak out. He says that errors on Horizon were far more widespread than has ever been reported. “

richard roll FujitsuRichard Roll, a Fujitsu computer technician between 2001-2004, told Panorama, “The office is located in Bracknell. We were on the 6th floor … there was a large team employed there… we were all full time. We were all pretty busy … a lot of errors, a lot of glitches coming through.

Sweeney: There were errors in the system?

Roll: “There were errors with the system.”

Sweeney: Some people have been ruined financially. People have gone to prison. Is it possible that suffering could have been caused because there are problems in the Horizon system?

“Yes, it is possible.”

A team of computer technicians was dealing with Horizon errors, some of which, according to Roll, could create false losses. He said that financial records were sometimes changed remotely, without the postmaster’s knowing, which the Post office has always said cannot happen.

Roll said it was possible to go “in through the back door” and make changes. He added: “Sometimes you’d be putting several lines of code in at a time. If we hadn’t done that then the counters would have stopped working.”

Sweeney: So what the Post Office are saying is untrue?

“From my perspective, yes.”

Sweeney said Roll’s evidence could call into question the reliability of the computer records. If financial data could be changed, without the knowledge of the postmaster, is it safe to rely upon the computer’s evidence?

The Post Office said it cannot edit transactions as recorded by branches and that any corrections would be shown transparently in the records. It said there was overwhelming evidence that losses were caused by user actions, including deliberate dishonest conduct.

But Horizon seems to escape scrutiny, said Sweeney. Thomas’s computers were removed and tested. But the results have now been lost. Thomas: “The Post Office said in a letter to me that they had sent them to Fujitsu for testing, and they had lost, or couldn’t find, the correspondence.”

In Jo Hamilton’s case, as well as paying back the missing money, she also had to agree not to blame Horizon. Knowing what you know now, would you have done what you did, asked Sweeney.

Hamilton: “No.I would have pleaded not guilty to theft and carried it all the way and said,’well you prove it then’. That’s what you do. You force them into court and make them produce evidence.”

Is Horizon ever on trial?

But even if a theft case goes to trial, is Horizon fully investigated?

The Post Office prosecuted Seema Misra who was a postmistress between 2005-2008 for theft and false accounting. She and her husband had invested £200,000 in their shop and post office. She struggled to get to grips with Horizon.

“When things went wrong we were told it is just you,” she said.

The Post Office gave extra training but she and her staff made dozens of calls to the Horizon helpline. The system kept showing cash shortfalls. To cut the losses she put in £20,000 of her family’s money.

Eventually, like Jo Hamilton and Noel Thomas, she signed off her accounts saying there was more cash in the till than was really there. When the Post Office audited her branch, £75,000 was missing.

She pleaded guilty to false accounting and not guilty to theft. This time the Post Office pressed ahead with the theft charges.

Sweeney: You didn’t steal a penny?

No.

So you say.

No. That is why I pleaded not guilty – so I can get justice. I haven’t taken any money. That is why I went to a trial.”

Again there was no direct evidence of theft, said Sweeney. Misra said initially that the missing money must have been lost or stolen by staff. Then, just before the trial, she heard about problems with Horizon. It became part of her defence but it didn’t convince the jury.

In tears she told Sweeney: “There is no evidence that I have taken any money and then the jury came back with the verdict guilty.”

What was your sentence?

15 months.

What was prison like?

Terrible. Terrible. It was like a nightmare. At one point I was thinking I am not going to get out of here alive.

Sweeney said that Seema Misra was jailed as a thief. “But was the star witness for the prosecution – the computer – ever properly cross examined? The expert witness for the defence doesn’t think so.”

Charles McLachlan, expert witness for Misra’s defence, said. “When I spoke to one of the Post Office investigators in relation to Seema Misra, they said that as a matter of policy, they would never consider an IT error, a computer error, as a source of discrepancy.”

Post Office and Fujitsu meeting

Misra’s jury heard about one bug in Horizon but there was no mention of any others, said Sweeney.

“Now we have details of a meeting between the Post Office and Fujitsu, held before Seema’s trial. The minutes warn of another computer bug that could cause loss of confidence in the Horizon system if widely known. The bug made money disappear. This minute goes on to say that this bug could ‘impact on ongoing legal cases where branches are disputing the integrity of Horizon data.’

“The bug did not affect Seema’s branch but it is evidence that Horizon can go wrong. So why didn’t it come out at Seema’s trial? The defence expert asked to see the technical logs of Horizon problems but they were not disclosed to him.

McLachlan: “It’s difficult for me to see how a jury could properly take a view about Seema’s guilt or innocence if they didn’t have access to an understanding of other the faults in the system.”

The jury convicted Misra unanimously but did she get a fair trial?

Sweeney: The Post Office still maintains Seema is a thief. It says it always discloses relevant documents even after a prosecution has concluded. The Post Office says that Second Sight has not identified any transaction that has been caused by a technical fault which resulted in a postmaster wrongly being held responsible for a loss.

Vindicated?

Second Sight sent its final case report to postmasters who had complained about Horizon. In the report Hamilton read notes from the original Post Office prosecution file against her, dated 17 May 2006.

Hamilton: “It says that having analysed the Horizon printout and accounting documentation, I was unable to find any evidence of theft.”

So the Post Office’s criminal investigator had found no evidence of theft. Pointing to the investigator’s notes Hamilton said, “That says there is no evidence of theft and yet they charged me with it.”

Sweeney: What does this document do for you?

“Well it vindicates everything we have been saying all the years. It means we can take the fight to them.”

Sweeney also had Post Office paperwork that suggested a theft charge made it easier to recover money.

The Post Office denied bringing prosecutions for financial reasons and said that losses and false accounting together are often sufficient evidence for a theft charge. It said false accounting can contribute towards branch losses by making it impossible to spot discrepancies. The Post Office wholly rejects the extremely serious but unsubstantiated allegations.

A new investigation

The Criminal Cases Review Commission is now investigating the convictions of 20 postmasters to see whether miscarriages of justice have occurred, among them the three cases in the Panorama programme. The sense of injustice is growing and the postmasters are determined to clear their name.

Hamilton: “We are not going to stop until they actually address what they have done and be held to account for what they have done.”

Sweeney’s concluding point: “The question now being asked is not who stole the money, but, in the first place, was there was a crime?”

Post Office response to Panorama

The Post Office wholly rejects extremely serious allegations repeated in BBC’s Panorama programme of 17 August 2015. The allegations are based on partial, selective and misleading information.

The Post Office does not prosecute people for making innocent mistakes and never has.

There is no evidence that faults with the computer system caused money to go missing at these Post Office branches .

There is evidence that user actions, including dishonest conduct, were responsible for missing money.

We are sorry if a small number of people feel they have not been treated fairly in the past but we have gone to enormous lengths to re-investigate their cases, doing everything and more than we committed to do.

All of the allegations presented in the programme have been exhaustively investigated and tested by the Post Office and various specialists over the past three years or more.   The unsubstantiated claims and theories that continue to be levelled against the Post Office are at odds with the facts and are constructed from highly partial, selective and inaccurate information.

This is about individual cases and the Post Office will not discuss those in public for very good reason.  The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) is reviewing a small number of cases involving criminal convictions. It will be provided with all available information including confidential legal material not available to others and we believe the CCRC should be allowed to complete its reviews without external comment.  We also gave a commitment of confidentiality to people who put forward cases to us for re-investigation.

The Horizon computer system is robust and effective in dealing with the six million transactions put through the system every day by our postmasters and employees at 11,500 Post Office branches. It is independently audited and meets or exceeds industry accreditations.

Background facts

Prosecutions

The Post Office has always taken its duty to act fairly, proportionately and with the public interest in mind extremely seriously.  The Prosecutions it brings are scrutinised by defence lawyers before they advise their clients and are, ultimately, ruled upon by the courts.

If money is missing from a Post Office branch and the fact that cash is missing has been dishonestly disguised by falsifying figures in the branch accounts, the Post Office is entitled to take action and does so based on the facts and circumstances of that specific case. Though rare, where there is evidence of criminal conduct, a decision may be made to prosecute.

Prosecutions are brought to determine whether there was criminal conduct in a branch, not for the Post Office’s financial considerations.

Post Office prosecutors are all experienced criminal lawyers, many of whom have significant experience in prosecuting for both Post Office and the Crown Prosecution Service.   In the rare instances that prosecutions are undertaken, the Post Office follows the Code for Crown Prosecutors (the same code as the Crown Prosecution Service).  The Code requires a prosecution to have sufficient evidence and be in the public interest, both of which are kept under review right up to and including any trial.   It means there must be sufficient evidence foreach charge – if a theft charge is brought, there must be sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of a conviction for theft.

A charge upon which there is no evidence will inevitably fail. It is the duty of the defence lawyers to identify to the court where there is insufficient evidence to sustain a charge.  If the court agrees then the Judge must dismiss that charge.

The Post Office takes extremely seriously any allegation that there may have been a miscarriage of justice. We have seen no evidence to support this allegation.   The Post Office has a continuing duty after a prosecution has concluded to disclose any information that subsequently comes to light which might undermine its prosecution  or support the case of the defendant and continues to act in compliance with that duty.

The Horizon Computer System

Horizon is robust and effective in dealing with the six million transactions put through the system every day by our postmasters and employees at 11,500 Post Office branches. It is independently audited and meets or exceeds industry accreditations.   There have been 500,000 users of the system since it was introduced.

Nevertheless, rigorous re-investigations were undertaken into claims made by 136 mainly former postmasters that the system caused losses in their branches.

There is overwhelming evidence that the losses complained of were caused by user actions, including in some cases deliberate dishonest conduct. The 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 of money.

There is also no evidence of transactions recorded by branches being altered through ‘remote access’ to the system.  Transactions as they are recorded by branches cannot be edited and the Panorama programme did not show anything that contradicts this.

Resolution of cases

The Post Office was approached in 2012 by a small number of largely former Postmasters and MPs with the concern that faults in the Horizon computer system had caused losses at their Post Office branches.

In response the Post Office set up an independent inquiry and, when that found nothing wrong with the system, established a scheme to enable people to put forward individual complaints, providing financial support to those making claims so that they could obtain independent professional advice.

There were 150 cases put forward, 43 of which involved criminal convictions.

A number of the cases are now resolved, through mediation or otherwise, and the remainder of cases where the courts have not previously ruled have been put forward for mediation.

Mediation is overseen by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR), an established leading and entirely independent organisation.   Those who have been offered mediation can still exercise their available rights if mediation is not successful – mediation itself doesn’t stop that.

Mediation cannot overturn a previous court ruling – only the courts can do so.

Trouble at the Post Office – Panorama

Operational errors could have caused loss at Post Office – BBC

Post Office’s Horizon IT and tonight’s BBC Panorama

By Tony Collins

This evening BBC1 is due to broadcast a Panorama [7.30pm] on the Post Office’s Horizon IT system and complaints by more than 100 subpostmasters.

The Radio Times says of the programme:

“Dozens of sub-postmasters have been prosecuted after their computers showed that money had gone missing, but could there be other explanations for the cash shortfalls? John Sweeney meets a whistleblower who says there were problems with the IT system, and also investigates claims that the Post Office charged some with theft even when the evidence didn’t stack up.”

John Sweeney is one of the most dogged reporters in TV. Another journalist Nick Wallis helped in the making of the programme. He has already presented short documentaries on the Horizon system and the complaints of subpostmasters on BBC’s “One” programme.

The broadcast is likely to add weight to a Parliamentary campaign for justice for subpostmasters who have been made bankrupt, lost their homes and livelihoods, gone to jail or had to pay to the Post Office tens of thousands of pounds the Horizon system said they owed.

The Post Office says that exhaustive investigations have shown there is no systemic fault with Horizon.

Last month the PO urged aggrieved subpostmasters to “engage” with its mediation scheme. But the campaigning group the “Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance” says that it is “not aware of a single case that has been to a Mediation meeting where the applicant has been the slightest bit happy with the outcome, or that the meeting brought resolution between the two parties, which was the stated aim of the Scheme”.

It adds that the Alliance is “aware of a number of cases that have been to Mediation meetings where the applicants have been left distraught and angry at Post Office’s unwillingness to listen or even consider the issues that they have raised”.

The PO says it acknowledges that the mediation scheme has “taken longer than all those involved would have liked”. It adds in an email to subpostmasters: “However, we do now have the opportunity to sit down with you and your professional adviser if you have one, to discuss your complaint in detail and look forward to the opportunity to do so”.

Comment

BBC2 has been running a series on the Post Office, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered – inside the Post Office” which was filmed with the PO’s co-operation.

In part it shows the PO’s difficulties trying to recruit subpostmasters for local post offices that may otherwise face closure. The government has said the Post Office must keep all of its 11,500 branches open. Not allowing a single branch to close is a huge challenge for the Post Office.

Now another part of the BBC is due to broadcast a Panorama programme on how some subpostmasters have had their lives ruined when they have run into difficulties that involve the Horizon system.

Are those difficulties one reason the PO is struggling to recruit 600 subpostmasters to keep some local post offices alive?

The pressure on the PO to take unambiguous action to right the perception of a massive injustice is growing. Aside from the bad publicity, and the campaign for justice led by MPs, next month a tribunal is due to take place of Fozia Rashid who claims she was sacked from the Post Office’s Knaresborough High Street branch, in July 2013, after witnessing and attempting to report a series of criminal activities, including potential institutional fraud and errors in the Horizon software. Her hearing starts on 3 September 2015 in Leeds.

She says on Twitter that the Post Office has made her offers to settle. Any publicity of the case is unlikely to make it easier for the Post Office to recruit more subpostmasters.

When will the PO accept that more than 100 people, many of whom signed up in search of an idyllic village life running a local post office,  cannot all have been dishonest and were likely victims of circumstances beyond their control?

Tonight’s Panorama is well worth watching.

Jailed and bankrupt because of “unfit” IT?

Post Office looking to replace Horizon? – Computer Weekly

Decent lives destroyed by the Post Office? – Daily Mail

Post Office “failings” over cash shortage investigations – BBC

MPs attack Post Office subpostmaster mediation scheme

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

DWP fraud and mistakes cost an estimated £3.2bn – despite new HMRC data links

By Tony Collins

The Department for Work and Pensions’ auditors have qualified the department’s latest accounts for the 26th year in a row because of “unacceptably high” fraud and mistakes.

The high level of fraud and error is despite the DWP’s now being able to check every claimant’s benefit entitlements – particularly inconsistencies in earnings – through HMRC’s real-time information [RTI] tax system.

In 2014-15, the DWP carried out a bulk exercise to match RTI data against the DWP’s benefits information. The DWP uses RTI data to provide information on earnings as part of the calculation of claimants’ Universal Credit entitlement.

The National Audit Office, in today’s report on the DWP’s 2014-15 accounts, says that misreporting and incorrect processing of income and are responsible for estimated losses in 2014-15 of £1.12bn

A further £340m is lost through undisclosed and incorrect processing of data on living arrangements.

The DWP is the same department that’s pouring money into a protracted FOI legal battle to stop four reports on Universal Credit being published on the basis that their disclosure could affect the DWP’s “effective management of public affairs”.

The DWP publishes none of the reports on the progress or otherwise of its major projects and programmes.

One question is, in the light of the DWP’s repeatedly qualified accounts, whether the department’s officials are better or worse off running their affairs in an atmosphere of great secrecy.

Would the DWP’s senior management be able to manage the business better – and particularly the Universal Credit IT programme – if they had to publish their commissioned reports on major projects?

The added external scrutiny of business partners – including local authorities – plus MPs, journalists and the public could give extra force to attempts within the department to manage affairs more professionally.

Such is the DWP’s detachment from external scrutiny that its managers are legitimately able to decide to avoid measuring the Personal Independence Payment for fraud and error until 2016-17.

Some may wonder how any major organisation can delay measuring a major part of its business for fraud and error.

Says Amyas Morse, head of the NAO:

“We believe that the absence of up-to-date information on error rates in such a large benefit stream creates a risk that the Department is making decisions based on out-of-date measurements.”

He adds:

“Furthermore, some smaller value benefits have never undergone a (fraud and error) measurement exercise.”

Morse says the accounts DWP’s have been qualified because of the “unacceptably high level of fraud and error in benefit expenditure, other than State Pension where the level of fraud and error is lower”.

He says the accounts of the DWP and those of predecessor departments administering welfare spending, have been similarly qualified each year since 1988-89.

The DWP estimates total overpayments due to fraud and error in 2014-15 to be £3.2bn, which is 1.9%  of the total forecast benefit spending of £168.1bn.

The Department estimates the total underpayments in 2014-15 to be £1.4bn.

Morse says the DWP is not on track to achieve its target to reduce fraud and internal mistakes.

“Furthermore, the Department has reduced the pace of the roll out of Universal Credit. As a result, Universal Credit has not yet realized the £200m annual fraud and error savings originally expected by March 2015…”

This failure to meet savings targets on Universal Credit highlights the speculative nature of central government’s business case estimates of programme and project savings.

Morse said: “Issuing an audit qualification is a serious matter, and the fact that similar qualifications have been in place for such a long period of time does not lessen that seriousness.”

Fraud and error is defined as

– Official error, which arises when a benefit is paid incorrectly due to inaction, delay or a mistaken assessment by the Department, a local authority or HM Revenue and Customs;

– Claimant error, which occurs when claimants make inadvertent mistakes with no fraudulent intent; and

– Fraud, which arises when claimants deliberately seek to mislead the DWP or local authorities which administer benefits on the department’s behalf to claim money to which they are not entitled.

The DWP’s managers say the largest proportion of error enters the benefits system due to changes in claimants’ circumstances after a correct initial award.

 

FOI hearing today on DWP’s refusal to publish Universal Credit reports

By Tony Collins

External lawyers acting for the Department for Work and Pensions are due to appear before an FOI Upper Tribunal judge in London today to argue why four reports on Universal Credit should not be published.

It’s the latest step in a costly legal battle that has lasted two years so far.

A first-tier FOI tribunal judge in 2014 ordered the four reports to be published. The DWP asked for permission to appeal that decision and lost its case.  The DWP then asked an Upper Tribunal for permission to appeal and lost that case as well.

Then it asked a different Upper Tribunal judge for permission to appeal .  As a result, a 1 day hearing is taking place today.

The case takes in evidence from the DWP, the Information Commissioner, John Slater who requested 3 of the reports in question and me. Slater requested in 2012 a Universal Credit risks register, milestone schedule and issues register (which set out problems that had materialised with the Universal Credit programme).  I requested a project assessment review carried out in 2011 on the Universal Credit programme by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.

The DWP has refused to publish the four reports – and millions of pounds worth of other similar reports.

Today the DWP will argue that the judge in an earlier Upper FOI Tribunal did not fully consider the “chilling effect” that disclosure of the reports would have on the behaviours of civil servants or consultants who helped to write the reports in question.

In essence the DWP’s lawyers are asking the judge to accept the arguments put forward against disclosure by Sarah Cox, the DWP’s main witness in the case. Cox is a former programme assurance director for Universal Credit.

Cox submitted 49 pages of evidence – plus secret evidence during a closed hearing – on why the UC reports should not be published.  She said that civil servants must be able to think the unthinkable and record the outcome of these thoughts without hesitation or fear of disclosure.

If contributors feared the reports would be routinely disclosed the documents could become “bland records” prepared with half an eye to how they would be received in the public domain.

She said the danger of damage to the public interest cannot be overstated.

Disclosure could adversely affect management of the Universal Credit programme – and “failure of proper programme management may be catastrophic”.

Emphasising the importance of effective management of risk, she referred to the banking system prior to the credit crunch and the stability of the Bank of England in that period.

“Inappropriate or premature disclosure of the information in the risk registers or the issues registers could lead to those failures occurring in government risk management with broader parallels for other project management tools.”

She then referred to “disaster myopia” – a phenomenon she said was well established in cognitive psychology.  It referred to “an underestimation of the likelihood of low frequency but high risk damage risks”.

She added: “This can result in a lack of appropriate mitigating actions, increasing the likelihood of the risk becoming an issue. In this case fear of disclosure and misinterpretation can exacerbate this myopia, leading to the toning down of the direct and forceful language used to describe risks, or worse, risks not being identified at all”.

If civil servants or consultants writing reports on projects were to downplay the risks because of a fear of disclosure, problems may be overlooked, solutions not found, or not found promptly. “Such an outcome would be seriously detrimental to the delivery of major projects.”

Cox’s evidence could appear to some to suggest the DWP was preoccupied with its image, and the image of the Universal Credit programme, in the media, and among MPs and the public. She said routine disclosure of such reports as those in question “will distract civil servants from their tasks at a crucial point in the process of programme management.

“Instead of concentrating on implementing the changes, they will be required to address stakeholder, press or wider public concerns which have been provoked by the premature disclosure of material.”

It would be unhelpful if “attention is focused on clarifying positions with stakeholders and addressing the concerns of media, opposition and interest groups in order to correct the often misleading impression created by premature disclosure”.

This issue is “magnified in a programme with as many delivery partners as Universal Credit, covering both central and local government, with implications for all territories in the UK”.

That is because of the “implications of issues for different partners are often slightly different, so that each partner may need to be given a slightly different, and tailored, response”.

This concern should not be understated, she said.

“From my experience of high profile matters which emerge with little warning, I can say that ministers and senior officials are likely to be forced to clear their diaries, cancelling planned meetings, events and other important engagements, to attend rapidly-convened meetings to discuss the handling of the premature disclosure.

“Officials in the relevant policy areas (and lawyers as appropriate) would need to set aside other essential and pressing work to prepare briefings on the likely impact of disclosure and options for next steps. ‘Lines to take’ and a stakeholder and media-handling strategy would need to be discussed, agreed and signed off by ministers.

“Ministers could also be called to respond to urgent questions tabled in Parliament, especially where the disclosure  is made in respect of a high-profile policy area. The media might press for interviews with ministers and/or senior officials, which require careful preparation…”

But, as the Information Commissioner has pointed out, disclosure of the documents under FOI is not the same as a leak to the media.

And the reports in question are now four years old and so massive media interest is unlikely. Any media interest could be managed by DWP press officers without distracting project managers.

Cox said disclosure could harm rather than assist public debate.

“Material that requires civil servants to think the unthinkable, or to consider unusual or highly unlikely events, using intentionally vivid and forceful language, at a single point in time, potentially pre-dating attempts to mitigate the position could easily distort the public perception of the real or likely situation and encourage sensationalist rather than responsible and balanced reporting.”

She said that officials may have to release further information to counteract any misunderstandings (from a misreading of the disclosed reports). But the “world of media” may ignore this further information.

Lawyers for the Information Commissioner, in their submission to today’s hearing, will argue that an earlier tribunal had not found any existence of a “chilling effect” in this case. The tribunal had not been persuaded by what the DWP had said.

The earlier tribunal had not dismissed all of the DWP’s concerns as entirely without merit. It accepted that disclosure of the documents in question “may not be a painless process for the DWP” and that there “may be some prejudice to the conduct of government of one or more of the kinds asserted by the DWP”. The tribunal was simply unpersuaded by the extent of those prejudices.

The Commissioner’s lawyers will say the earlier tribunal gave due weight to the evidence of Ms Cox but it was not obliged to agree with her.

There was no observable chilling effect from disclosures in the past where a chilling effect had been envisaged. The DWP had not provided any evidence that a chilling effect existed.

Indeed a Starting Gate Review on the Universal Credit project had been published (by Campaign4Change) after the DWP refused to release the document under FOI. The DWP had refused to publish the Starting Gate Review because of the chilling effect it would have on the contributors to such reports.

But there was no chilling effect in consequence of publication of the Starting Gate review, say the Information Commissioner’s lawyers.

The incident “illustrates that it is perfectly within the bounds of reason to be sceptical about the DWP’s assertions about the chilling effect and the like,” says the Information Commissioner’s submission to today’s hearing.

On Ms Cox’s point that disclosure of the reports in question would change behaviours of civil servants and consultants compiling the documents, the earlier tribunal had concluded that the public was entitled to expect from senior officials – and no doubt generally gets – a large measure of courage, frankness and independence in their assessments of risk and provision of advice.

The Information  Commissioner’s lawyers will today ask the judge to dismiss the DWP’s appeal.

Comment

The DWP’s evidence suggests that the reports in question today are critical to the effective delivery of Universal Credit. The reality is that excessive secrecy can make bureaucracies complacent and, in the the DWP’s case, somewhat chaotic.

When Campaign4Change asked the DWP under FOI for two Universal Credit reports – an end to end technical review carried out by IBM at a cost of £49,240 and a “delivery model assessment phases one and two” carried by McKinsey and Partners at a cost of £350,000 – the DWP mistakenly denied that the reports existed.

When we provided evidence the reports did exist the DWP said eventually that it had found them.  The DWP said in essence that the documents had been held so securely nobody knew until searching for them that they existed.

So much for the DWP’s argument that such reports are critical to the effective management of major projects.

And when Campaign4Change asked the DWP, under FOI, to supply a project assessment review report on the Universal Credit programme, officials mistakenly supplied an incorrect version of the report (a draft) to an FOI tribunal.  Officials later apologised for their mistake.

National Audit Office reports on Universal Credit do little to portray the DWP as a professional, competent and well-managed organisation.

Which all suggests that excessive secrecy within the DWP has made officials complacent and disorganised.

Continued excessive secrecy within the department could reinforce a suspicion, justified or not, that the department may not be in a strong position to run a programme as large and complex as Universal Credit.