The Post Office has said in the past that its controversial Horizon system has not had system-wide problems.
This month, however, the system has had two serious widespread outages. On 10 May 2018, Computer Weekly reported that about 2,000 Post Office branches were unable to connect to the organisation’s computer system for a few hours on 9 May because of a connectivity issue.
A second problem last week affected “the whole network” according to a spokesperson at the National Federation of SubPostmasters.
“In the past two weeks we’ve had two instances, just under a quarter of the network was affected earlier in the month, and yesterday the whole network was down for a couple of hours,”
The spokesperson told BBC News that its members have suffered financially because of the problems.
“Sub-postmasters only get paid if they are serving customers so any downtime means they are out of pocket, and people are unable to send their mail.
“The Post Office uses a nationwide computer system to make sure all items are tracked correctly before being sent. If this suddenly stops working then it means potential delays to your parcel across all depots in the UK.”
Those reading Post Office statements on its Horizon system over the years could have gained the impression that the system was able to cope with every eventuality. These are some of the Post Office’s comments on the Horizon system:
“… Post Office maintains that Horizon is capable of handling power and telecommunications problems.”
“Horizon is operated by thousands of Subpostmasters, the majority of whom have not had any issue with the system or its effectiveness.”
“Post Office maintains that the fact that almost 500,000 users have used Horizon since its inception and only 150 have raised a complaint to the Scheme shows that it is fit for purpose.”
“Post Office considers it fair to assume that if a loss has occurred then it has been caused in the branch and is something for which, in most circumstances, a Subpostmaster is liable to make good.”
“… there is no evidence of systemic problems with branch accounting on Horizon. All existing evidence overwhelmingly supports this position.
“The very small number of sub-postmasters who have experienced issues with the Horizon system are a minute proportion of the tens of thousands of people who have been successfully using the system across the network of 11,500 branches on a daily basis since 1995.”
“It is also important to recognise, however, that to date this system has handled more than 45 billion transactions and that there have been issues with only a tiny, tiny number of them.”
“Our computer system has been used by around 500,000 people in our network over more than a decade, processing billions of transactions during that time for our customers.”
“We have now spent three years investigating and addressing various complaints by a small number of former postmasters. We have done everything and more than we committed to do at the outset. We set up an independent enquiry, which found no systemic flaws in the system …”
Last week, the Post Office said in a statement: “We’re really sorry for any inconvenience that the connectivity issues at some of our branches caused yesterday. The issue was resolved within a few hours, and our branches are now back to business as usual.”
Subpostmasters are taking a group legal action against the Post Office through Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance. The subpostmasters and mistresses blame the Horizon system for financial losses that the Post Office has sought to recover from the individual Post Office branch owners.
The Post Office has claimed the number of complainants is “tiny”, but the actual number of subpostmaster-claimants is now 561.
A High Court hearing is planned for November 2018. It will hear from 12 potential “lead cases”, six of which were selected by Post Office Limited and six by Freeths solicitors who represent the claimants.
These individual cases will be decided ahead of the rest of the Group of 561 and will be used to demonstrate some of the key issues, in particular the fairness of the contract between the claimants and the Post Office.
Computer Weekly reported last month that a forensic examination of the Horizon system by specialists commissioned by the Criminal Courts Review Commission has raised further questions.
“The forensic accounting company hired by the Criminal Courts Review Commission to look more closely at the controversial IT system blamed by sub-postmasters for their wrongful prosecutions has completed its initial findings, and from this has decided to make further enquiries,” said Computer Weekly.
No computer system is infallible,. The Horizon system is decades-old and has had innumerable patches, additions and enhancements.
After two outages this month, one of which is said to have been network-wide, will the Post Office be able to continue with its claim that the system has not had any system-wide problems?
Indeed how credible in general is the Post Office’s case against 541 subpostmasters? At long last the answer to that question no longer rests with the Post Office. A decision on whether injustices that date back years can be corrected will rest with a High Court judge.
It’s a matter the Post Office ought to have settled long ago. Instead it has relied on the public purse to fund the perpetuation of a series of injustices.
Connectivity issue hits thousands of Post Office branches – Computer Weekly May 2018
Post Office hit by computer problems – BBC News May 2018