By Tony Collins
For nearly 10 years, mystified sub-postmasters have been prosecuted or pursued for money on the basis of information provided by the centrally-run Horizon branch accounting system.
Horizon is run centrally by Fujitsu, in conditions of tight security. Performance data is confidential. Proving that the system has not always performed as expected has proved difficult. The Post Office has declined to release the log of known errors.
That is set to change. Computer Weekly‘s Karl Flinders, who has reported for years on the Horizon system and the sub-postmasters’ campaign for justice, says thousands of known errors on Horizon are due to be disclosed.
The disclosure is one of the requirements of High Court hearings in which more than 500 sub-postmasters are suing the Post Office for damages and compensation. The sub-postmasters say they were made to pay for shortfalls that were not real losses but were the result of technical glitches.
The Post Office trusted Horizon’s “evidence”; and its actions led to hundreds of sub-postmasters losing their livelihoods and some their house and marriage. One sub-postmistress, Fiona Cowan, died from an overdose. And former sub-postmaster Julian Wilson died while campaigning for justice.
In general Horizon has been regarded as reliable. It is used successfully in thousands of post offices every working day.
No computer system is 100% dependable though, especially one that has a multiplicity of networked components and has been patched, modified and updated countless times over more than a decade. The system is also subject to the local post office’s networking idiosyncrasies
Karl Finders’ excellent article on the Post Office’s Known Errors Log is here.
Another campaigning journalist Nick Wallis, who is covering the High Court hearings, reports this week on a former sub-postmaster Helen Walker.
She signed a contract to run a local post office without seeing the full contract.
“I not have sight of the full contract before signing a document saying that I agreed to what was in the full, unseen contract. I was told that this was ‘normal Post Office Practice’ and would receive the full version once my Post Office had opened. Having previously worked indirectly for the Government as a teacher and Council Officer, I felt I had no reason to doubt the integrity of the Post Office, given the Governmental involvement. How naïve I was.”
The contract held her liable for losses shown n the Horizon system.
When her post office opened its doors to customers, Horizon proved, for her, unimpressive.
“Horizon was perpetually unreliable, with both tills ‘freezing’, sometimes several times a day. There was also fault on the phone line that has interfered with the tills from day one of my taking over the counter.
“Despite my pleas to various departments for this problem to be looked at, they never sent anyone out to investigate. I later discovered that everything apart from the lottery terminal had been plugged into the same BT line.
“I established that the two Horizon terminals, the Paystation and the telephone were all using one line via domestic phone ’splitters’. Even the alarm system may have been using this same line, as I was not aware of any other line used for this purpose.
“This would explain why our tills froze for several minutes every time the telephone rang…”
Helen wrote a letter sent to her contracts manager on 7 August 2017.
“…As a whole, I have to say that I expected a better level of overall support from Post Office, and have been left on hold by the Helpline for up to 40 minutes at a time on more than one occasion. I did not expect that my liability for any losses would be determined by a computer system that often produces out of sync statements of the money it expects us to have in the till and the safe…”
After a High Court trial that costs millions of pounds, the judge could decide that the Post Office was entitled to do what it did.
But what is lawful is not always right.
It was lawful at one point to take legal action against married women who tried to own their own property or sign their own contract. Taking action against them was obviously wrong.
It was lawful at one point to imprison journalists who reported on the proceedings of Parliament. Taking action against them was obviously wrong.
Post Office officials will know what the law entitles them to do. But where is their humanity?
They always had the discretion not to prosecute or pursue sub-postmasters for money. They now have the discretion to stop the High Court case. Do they have the humanity to do so?
Nick Wallis has published Helen’s full story, written in her own words, on his blog postofficetrial.com.