Author Archives: ukcampaign4change

Is the Post Office harming its reputation by continuing to fight sub-postmasters in High Court Horizon IT trials?

By Tony Collins

The head of the High Court’s Technology and Construction Court, Sir Peter Fraser QC, in his judgement on the first Post Office trial over the Horizon IT system, referred to Post Office’s attempts to protect its reputation in some of the evidence it gave to the court.

These are some of the comments from his judgement,

 “He [the Post Office witness] sought to give me evidence highly favourable to the Post Office, which I consider was slanted more towards public relations consumption rather than factual accuracy.”

“As with the other more senior members of the Post Office group of witnesses [he] is articulate, intelligent and also acutely aware of how much the reputation of the Post Office hinges on these proceedings. His evidence was presented in terms obviously designed to put the best possible gloss for the Post Office on matters, and some of his statements simply did not stand scrutiny.”

“Her [a senior Post Office witness] judgment also seems to have been uniquely exercised to paint the Post Office in the most favourable light possible, regardless of the facts.”

But is the Post Office instead harming its reputation by seeking to remove the judge which extends the length of the trials and adds to costs? Will this tweet yesterday afternoon from a postmaster prove typical of the reactions of current sub-postmasters?

Financial journalist Paul Lewis who presents BBC Radio 4’s “Moneybox” has described the Horizon IT controversy as a “real scandal“.  MPs have described the Post Office’s actions as a “national scandal”.

During the High Court trials, the Post Office has depicted sub-postmasters who are witnesses in the case as liars and has accused a High Court judge of bias. It criticised its own forensic accountants Second Sight who produced a report that, in part, supported some of the sub-postmasters who had complained about losses on the Horizon system being computer-generated and not actual losses.

Is the Post Office’s reputation being further harmed because, as a public institution, it has an in-built resistance to admitting it could ever have been wrong?

Excellent blog post by Computer Weekly’s editor in chief

postofficetrial – Nick Wllis’ blog

Computer Weekly’s trial coverage

Could MPs hold Post Office directors to account for Horizon IT trial costs – after they have left?

By Tony Collins

The Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have been alerted to the costs of the High Court trials over the Post Office Horizon IT system.

Parliamentary committees have the power to hold people to account after they have left an organisation.

Could this happen in the case of the publicly-owned Post Office whose directors have decided to spend, potentially, tens of millions of pounds on an avoidable High Court litigation?

Nearly 600 sub-postmasters are suing the Post Office because they say their lives were ruined when the Post Office required them to make good non-existent shortfalls shown on an imperfect Horizon system. The Post Office says Horizon has always been robust and that they were entitled to hold the sub-postmasters liable for losses shown on Horizon.

The Post Office appears resolved not to settle the case despite campaigns for justice in Parliament and by the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance. One unanswered question is whether the Post Office board is hardening its position in the face of the campaigns.

Campaign4Change emailed the Public Accounts Committee about costs of the litigation. As a result, the National Audit Office, which works closely with the accounts committee, contacted UK Government Investments, which represents the Government’s interest as sole shareholder of Post Office Limited.

The Committee told us,

“The NAO has now completed its enquiries and reviewed supporting evidence.

“Post Office Limited is a government owned company which is primarily funded through income from it is operations and is not audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

“The NAO has therefore limited its enquiries to understanding the role of UKGI [UK Government Investments] given it has no remit to audit the actions of Post Office Limited.

“The NAO discussed the case with UKGI to understand the governance in place between Post Office Limited and UKGI and to confirm there was appropriate oversight of Post Office Limited’s decision to defend the litigation.”

Regarding the accountability of individual Post Office Limited’s directors, the National Audit Office said,  “Since Post Office Limited’s inception in 2012, UKGI has had a representative on the Board as a Non-Executive Director. The same government representative is also a member of the subcommittee of the Board which specifically considers this issue. These committees are involved in decision making around the litigation case and the representative regularly reports to ministers on these matters.

“From the work performed by the NAO, they have concluded that the involvement of UKGI in decision making appears appropriate and the level of oversight proportionate.”

The Committee said the National Audit Office has not  directly considered the actions taken by the Post Office Board but the case is being kept under review.

Following the NAO’s investigation, the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is responsible for the Post Office, sought an assurance from the Post Office’s CEO Paula Vennells that departmental funds meant for transformation and business investment will not be used on the Horizon litigation.

Also the BEIS department now requires regular written assurances that BEIS funding will be used for the intended purposes only.


When a Parliamentary committee decides to summon a witness formally, the witness is summoned to attend the committee by an order signed by the chairman.

Failure to attend a committee when formally summoned is a contempt and if a witness fails to appear, when summoned in this manner, his or her conduct is reported to the House of Commons which can deal with the matter as an act of disobedience.

MPs and peers are expected to look more closely at the actions of the Post Office in the light of its decision to try and remove Sir Peter Fraser, the judge in the Horizon IT case. The Post Office’s application to remove the judge could greatly increase costs of the case which are already expected to run into tens of millions of pounds.

Following the Post Office’s application for the judge’s removal, the second of four High Court trials has been suspended and will not resume until 3 April.

Journalist Nick Wallis reports that the application for the judge’s removal coincided with evidence being given, in part, by the chief architect for the Horizon system at Fujitsu. He was being questioned on the system and possible errors.

Thank you to campaigner Tim McCormack whose Freedom of Information requests unearthed the letter dated January 2019 to the Post Office from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy that seeks assurances on funding for the Horizon IT litigation.

Postofficetrial– Nick Wallis

Post Office Horizon IT trial suspended after Post Office accuses judge of bias – Computer Weekly

The power to summon witnesses

The process for formally summoning a witness is outlined in a House of Commons paper: 

“When a committee decides to summon a witness formally, the witness is summoned to attend the committee by an order signed by the chairman. Failure to attend a committee when formally summoned is a contempt and if a witness fails to appear, when summoned in this manner, his conduct is reported to the House… If he still neglects to appear, he will be dealt with as in other cases of disobedience.

“It is the House which will ultimately decide how a case of disobedience should be dealt with.”

Post Office applies for removal of High Court judge in Horizon IT case

Mr Justice Fraser

By Tony Collins

The Post Office has applied for the removal of the judge in four High Court trials over the Horizon IT system, say journalist Nick Wallis, who is covering the case and Alan Bates, founder of the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance, which is suing the Post Office.

The judge, Sir Peter Fraser, is Judge in Charge of the High Court’s Technology and Construction Court. He has  practised in the Technology and Construction Court field for nearly 30 years. Last week he issued a 1,100-paragraph judgement in the case that was highly critical of the Post Office’s behaviour.

One of his criticisms was that the Post Office (which is publicly owned) was trying to make the litigation as expensive as it could.

“The Post Office has appeared determined to make this litigation, and therefore resolution of this intractable dispute, as difficult and expensive as it can.” [Par 544)

His judgement set out in forensic detail how hundreds of sub-postmasters have been blamed for losses, shown on the Horizon system, that they were unable to dispute effectively or have investigated thoroughly.

The Post Office has described Horizon as robust and has held the sub-postmasters responsible for losses shown on the system. Its officials have required sub-postmasters to make good losses shown on the system which has led to bankruptcies, ruined lives and is said to have been a factor in one suicide.

The Post Office dismissed Second Sight, its forensic accountants who wrote a report that criticised aspects of the Horizon system. The Post Office also issued a long rebuttal of points made in a BBC Panorama documentary on Horizon and the plight of sub-postmasters.

Critics of the Post Office say its application to remove the judge would be consistent with its approach in the past, which has been to say that those who side with the sub-postmasters are biased and/or wrong.

Lord Arbuthnot, who has followed the litigation and is a former barrister, described the application to remove the judge as “utterly extraordinary” and said that such an application had never been made in any  cases he was involved in.

“I am absolutely flabbergasted,” he said, adding that the judge has acquired a profound understand of the technical aspects of a complex case – and is in the middle of the second of four trials.

Former sub-postmaster Alan Bates, who is one of the lead claimants in the case, said the Post Office application was a sign it was “desperate”.

Joshua Rozenberg QC, a BBC journalist and the UK’s best known commentator on the law, said that an application by one side in High Court litigation to have the judge removed was “rare but not unprecedented”.

The application, if accepted, is likely to increase costs for both sides and extend the length of the litigation into several years if there are appeals. Even before the application, the case was expected to cost tens of millions of pounds.

The judge has already read thousands of pages of documents.

The Post Office is said to have accused the judge of invective and hostility in his judgement. Nick Wallis quotes the Post as saying,

“… Post Office believes it has no choice but to make this application for the Judge to recuse himself from these proceedings. As an adjunct to that, Post Office applies for an adjournment of the ongoing Horizon Trial,”

The sub-postmasters’ legal team can oppose the application.

Computer Weekly’s Karl Flnders, who, with Nick Wallis, is covering the trial, reported this afternoon that the second Horizon trial currently underway has been suspended because of the Post Office’s application.

“The trial has been suspended until 3 April, to allow the Post Office to make its application, and for the claimants in the case to oppose the claim.

“If the application is granted, the trial would have to start again with a different judge. The suspension came as expert witnesses for both parties were next to take the stand for cross-examination. If the judge rejects this Post Office can appeal and the trial will continue during the appeal.

“The claim by the Post Office is based on a witness statement submitted by a solicitor from the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, who was involved in a working group set up to oversee a mediation scheme between the Post Office and subpostmasters …”


Th judge used the word “attrition” in describing the Post Office’s approach to litigation in his judgement on the first trial.

And by applying for the removal of the judge, the Post Office could be perceived as acting in exactly the way the judge described when he said the Post Office “appeared determined to make this litigation, and therefore resolution of this intractable dispute, as difficult and expensive as it can”.

There are already questions about whether the Post Office has shown humanity in its treatment of sub-postmasters.  Now there are questions about how a public institution can be allowed to spend money in this way, with apparent impunity. Is it not time for ministers to step in?

Nick Wallis’ postofficetrial blog

Post Office lacked humanity in its treatment of sub-postmasters – Computer Weekly

BBC Panorama documentary

Judge in Horizon IT case to give a book-length judgement – and that’s just the first of four trials

By Tony Collins

Paid by partly out of public money, a judgement nearly double the length of a typical book is expected tomorrow on the Horizon High Court case.

Journalist Nick Wallis who is covering the High Court trial with crowdfunding, says the judgement is expected to be about 180,000 words. [A typical book length is much less, about 100,000 words. ]

The judgement relates only to the first of four High Court trials that focus on the Fujitsu-built Horizon accounting system used by the Post Office.

The length of the judgement is a reminder of the huge costs of the case, which could run into tens of millions of pounds. The publicly-owned Post Office could have avoided the hearings by settling with the sub-postmasters.

More than 550 sub-postmasters are suing the Post Office in a case that is, in essence, about whether sub-postmasters were responsible for losses shown on a robust Horizon system or whether the losses were not real and were generated by an imperfect system.

The Post Office has held the sub-postmasters responsible and is defending the integrity of Horizon. The sub-postmasters are seeking compensation for lives ruined because they say the Post Office required them to make good losses that were not real.

Don’t use our money for Horizon case, says BEIS

Meanwhile the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is responsible for the Post Office, has sought an assurance from the Post Office’s CEO Paula Vennells that departmental funds meant for transformation and business investment will not be used on the Horizon litigation.

The BEIS’s top civil servant goes further: he requires regular written assurances that BEIS funding will be used for the intended purposes only.

The Post Office has set aside at least £5m for the defence of the Horizon case and it concedes in its accounts that the costs could be much higher.

A letter from Alex Chisholm, civil service head of the department, to Vennells, has been disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act to campaigner Tim McCormack.

Chisholm’s letter reminds Vennells  that the minister expects funding to be used prudently and efficiently. Chisholm’s letter in January 2019 says,

“… UKGI [UK Government Investments] have communicated to your team the requirement that BEIS funding [is] only to be used against those projects which are related to transformation or approved investment activities.”

Vennells replied giving this assurance. The following is an extract from Chisholm’s letter, which is partly redacted,

“As you will be aware, the Minister wrote to Tim Parker [Post Office chairman] on 20 December 2017 to set out the basis for providing transformation funding to Post Office and her expectations on how this was to be used.

“The Minister emphasised the need for funding to be used prudently and efficiently in accordance with the objectives of the three-year strategic plan whilst recognising the need for some flexibility for a commercial business engaged in investment projects.

“In your recent request, you indicated you intended to use BEIS funds for non-transformation related spend spcificially in relation to the ongoing Horizon litigation.

“I understand that this is now no longer the case and UKGI [UK Government Investments] have communicated to your team the requirement that BEIS funding is]only to be used against those projects which are related to transformation or approved investment activities.

“As Principal Accounting Officer, I am personally responsible for ensuring the department has a high standard of governance and exercises effective controls over the management of resources, including those through its partner organisations.

“So that I may have ongoing assurance that BEIS funds entrusted to Post Office are being used as the Minister intended, please can you confirm this on a quarterly basis in arrears. UKGI [UK Government Investments] will provide you with further details on the exact wording and format for how this assurance is to be provided.”

Alex Chisholm


The letter from Post Office’s “parent” department BEIS offers no support for the Post Office’s defence of the Horizon litigation. Indeed BEIS’s letter could be seen as suggesting that the litigation would not be a prudent use of BEIS’s public money.

If the Post Office’s defence of the litigation is not supported by its own parent organisation, who is supporting the Post Office’s spending of millions on the Horizon case?

Nobody. Except the Post Office and its lawyers.

Certainly not the public nor the media. The Financial Times, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times and BBC’s Panorama and The One Show have published or broadcast items on the Horizon dispute that will not enhance the Post Office’s image and reputation.

Indeed the Post Office’s determination to continue its defence could be having the effect of a reverse advertising campaign. Would any corporation want to spend millions of pounds on a campaign to harm its image and reputation?

The longer this High Court case continues – and it could continue for years with appeals – the more it may harm the Post Office’s image. It may even prove increasingly difficult for the Post Office to find business people willing to take over local Post Office branches when they come up for sale.

Who would be ideologically motivated to run a village Post Office if the corporate Post Office image is not what it was?

The big question that remains unanswered is: do Post Office directors have the wherewithal to change course in this litigation and settle? Such a change would require humility and humanity.

A big ask?

Nick Wallis’s coverage of the case

Karl Flinders’ coverage

Campaigner Tim McCormack’s coverage

Businessman whose wife died from overdose joins legal action against the Post Office

737 crashes – will the full truth take years to emerge?

By Tony Collins

Following the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the US Federal Aviation Authority says the Boeing 737 Max 8 is airworthy.  Why then have several countries – including the UK – grounded the planes? Why do they not trust the FAA’s assurances?

The following is part of a Campaign4Change article published in 2017. It  shows how it may take many years to establish a link between major incidents, particularly when the integrity of a large organisation’s equipment is in question. It also shows how the seemingly impossible – from a designer’s perspective – can happen.

From Campaign4Change 21 March 2017:

Dozens of families gathered in the ballroom of a Hilton hotel to hear independent investigators announce the most likely cause of an air crash that killed 132 air passengers.

Some wondered whether official investigations into air crashes always ended up protecting powerful corporate interests. For several years the manufacturer Boeing had denied that a technical malfunction was the cause of the crash. It blamed the pilots.

This was the longest inquiry in the history of the National Transportation Safety Board, an investigative organisation funded by the US government. Congress has mandated the Board’s independence and objectivity.

At first, each Boeing 737 incident was treated as a single unique event.  In the absence of any clear evidence of a technical malfunction, suspicion fell on the pilots.

The 737 is, after all, the best-selling commercial jet airliner in history. It has an extraordinary safety record.

Then evidence began to mount that various 737 incidents might have been linked.

After thousands of tests over several years, air crash investigators made a discovery – that a particular technical malfunction could, after all, have caused the incidents.

It was an intermittent malfunction – and one that occurred in a rare set of circumstances. It left no trace. It might have caused a succession of seemingly-unique major incidents.

Now the final verdict on the likely cause of USAir Flight 427’s destruction was imminent. As families sat in silence at the Hilton Hotel, Springfield, Virginia, five board members of the National Transportation Safety Board voted – in public – on whether they accepted the findings of their staff investigators who’d pointed to the likely cause being a technical malfunction, not the pilots.

The vote was unanimous; and some relatives wept.  The probable cause was not the pilots. It was “most likely” to have been a technical malfunction.

Boeing accepted the final report into the crash of Flight 427. “We respect the Board’s opinion,” said Boeing after the vote. It made rudder-related design changes that eventually cost more than $100m.


Investigations into rare crashes of 737s show that it’s possible for a major corporation to be mistaken when it clears its own equipment and blames the equipment’s human operators.

The 737 investigations found that “no evidence of a technical malfunction” did not necessarily mean “no technical malfunction”.

The UK government reached a similar conclusion at the end of a campaign by families to set aside an RAF finding of gross negligence against two pilots, Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook, who died when a Chinook helicopter, ZD576, crashed on the Mull of Kintyre in June 1994.

For 16 years the RAF and Ministry of Defence insisted that there was no evidence of a relevant technical malfunction on the last flight of Chinook ZD576. They blamed the pilots for the crash. But leaked MoD technical papers established that the Chinook’s engine computer systems could fail in unpredictable ways – sometimes intermittently – and leave no evidence.

In the end – after a 17-year campaign for justice by the pilots’ families – the UK government set aside the RAF’s finding against Tapper and Cook, mainly because of doubts over whether the pilots or technical malfunction, or a combination of both, caused the crash.

Arguably, the Chinook and 737 controversies established the principle that, despite the absence of firm evidence of a technical malfunction, a major incident could still be caused by one, or a series of them.

In the case of the 737 incidents, the suspect component at the centre of investigations, a power control unit, was based on an old design (certified in the 1960s) – and straightforward in its operation.

Boeing told the National Transportation Safety Board that, following the crash of Flight 427, there was a lack of evidence of technical malfunction. Boeing pointed to evidence of the actions of pilots.

Boeing said,

“There is no evidence to support a conclusion that an uncommanded full rudder deflection occurred (the rudder moving in the opposite direction to that commanded by the pilots).

“While there is not conclusive evidence of a crew-commanded, sustained left-rudder input, such a possibility is plausible and must be seriously considered, especially given the lack of evidence of an airplane-induced rudder deflection.”

On crashes of 737s, Boeing said,

“There is no data to indicate that the Eastwind Flight 517 event, the United Flight 585 accident, and USAir Flight 427 accident were caused by a common airplane malfunction.” [Boeing had argued that each incident was different.]

In a separate submission to the National Transportation Safety Board, the manufacturer of the 737’s suspect power control unit, Parker Hannifin, made a point similar to Boeing’s.

“In sum, after years of one of the most critical examinations in aviation history, there is no evidence that the main rudder PCU [power control unit] from Flight 427 malfunctioned or was other than fully operational.”

Last word

But the National Transportation Safety Board, as a statutory authority, had the last word.

Its conclusion did not coincide with the view of Boeing or Parker Hannifin.

It said the most likely cause of the crash of Flight 427 was that the rudder moved in the opposite direction to that commanded by the flight crew. The final investigation report said,

“Probable Cause

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the USAir flight 427 accident was a loss of control of the airplane resulting from the movement of the rudder surface to its blowdown limit [full aerodynamic limit].

“The rudder surface most likely deflected in a direction opposite to that commanded by the pilots as a result of a jam of the main rudder power control unit servo valve secondary slide to the servo valve housing offset from its neutral position and over-travel of the primary slide.”

Boeing contested the NTSB’s draft finding that blamed technical malfunction for 737 incidents and crashes – but Boeing had to abide by the independent board’s final decision.

The NTSB is independent of manufacturers. It even has the power to exclude equipment owners from participating in the inquiry.

In 2010 American Airlines was excluded from participating in an investigation into an incident involving one of its 757 aircraft because its technicians downloaded and accessed information from the plane’s black box [digital flight data recorder] before it was examined by independent investigators.

US regulations require that the National Transportation Safety Board is the first to see, download or access information from the black boxes.

A Board press release criticised American Airlines. It said,

“Although a thorough examination by our investigators determined that no information from the DFDR [digital flight data recorder] was missing or altered in any way, the breach of protocol by American Airlines personnel violates the Safety Board’s standards of conduct for any organization granted party status in an NTSB investigation.

“Because maintaining and enforcing strict investigative protocols and procedures is vital to the integrity of our investigative processes, we have revoked the party status of American Airlines and excused them from further participation in this incident investigation.”

737s are incredibly reliable

The 737 is in use in 111 countries. Its reliability record is the best in the world. On average more than 2,000 737s are in the air at any one time. It has carried 17 billion passengers – about twice the world’s total population. It has flown about 120 billion miles, the equivalent of 640 round trips from the earth to the sun.

The design of the 737 rudder system had been considered fail-safe. It was thought it would work properly even when problems occurred. The system had built-in “redundancy”. Every lever inside the lower power control unit had a second lever that moved in concert, in case one should break. There were two hydraulic systems in case one should fail. There was a standby actuator in case the main power control unit stopped working.

Even so, after thousands of tests, investigators found it could fail in very rare circumstances.

After the unexplained crash of Flight 585, the National Transportation Safety Board kept tabs on 737 rudder problems even without evidence they were the likely cause of any serious incidents.

The existence of the National Transportation Safety Board is a check against parties protecting their own corporate interests, namely the reputation of their equipment, after a major incident.

Would the conclusions of the investigations into the 737 incidents have been different if Boeing had been the authority in charge of the final report?


A useful book on the crash of Flight 427 is by Bill Adair, which is an inside account of the 737 rudder incidents. He had access to all the main parties involved.

Also useful is the final report of the National Transportation Safety Board into the crash of Flight 427. It contains Boeing’s submission.

Is £154m Verify identity system really the IT failure it seems to be?

By Tony Collins

Will £154m spent on Verify be wasted because Sir Humphrey doesn’t like its creator, the Government Digital Service?

Verify is a system millions of people use to confirm they are who they say they are. It is used mainly for claiming Universal Credit but was intended as a cross-government identify system.

This week Verify was the subject of a National Audit Office report. BBC News and other news media had similar headlines:

“Verify: Inquiry criticises government ID scheme.”

The National Audit Office said,

  • Verify was supposed to have 25m users by 2020 and now the estimate is 5.4m.
  • Verify was supposed to be used for Universal Credit but only 1/3 of claimants are able verify their identity online. This means the DWP may need to spend £40m on manually verifying claimants identities.
  • The government will stop funding Verify next year and the scheme will move to the private sector (Barclays, Digidentity, Experian, Post Office and secureidentity/Morpho), which will leave departments that currently don’t pay the full costs having to pay market rates.

The National Audit Office concluded that Verify is “an example of many of the failings in major programmes that we often see, including optimism bias and failure to set clear objectives”. It added,

“It is difficult to conclude that successive decisions to continue with Verify have been sufficiently justified.”

Verify seems to be a £154m disaster. But is it?

Gary Barnett, a chief analyst at GlobalData, said,

“Verify’s woes aren’t so much down to a lack of technical nous as a lack of political ambition. As long as big government departments feel able to plough their own furrow there will never be a single standard for identity across UK government.”


It’s hard to build a government ID system that is easy to use and provably secure.

A 100% secure system is one nobody uses; and the easiest system to use is one with no security. A government ID system has to get the balance right: easy to use and resistant to fraud.  Verify worked well when I used it.

The question not being asked about Verify is whether some senior civil servants in departments are trying to kill off the scheme because it is a cross-government initiative that dilutes their autonomy and, worse, is built  by the much-unloved Government Digital Service,  a user-centric organisation that was set up in 2011 and run on non-hierarchical lines by IT professionals who had not come up through the ranks of the civil service.

Top people at GDS in its formative years were different – not the usual life-long civil servants. They were not innately secretive. They were opposed to single supplier mega IT contracts. They believed in learning from mistakes and moving on. They were keen to stop IT in government being seen as a barrier instead of a tool. They focused on the user’s needs instead of the department’s.

Understandably, the Sir Humphreys never liked GDS.

Indeed the National Audit Office report has the extraordinary revelation that some departments refused to pay GDS’s invoices for the Verify service.

The NAO said,

“Moreover, most departments have not paid the Cabinet Office and GDS even for subsidised services. HMRC has paid £6.7m for its Verify usage, but between 2016-17 and 2018-19 no other department paid for using Verify, despite being issued invoices by the Cabinet Office.

“It is unclear why some departments have not paid these invoices.”

Hardly surprising that GDS leaders in the early years – all of them – soon left the civil service, perhaps because they could not acclimatise to its rigid conventions.

Sir Humphrey has indeed had the last word. GDS is not what it was: its culture has been blended into the civil service. Its numbers have more than trebled to around 850 people and its influence across government is limited, to some extent, to that of a standards-setting body that is known for its creation and continuing support of GOV.UK.

GDS’s job applications are now worded in abstract, platitudinous officialise. GDS is a part of government, almost a department in its own right.

Even the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which is run along Sir Humphrey’s secretive lines, has seemed to dislike GDS and particularly Verify. It has long wanted to kill off the scheme.

Well done Sir Humphrey. You have won the battle to ensure that a new organisation not run on conventional civil service lines merges into the culture it originally avoided. Even if Verify is not dead, the innovative open-minded ground-breaking influence of GDS certainly is.

[So pervasive is Sir Humphrey’s influence on government IT, that “to Sir Humphrey” has now become a verb.]

Thank you to FOI campaigner David Orr for his emailed alerts on Verify

Civil servants ‘Sir Humphrey’ their way through grilling on’s digital transformation

Crazy – millions of citizens offered two competing identity systems

National Audit Office report “Investigation into Verify”


Has Matt Hancock based his new NHS IT plans on “Yes Minister”?

By Tony Collins

Matt Hancock

Sir Humphrey ‘s answer to all problems was to set up a committee or new departmental unit.

The idea was to employ more civil servants or create new job titles at higher pay grades – a point perhaps not lost on the health secretary Matt Hancock.

Hancock has announced plans to deal with the problem of NHS IT by setting up a new division. It will create new civil service jobs and give different titles to existing officials.

Is the remit of the new division – called NHSX – set out in terms vague and unaccountable enough to put a smile on Sir Humphrey’s face?

“NHSX will have an open door to allow discussion with health tech industry that is developing products to make sure that we are harnessing the best innovation to improve the NHS,” Hancock told the HSJ.

“Part of its function will be to ensure that we build the best ecosystem for health tech development in the world.”

He said the model now agreed would make NHSX a joint-venture between NHS England/Improvement and the Department of Health and Social Care. It would have its own chief executive.

NHSX will have broad responsibility for overseeing hundreds of millions of pounds in central funding for digital technology, handle central IT contracts and set national policy for digital technology.

Senior responsible officers for digital projects, most of whom are currently employed by NHS England, would be moved into NHSX.  HSJ was told this would include NHS chief information officer Will Smart, chief clinical information officer Simon Eccles, and interim chief digital officer Tara Donnelly.

NHSX will second staff from other organisations, primarily NHS England and DHSC. It will begin operating from April and take over full responsibilities by October 2019.

NHS England deputy chief executive Matthew Swindells, who currently has senior responsibility for NHS IT strategy, told HSJ,

“Bringing together the leadership around this exciting agenda in one place will help us deliver the far-reaching practical improvements from the long-term plan, improve the working lives of NHS staff and deliver better, safer care for patients.”

NHS Digital chief executive Sarah Wilkinson said NHSX will create cohesion, and concentrate work and talent in one unit.

“The program of digital transformation ahead of us is extraordinary in terms of its scale, its complexity and the extent to which it can change lives,” she said.

“It will require sophisticated strategic planning, strong leadership and very tight partnership between organisations across the system.”

Hancock said,

“The tech revolution is coming to the NHS.”

The Register asked whether Hancock’s plan will be the National Programme for IT [NPfIT] mark 2.

Med-tech  Innovation said the NHS IT programme failed because of poor clinical engagement and a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. It asks,

“Have we really learned from our mistakes?”

In answer to that question, says Med-tech Iinnovation, “we might look no further than Matt Hancock’s recently assembled Healthtech Advisory Board  – amongst which, practising clinicians are the most notable absentees.”

Government Computing said in 2018 that NHS IT investment of nearly £13bn was approaching levels of the (notorious) National Programme for IT in the NHS.


With millions of people on waiting lists and rapidly falling decreases in people seen in A&E within four hours, the NHS does not need another pointless IT initiative of the sort we have seen many times over 30 years.

None of these countless and costly national and regional initiatives over three decades has worked as originally intended.

The main NHS IT improvements have been those achieved by autonomous hospitals and GP practices that have implemented effective but non-standardised systems. Hence systems in the NHS don’t usually talk to each other.

Interoperability ought to be the top priority for NHS IT. It’s not.

This is partly because it’s unglamorous for new ministers and Sir Humphreys to focus on “interoperability”. You’ll never hear a minister say, “We need to get the basics right before we try and create global digital exemplars and free wi-fi in GP surgeries.”

The Whitehall fashion is usually for vanity projects: digital statues built to honour the memory of a particular minister. Hence, the attention is on “driving the adoption of innovative technologies” instead of spending relatively small sums to enable clinicians to have systems that communicate across the NHS.

As soon as new ministers have their feet under the desk, they are handed a briefing paper on making the NHS a technological world leader.

The paper will not mean anything or commit the minister to anything, but it will give the incumbent something to talk about at conferences. It may even make ministers feel they are not entirely surplus to requirements. Hancock’s plan is indeed Sir Humphrey’s dream: a new division, more civil servants, new job roles and higher pay grades.

Will NHSX make any difference to you and me? That’s missing the point.  The priority for 30 years has been setting up a new division, putting in place a new leader, writing a new mission statement and preparing a series of business plans. Not forgetting an expansion of the civil service payroll.


Campaign4Change awards Matt Hancock the 2019 “Under The Thumb of Sir Humphrey” award. It’s a pointless award. As pointless as NHSX.

Thank you to @TimMorton2 for alerting me to the HSJ’s interview with Hancock.

Hancock promises industry open door policy at NHSX – HSJ

NHSX – the official remit

Below are some comments that follow HSJ’s article on Hancock’s setting up of NHSX:
  • “We all recall Einstein’s own perspective on insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results).
  • “Expecting the same people in the centre to deliver fundamentally different outcomes by moving them to a different team where they must drive radical change through the same people in the NHS is a rare combination of divorced reality and insanity… interruption not disruption will be the outcome.”
  • “The article mentions ‘NHS chief information officer Will Smart, chief clinical information officer Simon Eccles, and interim chief digital officer Tara Donnelly’. Who are all of these people? What do they do that’s different from one another and why is it different? … This is of course completely ludicrous and very typical  … appointing quite insane numbers of directors of this and that and chiefs so and so with blatant overlaps. Bloating at senior levels is hideously rife.”
  • “What would I do? Find the people in the NHS that have a record of successful delivery… You might be looking for a very long time. I can’t think of a single major IT-related project in the NHS that has been delivered on time, in budget and which actually delivered what was initially promised.”

  • “NHSX is the same people in a different box, but seems to be going in completely the opposite direction to the Topol report. If the purpose is to embed digital in NHS thinking, pulling all the people with digital expertise out of NHSEI and putting them in a different box is the last thing we should be doing.”
  • “You have to wonder who benefits from this.”
  • “I think he’d do better making people’s responsibilities and remit more explicit to the existing incumbents rather than inventing another new one. NHSD is the QUANGO setup to handle data but NHSE want to drive. Just look at the fiasco around DSCRO staff. Too many empires with no-one keeping them in line.”
  • “This has to be a welcome move, when it is so difficult to implement IT improvements across such a complex system. I would like to see the principal of openness and transparency applied to other areas of service provision from the independent sector, in particular, the provision of new cancer services.”

More public sector IT-related failures for which nobody will be accountable – a solution?

The Times front page – 23 January 2019

By Tony Collins

Criminal trials were delayed, jurors unable to enrol and witness statements inaccessible.

Quoting a tweet by the authoritative @BarristerSecret, the BBC said the “entire digital infrastructure” of courts was “broken for days”.

@BarristerSecret added,

“No accountability, no lessons learned.”

In the Spectator, Matthew Scott, a criminal barrister at Pump Court Chambers, said,

“Nobody seems to know exactly what has gone wrong or, if they do, they do not like to say.”

His Spectator blog was headlined,

The Spectator – 24 Jan 2019



“The most irritating fault has been for a few days the near total seizure (or ‘major service degradation’ to use the official non-explanation) of the secure email system (‘CJSM’) which for several years now has been the only authorised means of written communication between the Crown Prosecution Service and defence lawyers, probation, prisons, police and others.”

The Law Society Gazette said,

Law Society Gazette – 22 Jan 2019




The Law Society Gazette gave examples of how the problems had caused disruption and angst in the criminal justice system. It said,

“Major disruption that affected multiple Ministry of Justice IT systems last week continues to cause chaos.

“Lawyers on the front line have told the Gazette that trials have been delayed, jurors have been unable to enrol and practitioners have been prevented from confirming attendance that will enable them to get paid.

“Last week the ministry’s digital and technology team said most systems were improving. However, the Gazette has spoken to practitioners whose experiences suggest otherwise.”

A criminal barrister who spent the day in Leicester Crown Court said  none of the court’s computer systems was operational, jurors could not be enrolled, and no advocates could sign into the Ministry of Justice’s XHIBIT system, an online service that logs lawyers’ attendance so they can get paid.

A lawyer at Lincoln Crown Court said the XHIBIT system was down again. The Crown Court Digital Case System, on which all cases are accessed, was also down.

A criminal defence solicitor arrived at Highbury Magistrates’ Court in London at 9.15am, where there were several clients in the cells. But jailers did not know which courts the cases would be heard in and  because there was no wi-fi in the building magistrates had no access to any papers on their ipads before the hearings.

“The Gazette was told that several people attended Scarborough Magistrates’ Court last week to make statutory declarations in respect of driving matters. ‘Most of these people had come suited and booted, with all the anxiety that marks ordinary members of the public out as different from the frequent flyers who regularly come before the courts.

“These poor souls were left hanging around all morning, until 1pm, when they were advised that the systems were still not back up. Two of them agreed to come back on an adjourned date, 14 days later, but one of them explained that he couldn’t take further time off work. He was asked to come back in the afternoon, in the vain hope that the case management system might be back online.”

Former government chief technology officer Andy Beale quoted The Times in a tweet,




In another tweet, Beale said,




The Guardian reported yesterday (28 January 2019) that the Ministry of Justice knew its court computer systems were “obsolete” and “out of support” long before the network went into meltdown, internal documents have revealed.

The MoJ document, entitled Digital & Technology, said, “Historical under-investment in ageing IT systems has built our technical debt to unacceptable levels and we are carrying significant risk that will result in a large-scale data breach if the vulnerabilities are exploited.”

It added, “We have a Technology 2022 strategy, but it is not funded to help us address the long-term issues with current systems and allow us to make best use of new technologies to improve service delivery.”

It referred to a database used by 16 employment tribunal administrative offices in which the “scale of outage” accounted for 33% of incidents over the previous six months. Users were unable to access systems for a “significant number of hours”.

The report cited problems such as “risk of database corrupted leading to data loss; unable to restore service in a timely manner”, and added: “Judges say they will put tribunal activity on hold because of the poor running of the application.”

Government response

In the Commons, the government’s justice minister Lucy Frazer, responding to an urgent Labour request for a statement on the IT problems, was relaxed in her comments. She said the disruption was “intermittent” and the problems were merely “frustrating”. She added,

“The issue that has arisen relates mainly to email systems. There has been minimal disruption, I am told, to the courts system as a whole.”

She said there had been an “infrastructure failure in our supplier’s data centre”.

“The Prison Service has not been affected and—to correct inaccurate reporting—criminals have not gone free as a result of the problem. We have been working closely with our suppliers, Atos and Microsoft, to get our systems working again, and yesterday we had restored services to 180 court sites, including the largest ones.

“Today (23 January 2019), 90% of staff have working computer systems. Work continues to restore services and we expect the remainder of the court sites to be fully operational by the time they open tomorrow morning. We are very disappointed that our suppliers have not yet been able to resolve the network problems in full.

“This afternoon, the permanent secretary, Sir Richard Heaton, will meet the chief executive of Atos and write personally to all members of the judiciary. I am very grateful to all our staff who have been working tirelessly and around the clock, alongside our suppliers, to resolve the issues.”

Labour’s Yasmin Qureshi asked if Microsoft and Atos have paid any penalties to which Frazer gave a vague, non-committal reply,

“… the permanent secretary is meeting the supplier’s chief executive this afternoon and of course we will look carefully at the contracts, which include penalty clauses.”

Frazer later said the problem related to a “server” which raised questions about how the failure of a single server, or servers, could cause widespread chaos in the courts.

Labour’s Steve McCabe said the server problem was not a  single or unusual event.

“… her Department has been receiving reports of failures in the criminal justice secure email service for at least six months now”.

Police systems

The BBC reported last week that problems with a police IT system were causing some criminals to escape justice.

Nine forces in England and Wales use Athena from Northgate Public Services. They are Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, Warwickshire and West Mercia. The system is designed to help speed up the detection of crimes.

But officers told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme that it crashes regularly and is overly complicated, meaning some cases are not built in time or dropped.

Developers Northgate Public Services apologised for problems “in small areas”, which it said it was fixing.

A joint response from nine police forces said Athena – which has cost £35m over the past 10 years – had been “resilient and stable, although no system is perfect”.

The system was introduced following a government directive for forces to share intelligence after the Soham murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, in 2002.

Officers said the intelligence-sharing function works well but problems arise when they use the system to build cases for the Crown Prosecution Service.

The delays it causes means officers can struggle to get the information together in time to charge suspects or the cases are not up to a high-enough standard and are dropped.

Serving officers at Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Essex told the programme the process could now take up to twice as long.

The BBC did not name any officers who revealed details of the problems because they could face disciplinary action for speaking out. Their comments included:

  • “The first two weeks it (the system) was brought in were the worst two weeks of my entire career. It’s overly bureaucratic. It doesn’t understand the police investigative process at all. From day one, it malfunctioned. Four years on, it is still malfunctioning”
  • “It often requires information that is totally irrelevant and if you miss just one data entry point (like whether a solicitor is male or female), I have to reject the whole case and send it back to the officer”
  • “Even for a simple shoplift, I probably have to press about 50 buttons, with a 30-second minimum loading time between each task”
  • “There have been incidents where charges have been dropped because of the inadequacies of the system. There have been cases of assaults, albeit fairly minor assaults, but these are still people who should be facing criminal charges”
  • “It slows the whole criminal justice system down. At the moment, it is not fit for purpose. This is the most challenging time I have come across. We’re at breaking point already. This has pushed some officers over the edge”
  • “When you’ve got detainees in a custody block who’ve got various illnesses and ailments, medical conditions that are all recorded on there and they need medication at certain times – it became very dangerous because we were unable to access the records”

The nine forces – which also include those in Cambridgeshire, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, Warwickshire and West Mercia – said in a joint statement that they had been working with the supplier to identify and correct issues as they arose.

“Over the 12 months up to November 2018, there have only been 72 hours of total downtime and there are detailed plans in place of how to manage business when this occurs.”

Northgate Public Services, which created Athena, said 40,000 officers accessed the system and benefited from improved criminal intelligence.

It said it was working to make improvements to the “complex system”.

“We recognise there are a small number of areas of the solution where improvements can be made and we apologise for any difficulties this has caused.

“We are working hard with the customer and other parties to make these improvements as a priority.”


As @BarristerSecret said,

“No accountability, no lessons learned.”

In central and local government, accountability means suppliers sometimes have to pay small penalties. Outsourcing supplier Capita last year paid Barnet Council about £4.2m in compensation for poor performance.

It was a fraction of the hundreds of millions Capita has received from Barnet Council.

Sometimes the opposite happens and it is the supplier that wins money from the government after a failure.

The Home Office sacked Raytheon over problems on an e-borders IT systems and ended up paying Raytheon £224m in compensation.

The Department of Heath ended up paying Fujitsu hundreds of millions of pounds after the supplier’s contract to deliver systems under the National Programme for IT [NPfIT] was ended.

A major failure in one area of the public sector will not  stop or deter officials from awarding the same supplier a major contract in the same or another part of the public sector.

Were a major failure or legal dispute to preclude a supplier from bidding for further UK public sector work, most if not all major suppliers would today have little UK government business.

A solution?

There is an effective way to encourage IT suppliers and the public sector to avoid public service failures. But the senior civil service isn’t interested.

That solution would be to publish – after every major public services failure – a full, independent third-party report into what went wrong and why.

Some senior officials seem unruffled by public criticism or even contempt after a services failure. But particularly in some of the major departments, there is a high-level fear of the full truth emerging after an administrative disaster.  Departments would do almost anything to avoid IT-related failures if reports on the causes were routinely published.

But unless there is a Parliamentary or public clamour for such internal analyses to be published, they will remain hidden or uncommissioned.

When the National Audit Office publishes a report on a departmental failure, the report has usually been agreed and signed off by the department; and it is usually a one-off report.

When public services descend into chaos, as happened in the court service last week, immense pressure falls on the IT teams to restore normal services urgently. But without the routine publication of reports on major IT-related public service failures, where is the motivation for senior officials to avoid chaos in the first place?

House of Commons debate on the courts’ IT failures

Thank you to Celina Bledowska for her tweet alerting me to the criminal justice IT problems.

“I had no reason to doubt the integrity of the Post Office, given the Governmental involvement.”

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

Thousands of known errors on controversial Post Office computer system to be revealed 


Businessman whose wife died from overdose has joined group legal action against the Post Office

By Tony Collins

The Post Office does not comment on individual cases. Its general position is that people who own and run local offices under contract to the Post Office take responsibility for any deficits shown on the Horizon  branch accounting system.

Fiona Cowan had such a deficit,. With a friend, she ran a local post office that her businessman husband Phil had bought in Edinburgh. They owned the local post office site but ran it under contract to the Post Office.

After the deficit appeared, the post office was closed and Fiona was asked how soon she could repay £30,000.

Phil asked if there could be a glitch in the Horizon system. He says he was told that, if so, it would be the only sub post office in the country to have such a problem.

Fiona was charged with false accounting. With no post office, the retail side of their post office business dwindled and Phil sold up at a substantial loss. The Post Office took £30,000 out of a redundancy offer.

Fiona, who suffered from on and off bouts of depression, died of an accidental overdose. She was 47.

Now Forecourt Trader has published an article saying that Phil Cowan has joined the group legal action against the post office.

Phil was quoted as saying, “She [Fiona] went to her grave with this criminal charge hanging over her.”

Forecourt Trader reports that the Post Office did not tell the Cowans that the charges had been  dropped.  Phil subsequently joined the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance which, with solicitors Freeths, brought a group action against the Post Office.

An initial High Court judgment in the case is due later this month.

The FT reported last year that the Post Office dismissed Deirdre Connolly, a sub-postmistress, after an apparent shortfall of £15,600. The alleged deficit was found during an unannounced branch audit.

The FT said that, out of fear, Connolly made up the apparent loss with help from relatives. The Post Office did not prosecute. Her son later attempted suicide, which she attributed to his witnessing the stress she was under.

In 2015 the Daily Mail reported on Martin Griffiths, a sub-postmaster from Chester, who stepped in front of a bus one morning in September 2013.

An inquest heard that Griffiths, 59, was being pursued by the Post Office over an alleged shortfall of tens of thousands of pounds.

The Post Office reached a settlement with his widow and required the terms of it to be kept confidential.

A group legal action by about 560 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses against the Post Office is likely to continue for years if the case goes to appeal. The Post Office has set aside at least £5m in legal fees to fight the case.

It is thought that the Post Office has warned its shareholder – the government – that the legal fees could, ultimately, run into tens of millions of pounds.

The Post Office has said repeatedly that its Horizon system is extremely robust and operates over its entire Post Office network and successfully records millions of transactions each day.

Thank you to journalist Nick Wallis whose Tweet alerted me to the Forecourt Trader article. Wallis is crowdfunded to cover the group legal action in the High Court. He has written extensively on the trial, as has Karl Flinders of Computer Weekly.

Forecourt Trader article on Phil and Fiona Cowan

FT reports on a death following Horizon system shortfall