Category Archives: Campaign4Change

Would you feel safer in a plane or running a village Post Office?

By Tony Collins

Technology-related controversies involving Boeing and the Post Office raise similar questions  

Technology is cited as a factor in the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max aircraft in which a total of 346 people died.

Technology is also cited as a factor in suicides, bankruptcies, marriage break-ups and ruined lives of hundreds of former sub-postmasters and their families.

Journalist Nick Wallis reports this month on sub-postmaster Peter Murray  who had a stroke in December last year as the Post Office pursued him for alleged shortages of £35,000 shown on the Post Office’s Horizon branch accounts system.

Unknown to Murray when he took over a post office in Great Sutton, Cheshire, the previous sub-postmaster Martin Griffiths had taken his own life. An inquest heard that Griffiths was being pursued by the Post Office over alleged shortfalls shown on Horizon that ran into tens of thousands of pounds.

The scale of the tragedy in crashes of the two 737 Max aircraft cannot be compared to the Post Office’s Horizon controversy.

But anyone who has studied common factors in plane crashes, bridge collapses, Space Shuttle tragedies and other engineering, IT and human failures may see similarities in the complaints by pilots about the Boeing’s 737 Max technology and complaints by former sub-postmasters about the Post Office’s Horizon branch accounting system.

Excessive secrecy?

The Horizon and 737 Max controversies are marked by allegations of a cover-up of computer-related problems which Boeing and the Post Office deny.

The technology’s operators (pilots and sub-postmasters) complained that they were not being given the full facts after major incidents. Pilots expressed concerns direct to Boeing about the 737 Max’s MCAS anti-stall system. The pilots received assurances that any problems were not serious.

But the second fatal crash of a 737 Max happened after those assurances; and the MCAS system was implicated in both crashes. It transpired that pilots kept trying to raise the plane’s nose while MCAS anti-stall software kept pitching it towards the ground.

A known problem had not been fixed. It was known that MCAS could, in rare circumstances such as faulty sensor data, pitch down the nose even if the plane was not in danger of stalling.

In the two 737 Max crashes, some aviation specialists believe that MCAS  was being fed erroneous data from a faulty sensor. In one of the crashes, a sensor might have been damaged by a bird strike.

Usually with critical aircraft software, an alert is given to pilots when sensors are faulty; and pilots are trained in what to do. But if manufacturers do not judge new software to be safety-critical, they may not consider alerts and related training to be vital on all aircraft.

Sub-postmasters received repeated assurances from the Horizon helpline when they raised concerns about unexplained shortfalls shown the system. For them and their families, a series of life-changing events followed those assurances, culminating in some cases, in serious health-related events or worse.

Blame the operator?

After major incidents, Boeing and the Post Office have defended their technologies and pointed to the system operators: pilots and sub-postmasters.

Other common factors in complaints against technologies in the 737 Max and the Post Office’s Horizon system include:

  • A questionable ability of the system operators – pilots and sub-postmasters – to be taken seriously when they raised concerns about the technology.
  • Little or no statutory scrutiny of the technology in question although its performance could profoundly affect lives. Boeing self-certified the technology in use in the 737 Max. The Post Office’s Horizon system was not subject to any statutory or regulatory inspection. Horizon was scrutinised by forensic accountants Second Sight and the Post Office dismissed its partially unfavourable findings. It also ended Second Sight’s contract.
  • Structural secrecy that prevented pilots and sub-postmasters understanding fully the technology they were required to use.
  • Major incidents that were treated by Boeing and the Post Office as one-offs. Links between major incidents may not be immediately obvious because they are sometimes the result of a complicated combination of events that might not have congealed in exactly the same way before. But, even after two similar, fatal crashes of the 737 Max, the US Federal Aviation Authority said the aircraft was safe. When countries across the world including Britain grounded the 737 Max, the Federation Aviation Authority had no choice but to act. The aircraft remains grounded worldwide; and European and US regulators are at odds over the depth of the oversight changes required to avoid such software-related crashes again. It appears Boeing will end up having to change the way it operates. After hundreds of complaints about the Horizon system, the Post Office is facing a group litigation action. Former sub-postmasters are claiming damages for financial loss, personal injury, deceit, duress, unconscionable dealing, harassment and unjust enrichment. The Post Office disputes the whole basis of the claimants’ case and maintains that large numbers of sub-postmasters knowingly submitted false accounts. The Post Office maintains that Horizon worked perfectly adequately.

Old technology?

There’s also the question of whether the controversies might have been avoided if ageing designs had been replaced entirely rather than modified to keep pace with business imperatives.

Boeing’s 737 design goes back to 1960s and the Horizon system to the 1990s. But fundamentally new designs would have required hugely costly retraining programmes for pilots and sub-postmasters. .

Normalising the questionable 

A further common consideration – as in the loss of the Challenger Space Shuttle – is whether questionable institutional practices and behaviour had become normalised. A fascinating 575-page book on this problem, “The Challenger launch Decision” shows in minute detail how NASA managers did not violate their procedures. Instead they set and followed bad precedents – what the author Diane Vaughan called the “normalization of deviance”. She said,

“It was not amorally calculating managers violating the rules that were responsible for the tragedy. It was conformity.”

Vaughan found that it is easier for large organisations to blame the technology operators for institutional failures rather than identify structural and cultural causes of disaster. She warned of the dangers of seeing organisational failures as the result of individual actions.

“… taken-for-granted aspects of organisational life created a way of seeing that was simultaneously a way of not seeing”. She added,

“Any remedy that targets only individuals misses the structural origins of the problem.”

The organisation’s culture is “supremely important” in allowing constructive criticism to be heard. But Vaughan concludes in her book that NASA’s economic pressures and cultures leading up to the Challenger disaster are still there.

Arguably, it is almost impossible for a large organisation to change its culture unless change is forced on it. When a subsequent Space Shuttle mission [Columbia] ended in disaster, an official report highlighted NASA’s underlying organisational and cultural issues that contributed to the accident.

Clearly, it is possible for everyone involved in the design and implementation of technology for large organisations to do everything right according to long-established procedures – and still have a succession of disasters.

Boeing

A comprehensive account of what went wrong with the design and development of Boeing’s 737 Max software has been published in The Verge. It is headlined, The many human errors that brought down the 737 Max”.

It explains how Boeing needed to modernise the ageing 737 design – but not too much because major changes would have required a retraining of thousands of pilots, which would have added to costs for potential customers.

Instead of a new design of airframe, Boeing put larger and more efficient engines on an aircraft that remained essentially the same. The heavier engines needed repositioning, further forward, on the wings, which affected handling of the 737 in certain circumstances, but any aerodynamic changes were made largely invisible to pilots by new MCAS software.

The modified aircraft was an apparent winner. It required less than three hours of computer-based training. Boeing sold a record-breaking $200bn worth of the 737 Max before the first prototype took to the skies.

But pilots became concerned after the first fatal crash. Captain Laura Einsetler, who has flown for over 30 years, including on 737s, told The Verge she was not told the full facts on how the new technologies worked.

“I don’t have the schematics. I don’t have the cockpit panels. I don’t have an instructor that I can ask questions to,” she said, “You’re hoping that the first time you see the Max is on a nice clear day. But sometimes it’s not, and you’re showing up at night or in bad weather into an airplane that has all these changes.” Pilots were not told about the MCAS anti-stall system.

This secrecy meant that the aviation world was not generally aware that, at the time of the first fatal Max crash in October, if MCAS was being fed incorrect data from a faulty sensor, 737 pilots could end up fighting against the plane’s software for control of the aircraft.

A Boeing 737 Max, Lion Air Flight 610, with 189 passengers and crew, went into the Java Sea 12 minutes after taking off from Jakarta, Indonesia in October last year. Nobody survived.

About five months later, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, with 157 passengers and crew, crashed six minutes after take off from Addis Ababa. Nobody survived. Minutes before each crash, pilots had been fighting against MCAS to lift the nose but MCAS kept pointing it towards the ground. It was the software that had the final, tragic say.

One of the lessons from the crashes is that the US Federal Aviation Authority may include software in its certification tests in future rather than leaving delegated authority with Boeing.

Post Office control

In the case of Horizon, the Post Office has remained in full control.

When some sub-postmasters faced with unexplained shortfalls ended up in prison, the Crown Prosecution Service and police were not always involved in their cases. It was the Post Office that was the investigating and the prosecuting authority. Nothing sub-postmasters could say to the Post Office about Horizon would shake its belief in the system.

However, the Post Office is facing criticism by High Court judges. In the litigation between sub-postmasters and the Post Office, the Horizon trial judge Mr Justice Peter Fraser has been strongly critical of the Post Office, its behaviour, actions and most of its witnesses. In his “common issues” judgement, he said that some of the Post Office’s submissions “seem to have their origins in a parallel world”. The Post Office has appealed the common issues judgement.

Has the Post Office’s control gone unchecked for too long? Would the Post Office, like Boeing, benefit from having its technology subject to close statutory scrutiny? Particularly when, like Boeing, it controls technology that has the power to change the course of people’s lives.

Comment

The safety culture in the aviation world has much to teach the designers and operators of business systems generally.

Aircraft design has evolved over decades on the basis of trying to anticipate the improbable and even the impossible. On rare occasions, all the main engines on Airbus and Boeing flights have failed and passengers have emerged from the incidents unscathed.  Examples include British Airways Flight 9 (a Boeing 747), US Airways Flight 1549 (an Airbus A320) and Taca Flight 110 (a Boeing 737)..

This aviation industry’s safety culture means that when things go tragically wrong, lessons are usually learned. There are currently congressional hearings in the US into the two fatal crashes of the 737 Max; and lengthy statutory investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board are underway.

Worldwide media coverage of new disclosures about Boeing’s 737 Max technology has been relentless. Boeing has been compelled to act. The regulators may also change their practices. There remains in Europe a deep distrust of the competence of the Federal Aviation Authority.

The Post Office is not accustomed to being told what to do. Its much earlier predecessor, the General Post Office, was an arm of government and had its own special investigations unit responsible for intercepting letters as part of British intelligence service operations. Some of the Post Office’s work today falls within the scope of the Official Secrets Act. It is not answerable to shareholders (except a single government representative on the board).

Even with a legal challenge from Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and solicitors Freeths, who represent sub-postmasters, the Post Office has sought to exercise control.

In 2017, the Post Office opposed the sub-postmasters’ application for a Group Litigation Order. The judge granted it. In 2018, the Post Office sought to strike out between about one quarter to one third of all of the evidence served by the sub-postmasters. It said the evidence was irrelevant to the first trial. The trial judge disagreed and ruled that the evidence stay.

In 2019, the Post Office has sought to have Peter Fraser removed as the trial judge. It said he was biased. The Court of Appeal disagreed, which means the judge will stay for the remaining three trials. The Court of Appeal issued a 17-page judgement against the Post Office. The Law Society Gazette described the ruling as “scatching”.

The Post Office remains in control, however. Being 100% government-owned, it can spend money without fear of going bust. Taxpayers would have to bail it out in any financial crisis. It has the power to seek to appeal every major judgement, or appeal refusals to grant a right of appeal, all of which could extend the proceedings for years. Judge Fraser expressed a concern about escalating costs in his judgement in March 2019 when he said,

“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).

He also said that the Post Office appears, at least at times, to conduct itself as “though it is answerable only to itself”.

 If the Post Office has no fear of going bust in any financial crisis, could it control the outcome of the proceedings by appeals and extensions that may eventually drain the other side of its private financing?

Would you feel safer in a plane or running a village Post Office?

It is reassuring for airline passengers to know that plane makers can be held to account if things go wrong. At an ordinary domestic level, homeowners would want to be able to hold a roofer or a central heating company to account if things went wrong. It can be argued that any company is only as good as its reaction when things go wrong.

If anything goes seriously wrong when you are running a village post office, you are in the hands of the Post Office. If the computer says, inexplicably, that you have debts totalling £30,000, £50,000 or £80,000, your options may be limited: pay in full, go bankrupt, lose your home and your health or worse.

Culture

It appears the Post Office has shown little or no compassion to most of those who have complained about shortfalls shown on Horizon. Its corporate mindset is that Horizon cannot be the cause of discrepancies. Nobody can change an institutional mindset or force it to change.

After decades of IT-related failures in Whitehall, some costing billions of pounds, such as the £10bn National Programme for IT in the NHS (NPfIT) secretive institutional cultures and mindsets have remained unchanged. Indeed, health officials in recent months have sought to to re-introduce facets of the NPfIT that were discredited years ago, such as central control of locally-based IT.

Even if the Post Office eventually loses the Horizon case and ends up with costs and damages exceeding £100m – and possibly a much larger sum – it could not be compelled to change its culture. The Post Office’s board and senior officials may change. But not the culture.

Why flying is so safe

If Boeing and Airbus were able to treat every major incident as a rare one-off and hold the pilots responsible every time, it is doubtful flying would be as safe as it is. Statute, rules, government-imposed investigations, a safety culture and the risk of the flying public boycotting airlines perceived as unsafe forces manufacturers and airline engineers to learn lessons from accidents.

The result is that accidents and fatalities are a fraction of what they were in the 1990s. A person could fly once a day for four million years before succumbing to a fatal crash, according to Arnold Barnett, a professor of statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

As for those running a village post office, there are no official statistics on how many sub-postmasters have been affected by unexplained deficits shown on Horizon. What is known is that about 550 former sub-postmasters are party to a legal action against the Post Office over the system and a further 500 or so former sub-postmasters are said to have had similar problems but are not in the group litigation. That is a total about one in eleven of all the 11,000 people who are running post offices in the UK.

The chances of being in an intractable dispute with the Post Office over unexpected shortfalls remain very low, however; and the chances of being in an intractable dispute that is a factor in suicide are infinitesimal. A recent unofficial survey indicated that the majority of sub-postmasters regard Horizon as reliable.

But some of the 1,000 or so former sub-postmasters who have been pursued for deficits have suffered life-changing experiences. In most major incidents on aircraft, passengers and crew walked off unscathed.

Statistics can mean little at the best of times and probably nothing when trying to answer whether you would feel safer in a plane or running a village post office. If perception rules your choice, the answer would be obvious: running a village post office is surely much safer than flying at 35,000 feet in a metal tube.

Once you realise, however, that when you have board an aircraft you are highly likely to emerge unscathed from any major technology-related incident, the answer is not so obvious.

Thank you to David Orr for your emailed link to an article on Boeing’s 737 Max that suggested senior management were not aware of the plane’s technology problems.

**

The Post Office claim I owe them £35,000, despite never showing or telling me what I have done wrong – Nick Wallis’s postofficetrial blog

Post Office applies to appeal damning judgment in first Horizon trial – Computer Weekly’s coverage of the Post Office trial

Post Office Limited and the money tree – campaigner Tim McCormack’s blog

Appeal Court throws out Post Office bid to remove judge

The many human errors that brought down the 737 Max – The Verge

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How is Post Office paying for increasing costs of Horizon IT litigation – MP asks questions

The Post Office has lost all four High Court rulings  (so far) in a series of hearings over its Horizon IT system. There are still three trials to go. With appeals, the number of hearings and judgements, and  the duration of the case, are indeterminate.

How is the publicly-funded Post Office paying for litigation that is, in essence, its defence of the Horizon system?

By Tony Collins

Labour MP Kevan Jones has this week asked a series of pertinent questions about costs and the Post Office’s dispute with former sub-postmasters over the Horizon branch accounting system.

His Parliamentary questions are likely to draw the attention of business secretary Greg Clark to the increasing costs of a High Court trial in which more than 550 former sub-postmasters seek compensation and damages from the Post Office. They say they were made to pay for unexplained shortfalls shown on Horizon that could have been caused by bugs or other system weaknesses.

The Post Office says Horizon is robust and the shortfalls were the result of dishonesty or mistakes by sub-postmasters or their staff. The Post Office has pursued sub-postmasters for “debts” shown on the Horizon system of millions of pounds in total.

Kevin Jones’ questions follow a judgement last month in which a High Court judge, Mr Justice Peter Fraser, referred to the Post Office’s approach to the costs of the litigation.

“The Post Office has appeared determined to make this litigation, and therefore resolution of this intractable dispute, as difficult and expensive as it can,” said the judge.

Since that judgement, costs have risen further because the Post Office has decided to appeal last month’s judgement. The Post Office has also applied for the judge to remove himself from three remaining trials over the Horizon system. which caused the second trial to be suspended.

This week it has emerged that costs, which could run into tens millions of pounds, are set to rise again. Although the judge has refused permission for the Post Office to appeal his refusal to remove – “recuse”  himself, the Post Office can ask the Court of Appeal to grant that permission.  BBC legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg has tweeted,

 

 

Kevan Jones has asked the business secretary Greg Clark:

  • what steps he is taking to ensure the Government is held accountable for the decisions and actions of Post Office Limited in the handling of postmasters’ problems with Horizon.
  • whether public money has been used to pay costs involved in the ongoing dispute with postmasters since 2000.
  • whether the Lord Chancellor will determine the extent of any conflict of interest on the part of Tim Parker by reason of his dual roles of (a) the Chairman of Post Office Limited; and (b) the Independent Chair of the HM Courts and Tribunal Service Board.
  • what the anticipated increased cost implications are for Post Office Limited in its dealing with serving Subpostmasters following the High Court decision handed down on 15 March 2019.
  • whether the Post Office has ever taken into profit from its suspense accounts any unreconciled sums recovered from Subpostmasters.

Former sub-postmaster Alan Bates, founder of Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and lead claimant in the case, told Computer Weekly, 

“This move by Post Office Ltd to have the judge recused was just another act by an organisation abusing the use of public money to litigate a valid case into the ground in order to protect the reputations of just a few individuals and a dysfunctional business.”

The Post Office said, “We will be seeking to appeal the judgment on the recusal application and to continue to vigorously defend this litigation. We believe the overall litigation remains the best opportunity to resolve long-standing issues in order to ensure a stable and sustainable Post Office network for the benefit of the communities who rely on our services every single day.”

Freeths, solicitors for the sub-postmasters,  has submitted an application for the Post Office to pay the legal costs in the first trial, likely to be for several million pounds.

Comment:

Kevan Jones is right to ask questions about the publicly-funded Post Office and costs. The Post Office appears to have no cap on how much it is prepared to spend on the litigation; and it has shown little or no concern about how many years the case will continue.

Institutions, particularly public ones,  have a duty to spend money wisely. Not cutting your losses when you are losing a series of High Court hearings is poor judgement.

The Post Office has a choice: continue to pour money into a case that looks, on the basis of evidence so far, to be unwinnable.  Or pay the millions it is giving lawyers to its former sub-postmasters instead.

It’s a decision the Post Office will not make on its own – in which case Kevan Jones and his Parliamentary colleagues must continue their campaign for justice.

Thank you to sub-postmaster “Mrs Goggins”  and former sub-postmaster Jo Hamilton whose tweets alerted me to Kevan Jones’ questions.

Computer Weekly’s coverage

Journalist Nick Wallis’ coverage

Former sub-postmaster and campaigner Tim McCormack’s blog

 

Does the Post Office Horizon IT dispute boil down to this?

By Tony Collins

In the High Court today,  the Post Office will argue for the judge in the Horizon IT trials to sack himself.

The Post Office is concerned that the judge’s criticisms of the Post Office in his first judgement could affect his future three judgements. The Post Office accuses the judge, Sir Peter Fraser QC, of bias.

Given the thousands of pages of legal documents that relate to the four trials in this dispute,  it is easy to assume that the arguments are hard to grasp for anyone new to the case.  But the issue at stake in the Post Office Horizon IT trials is a simple one:

  • who is to be believed – system owner or user –  when one side says the computer system was robust and reliable and the other side says it wasn’t working as originally intended and was producing unexpected outputs?

The Post Office says in essence: the losses shown on Horizon were real and were the user’s responsibility, the users in this case being sub-postmasters.

The users’ counter-argument is in essence: we didn’t take any money and the losses shown on an imperfect Horizon were unexpected outputs. Not our fault.

It’s the same argument when there are major incidents that involve planes or autonomous cars:

  •  is the aircraft or car manufacturer correct when asserting that it was the user’s fault (pilot or driver).
  • Or is the manufacturer not owning up to IT faults and blaming the user?

Major aviation incidents are investigated independently by statutory bodies. But the Post Office is not automatically subject to any statutory investigation when its IT is alleged to have gone wrong.

It could be said that the four High Court trials over the Horizon branch accounting system are the equivalent of the aviation world’s statutory independent investigation.

The big difference is that Boeing or Airbus cannot ask for the head of an independent inquiry into suspected IT problems after major incidents to be sacked. The Post Office can.

Postofficetrial – coverage by Nick Wallis

Post Office could face huge bill for first Horizon trial – Karl Flinders, Computer Weekly

Will more campaigners die as they await justice in extended Post Office IT dispute?

A High Court dispute over the Post Office Horizon IT system is expected to cost tens of millions of pounds. But what is the human cost of delaying the outcome?

Tomorrow a High Court judge will consider an application by the Post Office to recuse – remove – himself from a series of trials that relate to the Post Office’s Horizon IT system. The Post Office accuses him of bias.

The Post Office’s application means that the second of four trials is currently suspended. A final outcome of the various hearings, after appeals,  could be years away.

Will any delayed final outcome have an effect on the 600 or so sub-postmasters who are part of the litigation?

It is a concern expressed by the judge in the case, Sir Peter Fraser, QC who is head of the High Court’s Technology and Construction Court. In his 1,100-paragraph judgement delivered last month after the first trial, he said,

“Even on that intended timetable, some Claimants [sub-postmasters] may be waiting far longer than is ideal to have their claims fully resolved either in their favour, or against them.

“Some of the Claimants are retired; some are elderly; some have  criminal convictions under review by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

“Nobody involved in this litigation is getting any younger as time passes. The Post Office itself is under a cloud in respect of these unresolved allegations and I consider it to be an obvious point that resolution of this litigation as soon as possible is in the interests of all the parties – all the Claimants and the Post Office – in the interests of justice and the wider public interest.”

Is the Post Office trying its best to expedite an outcome? Mr Justice Fraser suggested the opposite. His judgement said,

“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].

Separately, the judge said,

“It does appear to me that the Post Office in particular has resisted timely resolution of this Group Litigation whenever it can, and certainly throughout 2017 and well into 2018.” [Par 14]

The judgement referred to the Post Office’s “attritional approach of the Post Office to this litigation”. [Par 569]

If the judge is right and if the Post Office board is determined to make the litigation as difficult and expensive as it can, what of the human cost of any delays taking into account the age of some of those involved and the hopes of those with criminal convictions whose cases are under review?

Traumatised

Journalist Nick Wallis who is covering the High Court trials reports that he has been told that some sub-postmasters remain “traumatised” by their experience of losses shown on the Horizon system that they were required to make good.

Some of the sub-postmasters, says Wallis,  “are having to work long past retirement age” with all their life savings taken to pay for losses that are now in dispute as part of the sub-postmasters versus Post Office litigation.

The Post Office contends that Horizon is robust and that it was justified in holding sub-postmasters responsible for discrepancies and shortfalls shown on the system. The sub-postmasters claim damages saying the Post Office unjustly required payments for losses shown on an imperfect Horizon system. They argue the losses were not real shortfalls.

For one justice campaigner, Julian Wilson, a former sub-postmaster from Redditch in Worcestershire,  time ran out in 2016. Nick Wallis knew Wilson as a gentle, generous and good humoured man. The Post Office prosecuted Wilson for false accounting after unexplained shortfalls on the Horizon system.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission was reviewing his conviction when he died.

Wilson had been sentenced to 200 hours of community service and had to pay the Post Office £27,500 plus £3,000 costs. He told the Daily Telegraph in 2013,

“Initially, when there were discrepancies [on the Horizon system], my wife and I were putting the money in. As the discrepancies got larger and larger, we were no longer able to afford it.

“I told my line managers on several occasions that I was concerned about this, and the comment I got back from them was: ‘Don’t worry, the system will put itself right.’

“But it never did, so I was taken to court. I hadn’t taken a penny. Everything we’ve got has gone. In the last few weeks, we’ve been doing car boot sales to try to get some money to put some food on the table. My wife even had to sell her engagement ring.”

Comment

It is by no means certain that all of the 600 or so former sub-postmasters who are fighting for justice will live to know the final outcome of the trials.

If sympathetic to its former sub-postmasters, the Post Office could settle the litigation or seek expedited judgements. On the other hand, the Post Office could, given its deep pockets as a public institution,  seek to replace trial judges and appeal judgements. If so, a final outcome could be delayed with no end date in sight,

Business minister Kelly Tolhurst MP has responsibility for postal affairs. In deciding whether or not to intervene, will she weigh up the cost in human terms of a dispute that began more than 10 years before the start of the High Court Horizon trials?

MPs called the Post Office Horizon dispute a national scandal but to the family of Julian Wilson it is a tragedy. They live with the knowledge that he went to his grave a near-bankrupt convicted criminal whose wife ended up selling her engagement ring  because of events that followed losses shown on a branch accounting system.

Nick Wallis’ Post Office trial coverage

Post Office lacked humanity in treatment of sub-postmasters, says peer – Computer Weekly’s coverage of the Post Office’s trial

Blog of campaigning former sub-postmaster Tim McCormack

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.

Summons?

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 …”

Comment:

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

Comment:

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.

Mistakes

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.”

Comment:

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 UK.gov’s digital transformation

Crazy – millions of citizens offered two competing identity systems

National Audit Office report “Investigation into Verify”