Category Archives: Fujitsu

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.”

Comment:

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.

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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

Uupublished plan to throw another £13bn at the NHS’s IT problems?

By Tony Collins

The Health Service Journal yesterday revealed details of NHS IT investment plans that have been costed at about £12.9bn over the next five years.

The HSJ’s award-winning technology correspondent Ben Heather  says the sums currently involved – which could reduce as proposals are “reined in” – are on a par with the notorious National Programme for IT in the NHS.

He says that officials working on the plan have produced an estimate of between £10.9bn and £12.9bn for the cost of supporting proposals across 15 long-term plan “workstreams” ranging from creating personalised care to improving cancer survival.

The figures form part of the work of the digital and technology workstream for the long term plan, which is being developed by NHS England and NHS Improvement.

“The sum would be on par with the National Programme for IT, the most expensive push to improve IT systems in NHS history and an infamously costly and troubled project. It is likely to reduce substantially, however, as ambitions for the plan are negotiated and reined in over coming weeks.”

The plan is due to be published in late November or early December. The health secretary is known to be a keen advocate of new IT-related investments.

It is likely that a sizeable portion of the new £20bn planned for the NHS – which will be financed partly by tax increases that are due to be announced in the budget later this month – will go on NHS technology.

But the Health Service Journal suggests the investments will be controlled centrally, which may be a bad sign given that one of the major flaws in the failed £13bn NPfIT was that money was controlled centrally rather than by local groups of doctors and nurses.

Comment

On the face of it the current investment proposals bear no resemblance to the NHS IT programme NPfIT which was “dismantled” in 2011.

The NPfIT comprised a handful of specific major projects that were to be implemented nationally under the umbrella of “ruthless standardisation”.

The current proposals look very different. The investments fall into vague categories such as digitalising secondary care, improvements to IT infrastructure, data gathering and analytics.

The proposals have all the appearance of a different way the NHS has found to waste vast sums of public money.

It has never been acknowledged by the Treasury, NHS England or the Department of Health that the NPfIT wasted billions on spending that was invisible to the public, such as numerous consultants, years of globe-trotting by officials, first-class hotels across the world, sponsored conferences and unreported funds for marketing items that included DVDs and board games designed especially to promote the IT programme.

For officials, there’s nothing more exciting than going to work on a £13bn technology programme where money flows more freely than water. It’s no wonder officialdom is lobbying for the money.

No doubt it will be easy for officials to obtain the new billions. At any time in the recent history of the NHS it would have been easy on paper to justify £13bn for new NHS technology. Much of the £13bn could be justified simply enough by submitting plans to HM Treasury to modernise what already exists.

It was easy to justify the NPfIT. Tony Blair approved it at a Downing Street meeting that lasted 40 minutes. Computer Weekly obtained minutes of the Downing Street meeting after various FOI appeals.

But the NHS needs £13bn to be spent wisely on technology. The last thing the NHS needs is for Whitehall officials to be involved. History shows that Whitehall has the reverse Midas touch when it comes to major NHS IT investments. It is local groups of doctors and nurses who know how to spend the money wisely.

If either NHS England or the Department of Health and Social Care is involved in the new proposals for NHS IT investments – and they both are – it’s almost certain the new plans will end up as costly failures.

How would the public feel if they realised that a sizeable portion of their increased taxes for the NHS is almost certainly destined for the dustbin marked “mismanaged Whitehall IT schemes”.

Revealed: Officials’ £13bn funding ask to modernise NHS IT

Another NPfIT scandal in the making?

A system-wide problem with Horizon connectivity?

By Tony Collins

The Post Office has said in the past that its controversial Horizon system has not had system-wide problems.

This month, however, the system has had two serious widespread outages. On 10 May 2018, Computer Weekly reported that about 2,000 Post Office branches were unable to connect to the organisation’s computer system for a few hours on 9 May because of a connectivity issue.

A second problem last week affected “the whole network” according to a spokesperson at the National Federation of SubPostmasters.

“In the past two weeks we’ve had two instances, just under a quarter of the network was affected earlier in the month, and yesterday the whole network was down for a couple of hours,”

The spokesperson told BBC News that its members have suffered financially because of the problems.

“Sub-postmasters only get paid if they are serving customers so any downtime means they are out of pocket, and people are unable to send their mail.

“The Post Office uses a nationwide computer system to make sure all items are tracked correctly before being sent. If this suddenly stops working then it means potential delays to your parcel across all depots in the UK.”

Those reading Post Office statements on its Horizon system over the years could have gained the impression that the system was able to cope with every eventuality. These are some of the Post Office’s comments on the Horizon system:

“… Post Office maintains that Horizon is capable of handling power and telecommunications problems.”

“Horizon is operated by thousands of Subpostmasters, the majority of whom have not had any issue with the system or its effectiveness.”

“Post Office maintains that the fact that almost 500,000 users have used Horizon since its inception and only 150 have raised a complaint to the Scheme shows that it is fit for purpose.”

“Post Office considers it fair to assume that if a loss has occurred then it has been caused in the branch and is something for which, in most circumstances, a Subpostmaster is liable to make good.”

“… there is no evidence of systemic problems with branch accounting on Horizon. All existing evidence overwhelmingly supports this position.

“The very small number of sub-postmasters who have experienced issues with the Horizon system are a minute proportion of the tens of thousands of people who have been successfully using the system across the network of 11,500 branches on a daily basis since 1995.”

“It is also important to recognise, however, that to date this system has handled more than 45 billion transactions and that there have been issues with only a tiny, tiny number of them.”

“Our computer system has been used by around 500,000 people in our network over more than a decade, processing billions of transactions during that time for our customers.”

“We have now spent three years investigating and addressing various complaints by a small number of former postmasters. We have done everything and more than we committed to do at the outset. We set up an independent enquiry, which found no systemic flaws in the system …”

Last week, the Post Office said in a statement: “We’re really sorry for any inconvenience that the connectivity issues at some of our branches caused yesterday. The issue was resolved within a few hours, and our branches are now back to business as usual.”

 Legal action

 Subpostmasters are taking a group legal action against the Post Office through Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance. The subpostmasters and mistresses blame the Horizon system for financial losses that the Post Office has sought to recover from the individual Post Office branch owners.

Some branch owners lost their livelihoods and had their lives ruined. At least one was said to have committed suicide. Some were jailed, made bankrupt or died while awaiting justice.

The Post Office has claimed the number of complainants is “tiny”, but the actual number of subpostmaster-claimants is now 561.

A High Court hearing is planned for November 2018. It will hear from 12 potential “lead cases”, six of which were selected by Post Office Limited and six by Freeths solicitors who represent the claimants.

These individual cases will be decided ahead of the rest of the Group of 561 and will be used to demonstrate some of the key issues, in particular the fairness of the contract between the claimants and the Post Office.

Computer Weekly reported last month that a forensic examination of the Horizon system by specialists commissioned by the Criminal Courts Review Commission has raised further questions.

“The forensic accounting company hired by the Criminal Courts Review Commission to look more closely at the controversial IT system blamed by sub-postmasters for their wrongful prosecutions has completed its initial findings, and from this has decided to make further enquiries,” said Computer Weekly.

Comment

No computer system is infallible,. The Horizon system is decades-old and has had innumerable patches, additions and enhancements.

After two outages this month, one of which is said to have been network-wide, will the Post Office be able to continue with its claim that the system has not had any system-wide problems?

Indeed how credible in general is the Post Office’s case against 541 subpostmasters? At long last the answer to that question no longer rests with the Post Office. A decision on whether injustices that date back years can be corrected will rest with a High Court judge.

It’s a matter the Post Office ought to have settled long ago. Instead it has relied on the public purse to fund the perpetuation of a series of injustices.

Connectivity issue hits thousands of Post Office branches – Computer Weekly May 2018

Post Office hit by computer problems – BBC News May 2018

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

 

Judge in Post Office Horizon case calls for a “change of attitude”

By Tony Collins

The Law Society Gazette reports that the High Court judge in the Post Office Horizon case has called for a “change of attitude”.

At a case management conference, the judge Sir Peter Fraser listed some of the problems already reported during the group litigation:

  • Failure to lodge required documents with the court
  • Refusing to disclose obviously relevant documents
  • Threatening ‘pointless’ interlocutory skirmishes.
  • Failure to respond to directions for two months
  • Failure to even consider e-disclosure questionnaires

The case involves a class action – called a Group Litigation Order – against the Post Office brought by more than 500 mostly sub-postmasters.

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance seeks damages related to the introduction of the Horizon computer system about  17 years ago, which is alleged to have caused financial distress and in some cases bankruptcy.

According to the Law Society Gazette, the judge said the behaviour of legal advisers in the case “simply does not begin to qualify as either cost-effective, efficient, or being in accordance with the over-riding objective”. He added,

“A fundamental change of attitude by the legal advisers involved in this group litigation is required. A failure to heed this warning will result in draconian costs orders.”

The court has heard of problems trying to establish a timetable for the litigation. The claimants sought a substantive hearing for October 2018, while the Post Office argued the case could be managed for another entire year without any substantive hearing being fixed. Under this proposal, the hearing would not happen until at least 2019.

Fraser noted that to describe this approach as ‘leisurely, dilatory and unacceptable in the modern judicial system would be a considerable understatement’.

The day after a trial was ordered for November 2018, the Post Office asked for a change because its leading counsel already had a commitment at the Companies Court.

The judge suggested it was a ‘clear case of the tail wagging the dog’ if clerks were allowed to dictate hearing date. He said there was reasonable notice to arrange for a replacement counsel.

Fraser added: ‘Fixing hearings in this group litigation around the diaries of busy counsel, rather than their fixing their diaries around this case, is in my judgment fundamentally the wrong approach.’

Comment:

It appears that the judge did not single out the claimants or the Post Office as the main target for his irritation. He was impartial. But his no-nonsense approach might have surprised some at the Post Office.

The Post Office is familiar with control. When the Horizon system has shown a shortfall in the accounts of a local branch, the Post Office has required the sub-postmasters to pay whatever amount is shown, in order to return the balance to zero.

Even when paying the shown amount has led to bankruptcy and destruction of the family life of the sub-postmaster, the Post Office has pursued the case.

It has had control.

It supplied the contract that sub-postmasters signed; it supplied the Horizon branch accounting system; it required payment of what the system showed as a deficit; it investigated complaints by sub-postmasters that the shown deficits might have been incorrect;  it was able to decide what information to release or withhold – the “known errors” Horizon log being one piece of information not disclosed – and it was the prosecuting authority.

It has also been free to rebut public criticisms, as when BBC’s Panorama and forensic accountants Second Sight focused on the concerns of sub-postmasters.

Now it’s a High Court judge who is questioning, among other things, a failure to lodge required documents with the court and refusing a to disclose obviously relevant documents.

The judge’s comments are refreshing. Since 2009, when Computer Weekly first reported on the concerns of sub-postmasters, control has been one-sided.

Now at last it is on an even keel.

We hope the Post Office will reappraise whether it should be using public funds at all to fight the case.

If the case does drag on for years – postponing a judicial decision – who will benefit? Certainly not the sub-postmasters.

Law Society Gazette article

Horizon IT controversy closes another village post office and threatens the future of its owner

By Tony Collins              

It’s a familiar story.

A small businessman, this time in the village of Alveston, which is 10 miles north of Bristol, is being threatened with a life-changing debt because of a shortfall shown on the Post Office’s Horizon system.

The local post office has closed and its owner is being pursued for £41,000.

It’s happening against the backdrop of a High Court class action by 522 former owners of small post offices. The High Court has granted them a Group Litigation Order against the Post Office.

Many of the 522 have had to give the Post Office money they say they didn’t owe, because of deficits shown on Horizon. Some were jailed or made bankrupt. Many lost their livelihoods while being left with huge debts.

The Alveston case involved, initially, £36,000. The discrepancy came as a surprise to Hari Jayanthan, who ran the Alveston post office branch out of his shop.

The Gazette reported that the problems for Jayanthan began last December when the software he uses to balance the books showed a shortfall.

He asked the Post Office repeatedly for help but says he had no meaningful response and was left unsure what to do.

“I thought it had to be a mistake,” he said. “They said they would have a look and they kept saying they could not find anything.

“I was asking if I had done something wrong, pushed the wrong button or something, and if someone could come and help me, but nobody turned up for six months.”

In May 2017 officials from the Post Office arrived on his doorstep, telling him that they were now owed £41,000.

This was nearly three times what his village post office business made in a year.

“I keep getting letters and phone calls asking how I plan to repay them, and I don’t know what to do.

“This is the only business I have and I don’t have that kind of money to repay them. It’s all I have got. What can I do? We took no money from them and I could find no fault on my side.”

In a corporate move, the Post Office closed the Alveston branch in May, without notice to local villagers. It said the closure was for “operational reasons”.

Today, the Alveston post office and stores is shown on Google as  “permanently closed”.

Local parish councillors have expressed concern, particularly at the suddenness of the closure. For Alveston residents, the nearest post office is more than 1.5 miles away.

The Post Office said it does not comment on individual cases. It welcomes the High Court case as the “best opportunity for the matters in dispute to be heard and resolved”.

It added that it has confidence in the Horizon system which is “robust, reliable and used across 11,600 branches by postmasters, agents and their many thousands of staff, to process six million transactions successfully every day, including on behalf of the UK’s high street banks”.

High Court case

One of the most important parts of the preliminary hearings so far – perhaps the single most important exchange – has involved the Horizon system’s “known errors log”.  So far the log has remained confidential.

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, which is behind the class action being handled by Freeths solicitors, has asked for disclosure of the log.

TV reporter Nick Wallis, who has covered the Horizon controversy for many years, in particular for BBC’s The One Show, went to the High Court last month and tweeted on some of the exchanges.

The judge Sir Peter Fraser, who has practiced in the Technology and Construction Court from 1990, asked the Post Office to list reasons why the known errors log should not be disclosed.

The Post Office’s legal representative said that the demand for the log was a red herring. The Post Office has no control over it. It is controlled by Fujitsu which built Horizon and maintains it.

The legal representative for the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance argued that the data in the log could be exported.

The judge said he wanted e-disclosure preliminaries to be sorted by 10 November. If there was still disagreement, a disclosure management hearing will be set up.

The judge also extended the cut-off date for new claims. Freeths is accepting new applications from any subpostmasters including assistants, managers, crown office employees and temporary subpostmasters until the end of 10 November 2017.

Another 70 or so are expected to join, bringing the total number of claimants to about 590.

Comment:

Nobody outside an inner circle of Post Office head office executives and their advisers believes that hundreds of owners of local post offices – who took pride in serving their local communities – decided to defraud the taxpayer.

It’s not even clear that the Post Office believes it. For it has not sought to establish that any of the subpostmasters involved in the High Court class action benefitted from a lavish lifestyle financed by (alleged) shortfalls shown on the Horizon system.

But still the Post Office’s corporate position against the subpostmasters seems immovable. Which raises the question of whether the Post Office is placing more importance on the integrity of a computer system than the integrity of hundreds of subpostmasters.

Forensic accountants Second Sight, whom the Post Office commissioned to investigate Horizon complaints, raised many concerns about the system. The Post Office terminated Second Sight’s contract.

Computer Weekly reports that Andy Clark, visiting professor in information security at Royal Holloway University of London and director at information security and expert witness company Primary Key Associates, was called as a witness for the defence in a case brought by the Post Office against a sub-postmaster.

After seeing the Post Office Horizon accounting system in action, he said it was quickly apparent there were questions to ask about its integrity. After asking the Post Office these questions, the Post Office dropped the case, he said.

Today the Post Office’s position in the class action is that subpostmasters have signed a contract that, in essence, made them responsible for shortfalls shown on the Horizon system.

But is it as simple as that?

Some of the questions that will be raised at next November’s High Court trial  include:

  • Did Post Office Limited owe to subpostmasters a duty of good faith, fair dealing, transparency, co-operation, trust and confidence?
  • Were legally binding terms implied in the contracts but not expressly stated? For example, what contractual obligations did Post Office Limited have in relation to investigating and determining the causes of alleged shortfalls.
  • Did contracts include unusual, onerous or unfair terms?
  • In what circumstances did subpostmasters have a liability to Post Office Limited for shortfalls and losses?
  • Did the contracts allow Post Office Limited to suspend or terminate in the manner in which they did.

Known errors

The Post Office refers repeatedly to the robustness of Horizon. It doesn’t accept that the system could have caused the losses in question.

This is one reason the known errors log is in contention. It could reveal that there were no known Horizon faults relevant to the shortfalls in question.

Or it could reveal the opposite.

What is extraordinary is that the log hasn’t been disclosed in years of legal cases against the subpostmasters.

This is a little like aircraft manufacturer Boeing implicating pilots in major incidents while not disclosing the plane’s fault history.

In the US, investigators have a statutory right to inspect the plane’s full fault history. Let us hope that the High Court requires Horizon’s full records to be produced.

One accused former subpostmistress Jo Hamilton has tweeted that “justice is coming”. We hope she’s right and that it comes long before the scheduled end of the High Court trials in March 2019.

For every day that passes without a settlement of the case is a day in which corporate hubris and irrationality prevails.

It’s to be expected that the Post Office’s directors will want to express confidence in a computer system on which their business depends.

But do they really believe it’s worth continuing to sacrifice small businesses and ruin the lives of their owners to repeatedly establish the integrity of a computer system?

Court dates set for trial – Computer Weekly

Nick Wallis High Court Horizon tweets

 

HMRC appoints Microsoft executive as head of IT

By Tony Collins

Government Computing reports that HMRC has appointed a new chief digital and information officer, Jacky Wright, who is currently Microsoft’s corporate vice-president, Core Platform Engineering.

Theresa May ratified Wright’s appointment. Candidates were considered from across the civil service and the public and private sectors, and internationally.

The chief executive of HMRC Jon Thompson said,

“Jacky is a seasoned commercial leader with ‘best in class’ credentials, globally. Balancing strong operating experience with a record of driving innovation… Her influence as a technology leader and as a champion for the role of women and BAME [black, Asian, minority ethnic) in industry, is a major win for this organisation.”

Wright will take up her appointment from 16 October. She said,

“I am passionate about the impact innovation can have in truly transforming services for people and businesses in a positive way and want to continue the great work being done within HMRC and across the Civil Service at this time. I am proud to represent women and BAME in technology and will continue to promote the vital role of diversity within our industry and more broadly.”

One of HMRC’s biggest IT challenges in the coming months and years will be to detach itself from the £10bn “Aspire” outsourcing deal in which Capgemini and Fujitsu are the main suppliers.

Aspire is being broken up. HMRC says the contract is already “dead” but the department will rely on Capgemini as a strategic supplier until June 2020 and most probably beyond. HMRC has spent at least £720m a year on Aspire since 2008, including 2015/16.

Comment:

After spending years trying to distance itself from major IT suppliers, HMRC has appointed a top Microsoft executive as its new head of IT.

That said, Wright is an excellent appointment. She’s widely recognized for her contributions to the technology industry and for championing diversity. She has been in Britain’s Powerlist 100 of Most Influential People, the Top 100 BAME Leaders in Business, and Savoy Magazine’s Top Women list.

The challenge for Wright will be to use her influence and skills in a civil service that, at the top level, may not fully appreciate her. Will she feel sufficiently valued and stay?

Francis Maude – the former IT reformer and Cabinet Office minister – said in a Speaker’s Lecture this week that the civil service values policy experts more than operational and technical leaders.

“Policy nearly always trumps operational and technical skills for the leadership roles,” said Lord Maude.

“It feels like a class divide: there are the white-collar policy mandarins, and the blue-collar technicians who do operations, finance, procurement, IT and digital, project management, HR, and so on.

“All the attempts to create genuine parity of esteem have failed. This has to change in the future. Many government failures could have been prevented if operational and technical teams had the same access to Ministers as do policy officials.”

In working for HMRC,  Wright may need to acclimatise to a civil service culture that could, at times, strike her as frustrating, closed and irrational.  HMRC’s former IT chiefs include Steve Lamey, Phil Pavitt and Mark Dearnley.

Will an innovations specialist of Wright’s calibre last at HMRC? If she does, it could imply that HMRC is defying the civil service culture and is valuing a top international IT professional.

If she doesn’t last, it could imply that she has been hired as a Formula One driver and then given a Prius to race.

The Prius is an impressive piece of machinery. But it’ll never go particularly fast, however expertly it’s driven.

Microsoft’s Jacky Wright named as HMRC’s new CDIO

 

Whitehall to auto-extend outsourcing deals using Brexit as excuse?

By Tony Collins

Type of government procurement spend 2014-2015. ICT is the top item.
Source: National Audit Office

Under a headline “UK outsourcing deals extended because of Brexit workload”, the Financial Times has reported that “hundreds of government contracts with the private sector that were due to expire are to be automatically extended because civil servants are too busy with Brexit to focus on new and better-value tenders”.

The FT says the decision to roll over the contracts could prove expensive for taxpayers because it limits competition and undermines government efforts to improve procurement.

A “procurement adviser to the government” whom the FT doesn’t name, said more than 250 contracts were either close to expiring or had already expired in 2016-17. The adviser told the FT,

“Brexit has pushed them down the list of priorities so there are lots of extensions and re-extensions of existing deals.”

The adviser added that this was the only way civil servants could prioritise the huge increase in Brexit-related work since the referendum.

Extensions

The FT provides no evidence of automatic contract extensions or the claim that deals will be extended because of the civil service’s Brexit workload.

There is evidence, however, that Whitehall officials tend to extend contracts beyond their original expiry date.

In a report published this year on the Cabinet Office’s Crown Commercial Service, the National Audit Office identified 22 framework contracts that were due to expire in 2016-17. Half of them (eleven) were extended beyond their original expiry date.

[The Crown Commercial Service was set up in 2014 to improve state procurement.]

The NAO also found that Whitehall departments – and the Crown Commercial Service – have been awarding contracts using expired framework deals, even though this contravenes public contracting regulations.

In 2015-16, 21 of the 39 frameworks that were due to expire were extended without competition or market testing, according to the NAO.

One example of an extended contract is a deal between Capita and the Department for Work and Pensions which started in 2010. Capita provides eligibility assessments for the personal independent payment allowance, which supports for people with long-term ill health or disability.

The five-year deal was extended by two years until July 2019.

Capita has also won a three-year extension to a contract with the Pensions Regulator and the BBC has extended a deal with Capita that was signed originally in 2002 to June 2022 – a total of at least 20 years.

Open competition?

The NAO has found that extending ICT contracts may not always be good for taxpayers. In the later years of their government contracts, suppliers tend to make higher margins (though not always).

There are also suggestions that civil servants will sometimes sign contract extensions when the performance of the supplier does not meet expected standards.

On ICT, the Cabinet Office asks central departments to complete a return every six months for each business process outsourcing and facilities management contract above £20m with strategic suppliers.

The survey asks whether the contract is being delivered on time, to scope, to budget, to the appropriate standards, and whether there have been any disputes.

In one study of government contracts with ICT suppliers, the NAO found that, of 259 returns from departments, 42 highlighted problems that included,

  • failure to achieve milestones
  • dissatisfaction with quality of outputs
  • errors and other issues with delivery
  • poor customer engagement and end user dissatisfaction and
  • failure to meet key performance indicators.

Comment

For taxpayers there is some good news.

A break-up of “Aspire”, the biggest IT outsourcing long-term deal of all, between HMRC and Capgemini (and to a lesser extent Fujitsu) – worth about £9bn – is going ahead this June. An HMRC spokesman says,

“HMRC is on track to complete the phased exit from Aspire, as planned, by June 2017.”

And according to Government Computing, Defra’s IT outsourcing contracts with IBM and Capgemini under a £1.6bn contract called “Unity” are due to expire in 2018 and there are no signs the deals will be extended.

But the Department for Work and Pensions’ huge IT outsourcing contracts with the same major suppliers are renewed routinely and not always with open competition. The DWP says on its website,

“DWP contracts are awarded by competition between potential suppliers, unless there are compelling reasons why competition cannot be used.”

The DWP doesn’t define “compelling”. Nor is it clear whether its auditors look at whether the DWP has put up a compelling case for not putting a large IT contract out to open competition.

In 2014 the Public Accounts Committee, after investigating major suppliers to government, concluded,

“Government is clearly failing to manage performance across the board, and to achieve the best for citizens out of the contracts into which they have entered.

“Government needs a far more professional and skilled approach to managing contracts and contractors, and contractors need to demonstrate the high standards of ethics expected in the conduct of public business, and be more transparent about their performance and costs”.

Breaking up is hard to do

The break up of the huge Aspire IT outsourcing contract at HMRC is an exception, not the rule. The NAO has found that civil servants regard their major incumbent suppliers as safe and less risky than hiring a smaller company (that’s not steeped in Whitehall’s culture).

The NAO has also found that in some cases officials don’t know whether their suppliers are performing well or not. On many ICT contracts there is “open book” accounting, but not all departments have the staff or expertise to check regularly on whether their suppliers’ profits are excessive.

If Whitehall, with exceptions, is continuing to roll over contracts whether it’s legal to do so or not, what incentive exists to stick to the rules?

Brexit?

The FT story suggests Brexit is the reason hundreds of contracts are to be extended automatically. There’s probably truth in the automatic extension of some contracts – but it’s unlikely to be because of Brexit.

It’s unlikely that the civil servants involved in Brexit will be the same ones who are handling ICT contract extensions. That said, Brexit will inevitably put a higher workload on lawyers working for government.

If contracts are being extended automatically, it’s probably because that’s the way it has always been, at least within living memory.

While Sir Humphrey and his senior officials remain only nominally accountable to Parliament for how they spend taxpayers’ money, the easiest option of renewing or extending existing contracts will usually be seen as the best option.

It can be justified with “compelling” arguments such as a need to make an urgent decision in difficult circumstances, or the absence of alternative suppliers who have the necessary skills or the financial strength to accept the risks of failure.

Will anything change?

Until departments have to publish contemporaneously their intentions to award contracts without open competition or there is effective accountability within the civil service for major decisions, little is likely to change.

It hasn’t happened yet and there’s no reason to believe it will.  Many politicians including prime ministers have tried to reform the civil service and they haven’t ruffled a single carpet in the corridors of Whitehall.

As Antony Jay, co-writer of Yes Minister,  said in January 2013,

“The central anomaly is that civil servants have years of experience, jobs for life, and a budget of hundreds of billions of pounds, while ministers have, usually, little or no experience of the job and could be kicked out tomorrow.

” After researching and writing 44 episodes and a play, I find government much easier to understand by looking at ministers as public relations consultants to the real government – which is, of course, the Civil Service.”

In short, Brexit is likely to be officialdom’s up-to-date excuse for carrying on much as before.

Thank you to @TimMorton2 for alerting me to the FT article.

Southwest One – a positive postscript

By Tony Collins

somerset county council2IBM-led Southwest One has had a mostly bad press since it was set up in 2007. But the story has a positive postscript.

Officials at Somerset County Council now understand what has long been obvious to ICT professionals: that the bulk of an organisation’s savings come from changing the way people work – and less from the ICT itself.

Now that Somerset County Council has the job of running its own IT again – its IT-based relationship with Southwest One ended prematurely in December 2016 – the council’s officials have realised that technology is not an end in itself but an “enabler” of headcount reductions and improvements in productivity.

A 2017 paper by the county council’s “Programme Management Office”  says the council has begun a “technology and people programme” to “contribute to savings via headcount reduction by improving organisational productivity and process efficiency using technology as the key enabler”.

Outsourcing IT a “bad mistake” 

It was in 2007 that Somerset County Council and IBM launched a joint venture, Southwest One. The new company took over the IT staff and some services from the council.

In the nine years since then the council has concluded that outsourcing ICT – thereby separating it from the council’s general operations – was not a good idea.

The same message – that IT is too integral and important to an organisation  to be outsourced – has also reached Whitehall’s biggest department, the Department for Work and Pensions.

Yesterday (8 February 2017) Lord Freud,  who was the Conservative minister in charge of Universal Credit at the Department for Work and Pensions, told MPs that outsourcing IT across government had proved to be a “bad idea”.  He said,

“What I didn’t know, and I don’t think anyone knew, was how bad a mistake it had been for all of government to have sent out their IT…

“You went to these big firms to build your IT. I think that was a most fundamental mistake, right across government  and probably across government in the western world …

” We talk about IT as something separate but it isn’t. It is part of your operating system. It’s a tool within a much better system. If you get rid of it, and lose control of it, you don’t know how to build these systems.

” So we had an IT department but it was actually an IT commissioning department. It didn’t know how to do the IT.

“What we actually discovered through the (Universal Credit) process was that you had to bring the IT back on board. The department has been rebuilding itself in order to do that. That is a massive job.”

Task facing Somerset officials

Somerset County Council says in its paper that the council now suffers from what it describes as:

  • Duplicated effort
  • Inefficient business processes
  • A reliance on traditional ways of working (paper-based and meeting-focused).
  • Technology that is not sufficient to meet business needs
  • Inadequate data extraction that does not support evidence based decision making.
  • “Significant under-investment in IT”.

To help tackle these problems the council says it needs a shift in culture. This would enable the workforce to change the way it works.  

From January 2017 to 2021, the council plans “organisation and people-led transformational change focused on opportunities arising from targeted systems review outcomes”.

The council’s officers hope this will lead to

  • Less unproductive time in travelling and  attending some statutory duties such as court proceedings.
  • Fewer meetings.
  • Reduced management time because of fewer people to manage e.g. supervision, appraisal, performance and sickness.
  • Reduced infrastructure spend because fewer people will mean cuts in building and office costs, and IT equipment. Also less training would be required.
  • Reduction in business support process and roles.
  • Reduction in hard copy file storage and retention.

 The council has discovered that it could, for instance, with changes in working practices supported by the right technology,  conduct the same number of social services assessments with fewer front- line social workers or increase the level of assessments with the same number of staff.

Southwest One continues to provide outsourced services to Avon and Somerset Police. The contract expires next year.

Comment

Somerset County Council is taking a bold, almost private sector approach to IT.

Its paper on “technology and people” says in essence that the council cannot  save much money by IT change alone.

Genuine savings are to be found in changing ways of working and thus reducing headcount. This will require very close working – and agreement – between IT and the business end-users within the council.

It is an innovative approach for a council.

The downside is that there are major financial risks, such as a big upfront spend with Microsoft that may or may not more than pay for itself.

Does outsourcing IT ever make sense?

Somerset County Council is not an international organisation like BP where outsourcing and standardising IT across many countries can make sense.

The wider implication of Somerset’s experience – and the experience of the Department for Work and Pensions – is that outsourcing IT in the public sector is rarely a good idea.

Thank you to Dave Orr, who worked for Somerset County Council as an IT analyst and who has, since the Southwest One contract was signed in 2007, campaigned for more openness over the implications of the deal.

He has been more effective than any Somerset councillor in holding to account the county council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police, over the Southwest One deal.  He alerted Campaign4Change to Somerset’s “Technology and People Programme” Somerset paper.

One of Orr’s recent discoveries is that the council’s IT assets at the start of the Southwest One contract were worth about £8m and at hand-back in December 2016 were worth just £0.32m, despite various technology refreshes.

Somerset County Council’s “Technology and People Programme” paper

Whitehall’s outsourcing IT a “bad mistake” – and other Universal Credit lessons, by a former DWP minister

Post Office Horizon IT – for Julian Wilson time ran out on justice

By Tony Collins

Julian Wilson was a subpostmaster, one of the founding members of Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance.

He and his wife Karen had their lives turned upside down after the Post Office’s centrally-run Horizon system, which was installed at the local branch they ran, showed unexplained losses.

He was one of more than 150 subpostmasters across the country whom the Post Office has blamed for losses shown on Horizon.

Subpostmasters run smaller post offices under a contract issued by the Post Office. Under their contracts, subpostmasters are personally responsible for deficits at their branches.

MPs and TV documentaries have raised concerns about whether the Post Office has accused subpostmasters of criminal actions when technical faults might have caused the losses.

The concerns of MPs were reinforced by the findings of forensic accountants Second Sight. At the request of MPs, the Post Office brought in Second Sight to investigate each of the subpostmaster complaints.

The Post Office criticised Second Sight’s findings and said there was no evidence that faults with the computer system caused money to go missing. “There is evidence that user actions, including dishonest conduct, were responsible for missing money,” said the Post Office.

Julian Wilson

TV investigative reporter Nick Wallis, who has reported on the Post Office Horizon IT system for the BBC’s The One Show, and has followed the story for many years, has written a moving post on the death of Julian Wilson who fought for justice for as long as he was able.

On his blog, Wallis says of Julian, “He was, I suppose, what we journalists call a contact.

“But his gentle manner, generous spirit and calm good humour made me think of him as more than that.”

Julian was prosecuted by the Post Office for false accounting. He pleaded guilty and went to his grave a near-bankrupt convicted criminal, says Wallis.

When Julian died, his conviction was one of 20 subpostmaster cases being considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

Technical fault or crime?

More than 11,000 post offices have used Fujitsu’s £1bn Horizon system for branch accounting and rarely have had problems. At the close of each day, the system has balanced money coming in from customers and money going out.

If the system showed a shortfall, subpostmasters had few options: make up the deficit out of their own money, sign off the accounts as correct, or refuse to sign off – which might have meant closing the post office (and upsetting customers) while a financial audit took place.

The Post Office prosecuted subpostmasters who signed off the accounts as correct knowing there were unexplained losses; and it prosecuted in some cases for theft.

Dozens of subpostmasters have been jailed, made bankrupt or had their lives ruined after the Post Office took action against them in the light of discrepancies shown on Horizon.

Tears

Julian Wilson was determined to clear his name.

Wallis interviewed him in December 2014 alongside his wife Karen in a village hall in Fenny Compton, where the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance met for the first time in 2009.

“Karen stood there with tears streaming down her face as Julian explained in his measured, Hampshire burr how problems with the computer system at their Post Office in Astwood Bank had caused their lives to fall apart.”

Wallis says there was never a trace of bitterness about Julian. “He accepted things with great patience even though he was still in danger of losing his house because of the Post Office’s pursuit of him.”

Julian found out he had terminal cancer towards the end of last year. “This summer he deteriorated rapidly,” says Wallis.

One of the comments on Wallis’s blog says of Julian,

“He carried on campaigning against the Post Office until he had no strength left to fight and I made him a promise – in the last few days of his life – that I would keep going along with the JFSA [Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance] until we got our long-overdue justice.

“What an absolute tragedy that such a good man should be taken from his beloved wife Karen and wonderful daughter Emma before his name had been cleared.”

Another said,

“RIP Julian – I am so sorry that we could not let you leave this world with the vindication you will certainly, but now posthumously, receive.”

Comment

Subpostmasters represented by Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance have issued a writ against the Post Office and the legal action is well and truly underway – but Julian Wilson’s untimely death shows that not all the individuals involved in complaints against the Post Office can afford the time to wait for justice.

In some cases, complaints go back at least eight years – so far.

The Post Office’s argument all along has been, in essence, that there is, and never has been, any evidence that Horizon caused the losses.

But neither is there evidence that more than 150 subpostmasters stole the money in question.

Institutional blindness?

In a BBC Panorama documentary on complaints about Horizon, Ian Henderson, a Second Sight investigator, told reporter John Sweeney,

“Horizon works reasonably well if not very well most of the time. In any large IT system it is inevitable that problems will occur.

“What seems to have gone wrong within the Post Office is a failure to investigate properly and in detail cases where those problems occurred. It’s almost like institutional blindness.”

The Post Office denies this and maintains that it has investigated each case thoroughly.

What strikes me, though, is the insularity of the Post Office’s case.

Crashes

Imagine if airlines and aircraft manufacturers were allowed to be the judge of whether pilots were to blame after major incidents.

The RAF’s hierarchy wrongly blamed two pilots for the crash of a Chinook helicopter on the Mull of Kintyre in June 1994. It took 17 years for the families of the dead pilots to win justice for their dead sons.

It was only after numerous independent inquiries, Parliamentary hearings and leaks of a mass of material about problems with the helicopter’s computer systems that the RAF’s finding of gross negligence against the two pilots was quashed.

The case showed that, despite the sincerely-held beliefs of two air marshals that the pilots were, without any doubt, at fault, the RAF was eventually found to have failed to take sufficient account of the possibility of a technical malfunction, or a chain of events involving a technical malfunction.

The restoration of the pilots’ reputation came about not because the RAF’s hierarchy changed its mind about the pilots’ gross negligence, but because there was a change of government in 2010 and setting aside the finding against the pilots was the will of Parliament.

The then Coalition government decided that a technical cause of the crash could not be ruled out.

Of course there was no air crash in the case of the subpostmasters. But there was a similarity: the RAF and Post Office are State institutions that dismissed complaints about their equipment and blamed the system “users”, with devastating consequences for the reputations and lives of the families involved.

There is also a fundamental difference: a regulatory authority always undertakes investigations into air crashes.

Airlines and aircraft manufacturers are not the legal investigating authority. In the UK it is the Air Accidents Investigation Branch. In its investigations into possible equipment failings, the AAIB has powers set out in law [including the Civil Aviation (Investigation of Air Accidents and Incidents) Regulations 1996] to require information from airlines and manufacturers.

In the case of the subpostmasters, the Post Office was the owner of the computer equipment that showed the losses; it was responsible for investigations into that equipment; and it was the prosecuting authority.

Contradictory evidence

There have been numerous commercial air crashes where regulatory investigating authorities have uncovered evidence that contradicted evidence from the airlines or manufacturers.

Sometimes it took regulatory authorities several years to discover the truth. Eventually they found technical faults where manufacturers had said initially there were none.

In the case of the Post Office Horizon controversy, there are no regulatory investigating authorities.

When accused subpostmasters have blamed the system for the losses, they have been unable to rely on an Air Accident Investigation Branch to produce a final report that could not be contested by the airline or manufacturers.

The Post Office could argue (rightly) that it operates under completely different laws, rules and regulations to the legal and regulatory framework that governs investigations of air crashes. In the Post Office cases, no public safety is involved.

But the Post Office has had a succession of serious incidents: the lives of 150 or more subpostmasters and in many cases their spouses have been thrown into turmoil.

Is this not a succession of serious incidents in which none has been the subject of an inquiry backed by a regulatory authority?

It’s a credit to the tenacity of Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance that legal proceedings have been issued. But the wheels of justice turn slowly. With appeals, the case could drag on for years.

More uncertainty and suffering for the families involved?

It’s also obvious that the Post Office has deeper pockets than those of individual subpostmasters.

That’s one reason why, after serious air incidents, the independent investigating authorities have complete control over their inquiries. Air accident investigators recognise that lawyers for airlines and manufacturers may seek to defend their organisations after a serious incident.

Sometimes air accident investigators will conduct parts of their investigations without relying on evidence from the manufacturers.

In the case of the accusations against subpostmasters, what powerful independent organisation exists to challenge the evidence of the Post Office?

The Post Office was able to commission Second Sight and later to discontinue its contract. The Post Office was also able to issue a point-by-point denial of Second Sight’s findings.

Imagine an airline or aircraft manufacturers being able to order independent investigators to discontinue their inquiries after a succession of serious incidents?

The Post Office said in response to Second Sight’s reports that it was “unable to endorse” the findings. After serious air incidents it would not matter if the airline or manufacturers disputed the report of regulatory authorities. The regulator’s report would stand.

Fairness?

The Post Office has a duty to prosecute subpostmasters who steal. But could it also do more to recognise that the imbalance of power and resources puts subpostmasters who have gained nothing – and lost much as a result of losses shown the system – at a severe disadvantage?

As the prosecuting authority, and the investigating authority, the Post Office is not open to serious challenge except through the courts where it has the money and resources to sustain costly and protracted battles.

Is this fair? Is this just?

The Post Office has every legal right to carry on exactly as it is, but could it not instead consider the cases on the basis of “benefit of doubt?”

In other words concede that there is doubt over whether subpostmasters had criminal intent?

Taking into account ordinary fairness and magnanimity in the face of its extraordinary power, the Post Office could settle the cases now, and not put the families of so many subpostmasters through any more suffering.

Nick Wallis’ post on Julian Wilson

Post Office faces group litigation over Horizon IT as subpostmasters fund class action

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

Jailed and bankrupt because of “unfit” Post Office IT? What now?

Communication Workers Union warns subpostmasters of flaw in Post Office Horizon accounting system

Horizon not fit for purpose at some branches?

Labelled as criminals – Telegraph