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Ministers plan hasty review of the Post Office IT scandal before more facts emerge?

By Tony Collins

The full truth has yet to unravel over the Post Office IT scandal – but more disclosures are likely in the next few months when the Court of Appeal starts the first hearings into whether to quash the convictions of 47 sub-postmasters who were prosecuted on the basis of evidence from the Post Office’s flawed Horizon system. A directions hearing for the 47 cases is due to be held on 25 November.

Lawyers are preparing evidence for the Court of Appeal that may put the scandal into a wider and more controversial context – and would render as irrelevant an impending government lessons-learning “review” of Horizon.

More than 1,800 business people – sub-postmasters and mistresses – who ran branch post offices under franchise contracts with the corporate Post Office, experienced unexplained balance shortfalls on the branch accounting system Horizon, built and run by Fujitsu.

The Post Office required the sub-postmasters to make good unexplained balance shortfalls from their own pockets. At times, the shortfalls amounted to tens of thousands of pounds.

Whether or not sub-postmasters made good unexplained shortfalls, the Post Office still prosecuted in many cases: for theft, false accounting and fraud. It followed up prosecutions with civil actions, all based on Horizon evidence.

The prosecutions were almost invariably successful because of a major flaw in the criminal justice system – a legal “presumption” in which judges are recommended to accept computer evidence as reliable unless the defence can show it’s not. But defendants cannot prove an institution’s complex system is faulty in a specific way, and on the dates and times in question, unless they know the system intricately enough to pinpoint the correct documents to ask for, among the many thousands of confidential papers that the prosecution may be reluctant to disclose. Anyone who wants to prove an institution’s computer system is not as robust as it claims may need tens of millions of pounds to do so. Barrister Paul Marshall wrote a paper in July for the Commons’ Justice select Committee on how the presumption made the Post Office IT scandal possible and makes many other injustices likely.

After Horizon went live in 1999, increasing numbers of sub-postmasters complained to their MPs that they were being convicted of crimes they did not commit, on the basis of evidence from the flawed Horizon system. But government business ministers and the Post Office rejected all complaints about the system. They said there was no evidence the system was not robust.

Photo by Metin Ozer on Unsplash

Poor conduct

The helpless state of sub-postmasters changed after a former sub-postmaster Alan Bates, who founded Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance, raised, with help, litigation finance to sue the Post Office to expose Horizon’s faults. The case was a success and exposed not only Horizon’s material faults that caused numerous shortfalls on the system but also the Post Office and Fujitsu’s poor conduct in the years before, and during, the litigation.

In the light of the High Court’s findings, the Criminal Cases Review Commission, has referred 47 unsafe Horizon-based convictions to the Court of Appeal. The Commission is confident the convictions will be overturned because of what it calls the Post Office’s “abuse of process”.

The government has announced a review of the Post Office’s Horizon-related failings but it excludes consideration of court-related matters and will therefore not take in findings from the appeal cases.  The first Court of Appeal rulings are expected in the first half of next year – by which time the government review may be finished.

Review imminent?

Alok Sharma, secretary of state for the business department, BEIS

Alok Sharma, secretary of state for the Post Office’s “sponsor”, the Department for BEIS, told the House of Commons’ BEIS select committee in July that the “plan is to start an inquiry [review] by September at the latest”.

Government business minister in the House of Lords, Martin Callanan, told peers last week that the appointment of someone to chair the review is imminent. He said, “I am hoping that an appointment can be made imminently, because we all want to see this under way as quickly as possible.

But a review long before the Court of Appeal rulings highlights a disconnect in the way the Horizon affair is seen by both sides – ministers and officialdom on one side and, on the other, sub-postmasters, MP, peers and campaigners for justice. The gap between the two sides is as wide as ever and suspicion runs deep.

Paul Scully MP, postal affairs minister who wants an “independent” review and doesn’t support a judge-led inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal


Sharma and his junior business minister Paul Scully, the postal affairs minister in the Commons, appear to see their uncritical support for the current Post Office board as important to the institution’s financial stability. The Post Office receives hundreds of millions of pounds in investment funding from taxpayers.  But this uncritical ministerial approach is seen by those on the other side as deferential and naive, accompanied as it is by BEIS’s apparent indifference to criticism.

A lack of effective challenge over nearly 20 years could be said to have provided an environment for numerous injustices to happen.

Ministers may be further fuelling accusations of indifference by refusing a judge-led inquiry into the scandal and rejecting calls by MPs and peers to pay the £46m costs of the sub-postmasters’ side of the litigation last year that exposed much of what is now known about Horizon’s defects.

Mistakes – or deliberate concealment of Horizon problems?

Scully has said the Post Office “got things wrong” and made “mistakes”. But some lawyers say mistakes and incompetence had little to do with the scandal.  If it emerges that the Post Office and its Horizon supplier Fujitsu deliberately concealed Horizon IT problems from the courts where the reliability of the Horizon system was a central issue in whether the accused went to prison, MPs and peers are likely to demand a government response, whether or not the review into the scandal has finished.

For sub-postmasters, it was one thing to be imprisoned for a crime they did not commit because of mistakes by investigators, prosecutors and the courts; it is another thing to lose their freedom, home, livelihood, life savings and sometimes their health because the corporate culture and practice within a state institution seemed to regard the concealing of its IT problems as more important than anything, including individual liberty.

A possible further consideration over the coming months is whether the prosecution’s charging decisions were sometimes based in part on the Post Office’s financial interests rather than purely in the interests of justice – all matters that the government review of the scandal will disregard.

Photo by Andrew Buchanan on Unsplash

The Post Office side

The Post Office’s position has been that Horizon is not perfect but a range of “countermeasures”, such as manual or IT-based corrections to incorrect transactions, made the system “robust”. Therefore, the Post Office has taken it as read that inexplicable shortfalls shown on Horizon must be down to criminality or incompetence of the sub-postmaster.

It is still the Post Office’s position that sub-postmasters have yet – if ever – to prove that a Horizon glitch caused a particular shortfall for which they were prosecuted or required to make good losses. The Post Office’s CEO Nick Read said in a letter to the BEIS select committee in June 2020,

“The [High Court] judgment did not determine whether bugs, errors or defects did in fact cause shortfalls in the individual claimants’ accounts …”

But to show it got some things wrong in the past, the Post Office has paid £57.75m in compensation, made an apology, launched a historical shortfall compensation scheme, set aside a place on the board for a postmaster and says it is reforming its culture and organisation.

Internal emails disclosed to the High Court suggest the Post Office is reluctant to be open about Horizon defects in case sub-postmasters exploit a bug to steal or defraud. The Post Office is a cash intensive business and needs to be able to trust Horizon to track any dishonesty. All sub-postmasters must be seen as a potential fraudsters, even though they are vetted before taking over a branch post office, typically invest £80,000-£120,000 in buying a post office premises that is often to a linked retail business and it would not, in theory, make sense for sub-postmasters to steal from themselves.

Horizon’s reliability is vital to the commercial success of the Post Office. The Post Office says the system works well every day for 11,500 post offices where there are often several people at each site using the system for a diverse range of products. On average, Horizon handles about six million transactions a day.

Mr Justice Fraser

The story’s other side

Robust? A system with 10,000 manual interventions a week? Mr Justice Peter Fraser, in the High Court Horizon legal case last year, found that Horizon needed more than 10,000 manual interventions a week – which he said suggested something was wrong.  “I do not accept that on a properly functioning and robust system there should be such a high number as that every week,” said the judge. His comment raises a question of how the Post Office was ever allowed in court cases to describe Horizon as robust.

Innumerable Horizon shortfalls are suspect. Fujitsu was “far too ready” to ascribe the effect of Horizon bugs, errors and defects to possible user error, said the judge. At no point, it appears, did successive Post Office boards ask why the institution was experiencing apparent massive crime-waves among sub-postmasters since Horizon was introduced.

Innumerable Horizon-based prosecutions suspect.  Prosecutions and convictions were based on an assumption by the courts and juries that the accused was responsible for the Horizon-based branch post office data in question. But the High Court judge found last year that all software specialists at Fujitsu’s Software Support Centre at Bracknell had powerful “APPSUP” system privileges that enabled them to do almost anything on the Horizon database, including “injecting” transactions into a branch post office’s accounts without the knowledge of sub-postmaster.  Some Fujitsu personnel had APPSUP access privileges they were not supposed to have.  They were able to edit the branch accounts, add “balancing transactions” or  delete transactions. Sometimes alterations could take place live without the sub-postmasters’ realising or having given their consent. Fujitsu specialists were able at one time to use a sub-postmasters’ ID number which could leave sub-postmasters believing they had made the changes carried out by Fujitsu. The judge found there was a lack of control of the role and the recording of access.  Logs were maintained between 2009 to July 2015 but did not record actions, only whether a user had logged on and logged off. Even after July 2015, the logs “are not a useful source of evidence about remote access”, due to their lack of content, said the judge.

“In my judgment, this amounts to a deficiency in controls,” he said.

“The whole of SSC [Fujitsu’s Software Support Centre] had the APPSUP role for many years, and internal Fujitsu documents recorded that they were not supposed to have that role. There were a large number of personnel within SSC,” said the judge.

The High Court – Royal Courts of Justice

Photo by Mahosadha Ong on Unsplash

The High Court was told that the APPSUP role was used 2,175 times between 2009 and 2019. The judge said,

“… anyone with the APPSUP role could pretty much do whatever they wanted. [They] had the potential to affect the reliability of a SPM’s [sub-postmasters’] branch accounts to a material extent. Further, the evidence shows clearly that there were instances when this in fact occurred,…”

Does APPSUP access – which the judge devastatingly observed was “effectively unaudited” – render unsafe innumerable prosecutions, convictions and civil claims for alleged shortfalls? The Court of Appeal is expected to look at this point: that Fujitsu personnel had online access to post office branches’ accounts without full records being kept of what they did and without sub-postmasters’ knowledge.

At the heart of the scandal. The Post Office is answerable to nobody for the worst aspect of the scandal: deliberately concealing IT problems while prosecuting on the basis of the alleged reliability of the system and pursuing payment of alleged Horizon losses through the civil courts when it was known the system was flawed.

In criminal or civil cases where Horizon’s reliability was the central issue, the prosecution did not disclose that the system had thousands of known errors, bugs or defects, needed up to 10,000 manual interventions a week and branch post office accounts could be changed remotely without the knowledge of sub-postmasters.

Still answerable to nobody.  A Government review of the IT scandal will not consider whether the Post Office deliberately concealed Horizon problems from criminal and civil courts.

Still huge losses for scandal victims. The Post office paid £57.75m to settle a High Court case it was clearly losing. But it was a minimal sum and left sub-postmasters, after costs, with huge deficits. The way the civil justice system works means sub-postmasters cannot recover the costs or claim them in follow-up civil actions. Scully has refused to pay the sub-postmasters’ costs which comprise £46m of the total £57.75m settlement payment. Ministers have said the settlement amount was not a matter for government – but the government owns the Post Office and has a seat on its board.

Peer Peter Hain

Former minister and now peer Peter Hain told the House of Lords last week,

“The Minister says that he does not want to interfere, but the Government are 100% owner of the Post Office—the Permanent Secretary of the department is its accounting officer and there is government representation on the board. The Government are ultimately responsible for this scandal. It is not good enough to keep delaying this with lots of process and reviews. They [sub-postmasters] must be compensated fully.”

Horizon bugs, errors and defects caused shortfalls or discrepancies numerous times.  The judge found that bugs, errors or defects of the nature alleged by sub-postmasters “have the potential” to cause apparent or alleged discrepancies or shortfalls relating to sub-postmasters’ branch accounts or transactions, and also that “all the evidence in the Horizon Issues trial shows not only was there the potential for this to occur, but it actually has happened, and on numerous occasions”.

No remorse for wrongful prosecutions? The Post Office specified in the settlement terms that its compensation was not intended for any convicted sub-postmaster.

Limited apology: the Post Office’s apology to sub-postmasters “affected” was vague and generalised; it did not say what, specifically, the Post Office was apologising for; and it referred to events “in the past”. The apology did not appear to cover the Post Office’s conduct during the litigation, which was between 2017 and 2019, and which was much criticised by the High Court. One critic’s view is that the main regret of the Department for BEIS is that the litigation laid bare Horizon’s faults and the concealment of them.

Judicial review on historical shortfall scheme?  As part of the settlement terms of the litigation last year, the Post Office has set up a Historical Shortfall Scheme to compensate sub-postmasters who say they were wrongly blamed for Horizon shortfalls. But the way the scheme has been set up may be the subject of a judicial review. Chirag Sidhpura, a former sub-postmaster, hopes to crowdfund his application for a judicial review. He says the historical shortfall scheme is fundamentally flawed, unfair and has closed prematurely given that the facts may be clearer after the Court of Appeal hearings.


Houses of Parliament

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

Ministers reject scandal victims’ every request.  Successive government business ministers, including the present ones, have refused every request of sub-postmasters including the return of their costs of exposing the Horizon scandal in the High Court.

Board place for postmaster a PR move? The Post Office’s place on the board for a postmaster is perceived as a good PR move that few outside the Post Office or civil service expect to make any difference.

Horizon problems still secret. The Post Office is still keeping secret Horizon Known Error Logs despite much specific criticism in the High Court about a lack of openness  over the logs. In July 2020, the Post Office refused a Freedom of Information request by Post Office critic and blogger Tim McCormack.

McCormack asked the Post Office for a “list of errors in Horizon that are due to be remedied in this next release and the notes held against these errors in the Known Errors Log”. Refusing his request, the Post Office said,

Questions  not answered. MPs on the BEIS select committee gave the Post Office a list of written questions on Horizon this year but did not always receive full answers.

Impossible to prove Horizon glitches on particular shortfalls?  The  Post Office said in a letter to MPs on 25 June 2020 that the litigation did not determine whether a Horizon glitch caused a particular shortfall in any individual case.

But sub-postmasters say nothing can be proved without the Post Office’s full disclosure of Horizon problems on the dates and times in question. A major point in contention at the High Court hearings was the lack of openness of the Post Office and Fujitsu over Horizon’s problems. Sub-postmasters cannot prove a particular Horizon glitch caused their shortfall if the Post Office does not disclose the relevant documents, they are no longer available, it cannot obtain them from Fujitsu or the documents don’t accurately show the effects of particular bugs on individual branch accounts.

Post Office CEO twice not given the full truth. If the Post Office’s own CEO was not told the full truth on Horizon, how were sub-postmasters to obtain the documentary evidence to establish that specific errors, bugs and defects caused their particular shortfall?

A large section of Mr Justice Peter Fraser’s judgment – about 12 pages – was devoted to “Inaccurate statements by the Post Office.”

In July 2016, the then CEO asked for an investigation into a sub-postmasters’ complaint about Horizon being the cause of her losses – as reported by Tim McCormack in his 2015 blog post the Dalmellington Error in Horizon.

But internally within the Post Office there was a high-level request for the CEO’s request to be stood down. A senior executive at the Post Office replied internally to the CEO’s request, “Can you stand down on this please? [A redacted section then follows] … My apologies.”

The judge said,

“I can think of no justifiable reason why the Post Office, institutionally, would not want to address the Chief Executive’s points and investigate as she initially intended, and find out for itself the true situation of what had occurred.”

It took many tens of millions of pounds to obtain a “yes” answer 

The CEO had also asked her managers whether it was possible to access the system remotely. The answer was “yes” – but it took several years, the Horizon litigation and many tens of millions of pounds to establish the “yes” answer.

The judge said,

“This trial has shown that the true answer to the enquiry she [the then CEO] made in early 2015 was “yes, it is possible.” It has taken some years, and many tens of millions of pounds in costs, to reach that answer.”

The then CEO’s question in 2015 was, “is it possible to access the system remotely? We are told it is.”

Her managers exchanged long emails on how to answer.  The CEO’s question was in the context of her forthcoming appearance before a committee of MPs. The Post Office had, for years, denied to Parliament and the media that it was possible for Fujitsu to access branch post office accounts. Prosecutions and civil cases to claim money from sub-postmasters had been based on sub-postmasters themselves always being responsible for Horizon’s output – which was untrue.

The judge said,

“… the Post Office has made specific and factually incorrect statements about what could be done with, or to, branch accounts in terms of remote access without the knowledge of the SPM [sub-postmaster]. The evidence in this trial has made it clear that such remote access to branch accounts does exist; such remote access is possible by employees within Fujitsu; it does exist specifically by design; and it has been used in the past.”

Post Office applied to remove the judge a day after Horizon’s chief architect confirmed Fujitsu had “remote access” to branch accounts. 

The judge noted that the Post Office applied to remove him as judge the day after Horizon’s chief architect, in cross-examination, had made it clear, not only that remote access existed, but after he was taken in careful cross-examination through specific examples of Fujitsu’s personnel manipulating branch accounts, and leading to discrepancies in branch accounts.

Fujitsu less than forthcoming –  judge. The judge said problems with Horizon would never have been revealed without the sub-postmasters’ litigation. He said,

“In my judgment, however, there are sufficient entries in the contemporaneous documents to demonstrate not only that Fujitsu has been less than forthcoming in identifying the problems that have been experienced over the years, but rather the opposite.
“The majority of problems and defects which counsel put to [Horizon Chief Architect at Fujitsu] and which were effectively admitted by him, simply would not have seen the light of day without this group litigation.”

Post Office’s “entrenched” view of Horizon.  The judge said,

“The problem with the Post Office witnesses generally is they have become so entrenched over the years, that they appear absolutely convinced that there is simply nothing wrong with the Horizon system at all, and the explanation for all of the many problems experienced by the different Claimants [sub-postmasters] is either the dishonesty or wholesale incompetence of the SPMs [sub-postmasters]. This entrenchment is particularly telling in the Post Office witnesses who occupy the more senior posts.”

Mr Justice Fraser described as “most disturbing” and “extraordinary” the concealment of Horizon problems while court cases in which the integrity of Horizon was a central issue were ongoing.

Jury not told of bug that corrupted branch accounts

As pregnant sub-postmistress Seema Misra waited for her Crown Court trial on charges arising from shortfalls shown on Horizon, she could not have known that a high-level meeting involving Fujitsu and the Post Office was taking place over a system bug that corrupted some post office branch accounts.

If disclosed to her jury, details of the bug could help establish her innocence. Unfortunately for her, the high-level meeting – and the bug – were kept confidential.

It was only many years after Seema Misra’s trial that details of the meeting came to light – and only then because of the High Court litigation. A note of the high-level meeting in 2010 warned of the impact of Fujitsu and the Post Office being open about the bug, which was called the “Receipts and Payments Mismatch Issue”. Mr Justice Fraser described the notes of the meeting as a “most disturbing document”. The notes warned,

  • If widely known [the bug] could cause a loss of confidence  in the Horizon System by branches
  • Potential impact upon ongoing legal cases where branches are disputing the integrity of Horizon Data
  • It could provide branches ammunition to blame Horizon for future discrepancies.

Mr Justice Fraser said of the memo,

“To see a concern expressed (in the memo) that, if a software bug in Horizon were to become widely known about, it might have a potential impact upon ‘ongoing legal cases’ where the integrity of Horizon Data was a central issue, is a very concerning entry to read in a contemporaneous document.
“Whether these were legal cases concerning civil claims or criminal cases, there are obligations upon parties in terms of disclosure. So far as criminal cases are concerned, these concern the liberty of the person, and disclosure duties are rightly high.
“I do not understand the motivation in keeping this type of matter, recorded in these documents, hidden from view; regardless of the motivation, doing so was wholly wrong. There can be no proper explanation for keeping the existence of a software bug in Horizon secret in these circumstances.”


In proposing solutions to the Receipts and Payments Mismatch bug, the emphasis in the memo was on concealment. Indeed the confidential notes reveal that a risk with one of the solutions to the bug is that it could reveal the ability of Fujitsu’s IT specialists to change branch data without informing the branch – which for the next seven years, in statements to Parliament and the media, the Post Office would deny was possible.

The notes in 2010 said,

“RISK- This [proposed solution] has significant data integrity concerns and could lead to questions of ‘tampering’ with the branch system and could generate questions around how the discrepancy was caused. This solution could have moral implications of Post Office changing branch data without informing the branch.”

It was not until the High Court litigation that the Post Office conceded that Fujitsu had a back door through which its IT specialists could access the accounts of branch post offices without the knowledge of sub-postmasters.

Barrister Paul Marshall, who has written extensively on the Horizon scandal, says that Fujitsu’s back door to branch accounts undermines every prosecution that relies on Horizon data.

At Seema Misra’s trial, the prosecutor told Seema’s jury that any problems with Horizon would be visible to the sub-postmaster – although at the high-level meeting of Fujitsu and the Post Office a few weeks earlier it had been made clear the Receipts and Payments Mismatch bug would not be visible to sub-postmasters.

The prosecutor told Seema’s jury,

“The Crown say it [Horizon] is a robust system and that if there really was a computer problem the defendant would have been aware of it”.

Seema was charged with theft on the basis that there could be no other credible reason for Horizon to show shortfalls.  Her lawyers asked on three occasions for her criminal trial to be stayed as an abuse of process because of inadequate disclosure by the Post Office of Horizon data. But Recorder Bruce, Judge Critchlow and the trial judge, Judge Stewart, rejected each of those applications.

When sentenced, Seema Misra blacked out. She was given 15 months imprisonment. The jury trusted Horizon’s evidence.

Nine years later, in 2019, Mr Justice Fraser would find that the Horizon system in 2010, at the time of Seema’s trial, was not robust. The original Horizon system from 1999 to 2010 was “not remotely robust”, he said.  Horizon Online from 2010 to 2017 – latterly based on Windows NT 4.0  – was “slightly” more robust than the original Horizon but “still had a significant number of bugs” and “did not justify the confidence routinely stated by the Post Office (prior to February 2017) in its accuracy”.

More criticism – this time by Criminal Cases Review Commission. The Commission referred 47 Horizon cases to the Court of Appeal on grounds of “abuse of process”. 

The Commission said there were “significant problems with the Horizon system and with the accuracy of the branch accounts which it produced”. It added that there was a “material risk that apparent branch shortfalls were caused by bugs, errors and defects in Horizon”.

Further, the Commission criticised the Post Office’s failure to disclose the full and accurate position regarding the reliability of Horizon. It added that the “level of investigation by the Post Office into the causes of apparent shortfalls was poor, and that the [sub-postmasters] were at a significant disadvantage in seeking to undertake their own enquiries into such shortfalls”.

“The reliability of Horizon data was essential to the prosecution and conviction of the [sub-postmaster in question] and that, in the light of the High Court’s findings, it was not possible for the trial process to be fair,” said the Commission.  It added that it was an “affront to the public conscience” for the sub-postmaster to face criminal proceedings.”

Turning on a former colleague whose evidence exposed the full picture?

The judge said,

“Infallibility is a rare commodity, and everyone is capable of making mistakes. However, it is how one reacts to mistakes that is telling. In this instance, the initial reaction of the Fujitsu witnesses was to seek to shift the blame for their own misleading written evidence upon someone else. In this case, that “someone else” was their former Fujitsu colleague whose very evidence was responsible for exposing the full picture.”


“There is a lot of interest in this,” said government business secretary Alok Sharma in July when asked by MP Ruth Jones about a judge-led inquiry into the Post Office IT scandal.

Sharma was not talking about the take-up of loans to small businesses or a new type of smart meter.  The scandal is described by lawyers as the widest miscarriage of justice in England’s legal history. Is it surprising then that there is a lot of interest in a judge-led inquiry?

The instincts of former sub-postmaster Alan Bates who instigated the group legal action in the High Court against the Post Office have proven correct. He knew that he could not depend on the Parliamentary business establishment to expose the scandal or mitigate its effects.

The scandal continues

Indeed, the government review of Horizon announced by Scully and Sharma seems more likely to recommend tweaking the Post Office’s corporate governance than holding to account those who allowed sub-postmasters to go to prison on the basis Horizon was robust.

The scandal goes on: ministers express their confidence the Post Office will cooperate with a review. This is the same organisation that had not always given the truth to its CEO on Horizon, had tried to stop disclosure of relevant information to the High Court about Horizon, had tried to mislead the judge in the case and had not disclosed 5,000 “known error logs” until after the end of a Horizon trial that had focused on errors in the system. On what grounds do ministers now believe the Post Office, institutionally, has a genuine interest in cooperating fully with a review after 20 years of concealment?

For more than a decade, the Parliamentary business establishment has been close to indifferent about the scandal or, at best, knowingly naive. That establishment, understandably, wants the Post Office to flourish not collapse under the weight of a self-made scandal.  But government business officials and ministers seem to treat the Horizon scandal a little as if a large energy company’s billing system has issued some inaccurate bills.


Would a minister say, “there’s a lot of interest in this” if MPs had asked about other matters that warranted a judge-led inquiry, such as the Grenfell fire or failures at Mid-Staffordshire Hospitals?

The reason the Horizon scandal was allowed to happen was because the Post Office was answerable to nobody and was therefore unaccountable for its conduct. Can anyone, in truth, say it is now accountable?

At the BEIS committee hearing in July, business MPs – who have had 20 years to hold the Post Office to account, had the rare chance to question the business secretary Sharma. True, Sharma was not in office during the scandal but he is likely to have been briefed on it by his officials at some point this year. At the BEIS hearing, Sharma was asked just four questions about the Post Office IT scandal by two of the nine MPs at the hearing – and near the end of the session.

Sooner of later, ministers will need to show they care. Outside the Parliamentary business establishment, there is genuine concern: Boris Johnson called the Post Office IT scandal a disaster for sub-postmasters. Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said of the Horizon matter there is “no worse scandal than imprisoning people or unjustly taking away their livelihoods when they are accused of crimes that they did not commit”. The Criminal Cases Review Commission, the High Court, the Appeal Court, sub-postmasters, the media and many MPs and peers have been forthright in their criticisms of the Post Office. But not the Parliamentary business establishment.

Journalist Nick Wallis was told by a government source that civil servants did not want even a review. “They wanted it all to go away.”

One thing is certain. Alan Bates will make sure the campaign for justice continues until sub-postmasters have at least been returned the money wrongfully taken from them.

The longer ministers keep their cheque books closed on the sub-postmasters’ losses the longer the campaign for justice goes on, as will the campaign to hold to account those who allowed miscarriages to happen, including at the Post Office and the Department for BEIS.

Government business ministers appear to believe that a public summary of the Post Office’s failings at the end of a government review into Horizon will give sub-postmasters the closure they crave. If ministers genuinely believe this summary can replace fair compensation, justice and accountability they are as naive as their predecessors.

It would take an afternoon only to write a summary of the Post Office’s failings from the litigation rulings. An afternoon’s work would save on the cost of a review. And just as pointless as a review.

No pain no gain

The obvious way to resolve the scandal now is for the right thing to be done – which will not be easy. It may be difficult and painful to come up with £46m to pay the sub-postmasters legal costs. But compare the difficulties of raising £46m with the years of suffering that an arm of the state has imposed on 1,800 or more sub-postmasters.


Martin Callanan, Post Office and BEIS minister in the House of Lords

Doing the wrong thing is carrying on with what is happening now: planning for a non-statutory review in which nobody is cross-examined and no documents can be demanded is easy. Writing a summary of the Post Office’s failings is easy. Going into the Lords and Commons and giving the same scripted answers whatever the question is easy. In the Lords last week, peers who briefly debated the Horizon scandal would have been better served by a cardboard cut-out of the government business minister, Martin Calllanan: a cut-out would not have raised expectations. It cannot be fulfilling for business ministers to go into the Commons or Lords and answer questions on Horizon by sounding like a pre-recorded voicemail message.

It took immense hard work and perception for Mr Justice Fraser, the judge in the litigation between sub-postmasters and the Post Office, to set out the legal position with such unsparing clarity. He was courageous too, say lawyers, because he took on an institution the size of the Post Office in a way other judges might have been reluctant to do.  Now it’s up to ministers. Their department can carry as now which will mean continuing to answer parliamentary questions and writing scripts for Horizon debates for years to come  … until, eventually, the right thing – the hard and painful thing – is done.


Crowd-funding appeal to support Chirag Sidhura’s application for a judicial review of Post Office’s historical shortfall scheme. 

They all wanted it to go away – Nick Wallis

The Great Post Office Trial – Nick Wallis’ beautifully-told story of the Post Office scandal, in a 10-part series on BBC R4. 

Fujitsu must face scrutiny following Post Office Horizon trial judgment – Karl Flinders, Computer Weekly An in-depth account of some misleading statements to the High Court.

Possible misconduct by prosecution – Second Sight paper to BEIS committee

Bates v Post Office Horizon judgment, December 2019


Whitehall has taken on 100 technology experts over past year

By Tony Collins

The Cabinet Office says that government departments have taken on more than  100 IT experts over the past year.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) led the recruitment as part of a plan to raise technology-related skills in the civil service.

One appointment is of former Credit Suisse CIO Magnus Falk as the Government’s new Deputy Chief Technology Officer, reporting to Government CTO Liam Maxwell. Other recent technology recruits include:

  • MOJ Chief Technology Officer Ian Sayer, who was Global Chief Information Officer at Electrolux; and
  • Government Chief Technical Architect Kevin Humphries, former Chief Technical Architect at Qatarlyst.

Chief Digital Officer appointments include:

  • HMRC Chief Digital and Information Officer Mark Dearnley, formerly CIO of Vodafone;
  • MOJ CDO Paul Shelter, who previously co-founded two start-ups and was CTO for banking at Oracle;
  • ONS’s Laura Dewis, Deputy Director Digital Publishing, who was Head of Online Commissioning at The Open University;
  • Jacqueline Steed, former Managing Director and CIO for BT Wholesale, who starts as CDO at the Student Loan Company next week; and
  • DWP CDO Kevin Cunnington, who was previously Global Head of Online at Vodafone.


It’s encouraging that the Cabinet Office, through the GDS, is overseeing the recruitment of IT leaders in government departments. It means the recruits will see their roles as cross-governmental. In the past the civil service culture has required that CIOs show an almost filial respect for their departmental seniors.

It’s a good idea that GDS tries to change age-old behaviours from within by recruiting technology experts with a wide range of experience from the private sector. But how long will they last?

Their challenge will be converting the words “transformation”, “innovation” and “fundamental change” from board papers, press releases, strategy documents, and conference speeches, into actions.

New deputy CTO role in central government – Government Computing



A welcome boost for agile in government

By Tony Collins

David Wilks, Digital Performance Manager at Government Digital Service, which is part of the Cabinet Office, says there has been “incredible” interest in clarified guidance that makes it easier for departments to obtain funding for agile projects.

The guidance applies to major projects.

Wilks says on the GDS blog that the guidance will “cut bureaucracy and encourage innovation, making digital transformation easier across government”.

It means that, in most cases, government organisations can spend up to £750,000 on the first two phases of a government agile project, discovery and alpha, on the basis of Cabinet Office spending controls – without needing an HM Treasury business case.

The guidance means:

  • more use of “light-touch” Programme Business Cases
  • using agile discovery to replace the Strategic Outline Case in most cases
  • avoiding the need for a separate Full Business Case stage where procurement uses a pre-competed arrangement such as the Digital Services Framework

“For agile and finance teams in government departments, this guidance clarification has produced incredible interest,” says Wilks.


It seems fashionable to criticise the use of agile in government, perhaps because agile requires a mindset and culture that may be alien in parts of the civil service. But done well agile could help to modernise and reform central government administration.  It’s not a cure for all the problems of bloated government IT and it has risks, among them:

–  Zeno’s paradox where a project is perpetually on the point of delivering successfully but never actually does, as with the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative.

–  A so-called agile project that combines waterfall and agile approaches. It’s either waterfall or agile. It’s difficult to see how a project can be both. Those projects where there has been a hybrid agile-waterfall approach have not been successful: Universal Credit, the BBC’s DMI and an Oracle IT-related project disaster in Oregon.

That said, investigators of the “Cover Oregon” failure seem now to advocate a purer form of agile as one solution. A highly critical official report into the failure has some positive comments on agile:

“Since September 2013, CO [Cover Oregon] has been utilizing a home grown development process which is based upon agile methodologies. There are seven functional areas within the process, referred to as tables, with each table having a dedicated table lead (a mini project manager) and a dedicated business analyst. This process appears to be well orchestrated.

“Each morning there are daily “scrum” meetings for the different functional areas. While not rigidly adhering to the formal agile scrum format, these meetings serve a valuable purpose in providing a regular opportunity for various parties from a functional area to provide the latest updates on the progress across the outstanding major defects/issues …”


With some reservations the Cabinet Office’s initiative to cut bureaucracy and make it easier for departments to adopt agile is welcome.


Will Universal Credit ever work? – NAO report

By Tony Collins

Today’s National Audit Office report Universal Credit: early progress is one of most excoriating the NAO has published on a government IT-enabled project or programme.

Iain Duncan Smith, secretary of state for work and pensions, has already responded to the NAO report by implying it is out of date and that the problems are in the past. This is a standard government response to well researched and highly critical NAO reports.

But the authors of the NAO report have pointed to some UC problems that are so fundamental that it may be difficult for any independent observer to credibly regard the project’s problems as historic. Says the NAO:

“The Department [DWP] is unable to continue with its ambitious plans for national roll-out until it has agreed the future service design and IT architecture for Universal Credit.”

So can the UC project ever be a success if, years after its start, there is no agreed design or IT architecture? Says the NAO

“The Department may also decide to scale back the complexity and ambition of its plans.”

Although the DWP has spent more than £300m on UC IT, mostly with the usual large IT suppliers, complex claims cannot yet be handled without manual work and calculations.

In February 2013, the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority reviewed Universal Credit and raised “serious concerns about the programme’s progress”, says the NAO report. “The review team was concerned that the pathfinder [pilot project] could not handle changes in circumstances and complex cases which had to be dealt with manually, and that this meant the pathfinder could not be rolled out to large volumes.”

The Independent says the DWP gave false assurances on the project’s progress. The Daily Mail says the scheme has got off to a “disastrous start”.

The NAO’s main findings:

 Is £303m spent on IT value for money?

 “At this early stage of the Universal Credit programme the Department has not achieved value for money. The Department has delayed rolling out Universal Credit to claimants, has had weak control of the programme, and has been unable to assess the value of the systems it spent over £300m to develop [up to the end of March 2013].

“These problems represent a significant setback to Universal Credit and raise wider concerns about the Department’s ability to deal with weak programme management, over-optimistic timescales, and a lack of openness about progress.”

A projected IT overspend of £233m?

The NAO puts the expected cost of implementing Universal Credit to 2023 at £2.4bn. The spend to April 2013 is £425m, including £303m on the IT. The planned IT investment in the current spending review period from the May 2011 business case was £396m, but the December 2012 business case puts the planned IT investment in the current review period at £637m – and increase of £233m, or 60%. The DWP wants to make changes elsewhere in its budgets to accommodate the extra IT spend.

Ministers and DWP spokespeople have said repeatedly that the project is within budget.

Some of the IT spend breakdown

– Core software applications including a payment management component  – £188m

– Interface with HMRC real time information – £10m

– Case management module – £6m

– Licences – £31m

– Supplier support – £26m

– Hardware, telephony and changes to old systems – £50m

– Departmental staff costs on the Business and IT Solution team – £29m.

– Staff contractors provided by suppliers to support departmental staff  – £26m.

Main IT suppliers – spend to end of 2012/13

– Accenture. Software design, development and testing including: interview system; evidence capture, assessment and verification; and staff contractors – £125m

– IBM. Software design, development and testing including: real time earnings; process orchestration and payment management; and staff contractors – £75m

– HP. Hardware and legacy system software, and staff contractors – £49m

– BT. Telephony. It also supplied specialist advice on agile development methods – £16m

A further £9m was spent on live system support costs provided by HP; bringing total spending with suppliers to £312m, says the NAO.

 Is the IT high quality or not?

The NAO report suggests there may be conflicting views between those in DWP who believe the IT is high quality and others who are not so sure.

“The Department believes that the majority of the built IT is high quality, but has not been fully developed and cannot support scaling up the programme as it stands. Some assessments have commented that systems are inflexible or over-elaborate.”

Will the IT support a national roll-out?

The NAO says it’s uncertain that the IT can support full national roll-out of Universal Credit without further work and investment.

“The Department does not yet know to what extent its new IT systems will support national roll-out. Universal Credit pathfinder systems have limited function and do not allow claimants to change details of their circumstances online as originally intended. The Department does not yet have an agreed plan for national roll-out and has been unclear about how far it will build on pathfinder systems or replace them.”

Will timetable and scope have to change further?

“The Department will have to scale back its original delivery ambition and is re-assessing what it must do to roll-out Universal Credit to claimants. The current programme team is developing new plans for Universal Credit. Our experience of major programmes supported by IT suggests that the Department will need to revise the programme’s timing and scope, particularly around online transactions and automation.”


“It is unlikely that Universal Credit will be as simple or cheap to administer as originally intended. Delays to roll-out will reduce the expected benefits of reform…”


“ The ambitious timetable created pressure on the Department to act quickly…”

Open to fraud?

“The Department’s current IT system lacks the ability to identify potentially fraudulent claims. Within the controlled pathfinder environment, the Department relies on multiple manual checks on claims and payments. Such checks will not be feasible or adequate once the system is running nationally.

“Without a system in place, the Department will be unable to make the savings it had planned, by reducing overpayments from fraud and error. In December 2012, it estimated these savings to be worth £1.2 billion per year in steady state.”

Separately the NAO states that there have been “unanticipated security problems from putting transactions online”. The DWP may now scale back all that was planned to be online.

In January 2013 the technical director of CESG and other reviewers said that the UC security solution was “over-complex” and could have conflicted with DWP plans to encourage people to claim online.

Delay in national roll-out

“The Department has delayed rolling out Universal Credit nationally. The Department will not introduce Universal Credit for all new out-of-work claims nationally from October 2013 as planned. Instead it will add a further six pathfinder sites from October 2013

 “Pause UC immediately”

In early 2013 the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Review Group noted that the Department had not addressed issues with governance, management and programme design despite their having been raised in previous reports. The Authority “recommended that the Universal Credit programme be paused immediately”.

All  post-2015 plans under review

The original plans were for UC roll-out to finish by late 2017. All statements by officials and Iain Duncan Smith have confirmed this 2017 deadline. In fact, says the NAO, all milestones beyond the start of 2015 are “currently under review” including:

• National roll-out of all new claims

• Closedown of tax credits new claims

• Roll-out of Pension Credit Plus on Universal Credit platform

• Completion of claimant migration

The NAO says the DWP has considered completing the roll-out beyond 2017.

Complete rethink needed

 The Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority reviewed and reported on Universal Credit in February 2013. The Authority’s found that:

“Universal Credit Programme needs a complete rethink of the delivery approach together with streamlining potentially over-elaborate solutions.”

A separate review of the project by Capgemini in January 2013 and a “Reset IT stocktake” in April 2013 concluded that the UC “architecture is of limited extensibility”.

Pathfinders of limited value

“The pathfinder lacks a complete security solution. Claimants cannot make changes in circumstances online. This increases the need for manual work as changes must be made by telephone. The pathfinders also require more staff intervention than planned, because of reduced automation and links between systems.”

100 day planning period

 “In May 2013, the Department appointed the current senior responsible owner [Howard Shiplee] to lead the Universal Credit programme. The team is now conducting a ‘100-day planning period’, which will end at the end of September 2013. The Department will then submit a new business case to HM Treasury, and ask for ministerial sign-off for delivery plans in late 2013.”

Secrecy – even internally?

“The reset took place between February and May 2013. The reset team included departmental, Cabinet Office and Government Digital Services staff. The reset team developed an extensive set of materials as part of a ‘blueprint’ covering design and implementation, and 99 detailed recommendations. The reset team shared the blueprint with the Department’s Executive Team who approved it at each stage of its development. The Department shared the blueprint with a small number of people but did not initially share it widely.”

A £34m write-off – so far

“The Department has acknowledged that it needs to write off some of the value of its Universal Credit IT assets. By the end of 2012-13, the Department had spent £303m on its IT systems and created assets which it valued at £196m – a difference of £107m. But the DWP has decided to write-off £34m – 17% – though it may increase the size of the write-off later.

“The Department is conducting further impairment reviews of the value of its Universal Credit IT assets before finalising its 2012-13 accounts.” The £34m write-off was based on a “self-assessment which it asked its suppliers to conduct”.

Number of claimants well below planned level

“In its October 2011 business case, the Department expected the Universal Credit caseload to reach 1.1 million by April 2014, but reduced this to 184,000 in the December 2012 business case.”

Planned savings down by nearly £500m

“The cost to government of implementing Universal Credit will be partly offset by administrative savings. In December 2012, the Department estimated that a three-month delay in transferring cases from existing benefits to Universal Credit would reduce savings by £240m in the current spending review period and by £247m after April 2015.”

 Anyone know who decided on October 2013 for planned UC roll-out?

 “The Department was unable to explain to us why it originally decided to aim for national roll-out from October 2013. It is not clear whether the Department gave decision-makers an evaluation of the relative feasibility, risks and costs of this target date.”

 Agile … with a 1,000-strong team?

“In 2010, the Department was unfamiliar with the agile methodology and no government programme of this size had used it. The Department recognised that the agile approach would raise risks for an organisation that was unfamiliar with this approach. In particular, the Department

• was managing a programme which grew to over 1,000 people using an approach that is often used in small collaborative teams;

• had not defined how it would monitor progress or document decisions;

• needed to integrate Universal Credit with existing systems, which use a waterfall approach to managing changes; and

• was working within existing contract, governance and approval structures.

“To tackle concerns about programme management, the Department has repeatedly redefined its approach. The Department changed its approach to ‘Agile 2.0’ in January 2012. Agile 2.0 was an evolution of the former agile approach, designed to try to work better with existing waterfall approaches that the Department uses to make changes to old systems.

“After a review by suppliers raised concerns about the achievability of the October 2013 roll-out the Department then adopted a ‘phased approach’ and created separate lead director roles for the pathfinder (phase 1), October roll-out (phase 2) and subsequent migration (phase 3).

“The Cabinet Office does not consider that the Department has at any point prior to the reset appropriately adopted an agile approach to managing the Universal Credit programme.”

Anyone know how UC is meant to work?

The source of many problems has been the absence of a detailed view of how Universal Credit is meant to work. The Department has struggled to set out how the detailed design of systems and processes fit together and relate to the objectives of Universal Credit.

“This is despite this issue having been raised repeatedly in 2012 by internal audit, the Major Projects Authority and a supplier-led review. This lack of clarity creates problems tracking progress, and increases the risk that systems will not be fit for purpose or that proposed solutions are more elaborate or expensive than they need to be…

“The Department was warned repeatedly about the lack of a detailed ‘blueprint’, ‘architecture’ or ‘target operating model’ for Universal Credit. Over the course of 2011 and the first half of 2012, the Department made some progress but did not address these concerns as expected.

“By mid-2012, this meant that the Department could not agree what security it needed to protect claimant transactions and was unclear about how Universal Credit would integrate with other programmes. These concerns culminated, in October 2012, in the Cabinet Office rejecting the Department’s proposed IT hardware and networks.

“ Given the tight timetable, unfamiliar programme management approach and lack of a detailed operating model, it was critical that the Department should have good progress information and effective controls. In practice the Department did not have any adequate measures of progress.”

High turnover among IT leaders?

“Including the reset and the current director general for Universal Credit, the programme has had five different senior responsible owners since mid-2012.

“The Department has also had high turnover in important roles other than the senior responsible owner. The Department has had five Universal Credit programme directors since 2010.”

The NAO said that the director of Universal Credit IT was “removed from the programme in late 2012 and the Department has replaced the role with several roles with IT responsibilities”. During and since the ‘reset’ the Government Digital Service has helped to redesign the systems and processes supporting transformation.

Good news culture and a fortress mentality

“The culture within the programme has also been a problem…Both the Major Projects Authority and a supplier-led review in mid-2012 identified problems with staff culture; including a ‘fortress mentality’ within the programme. The latter also reported there was a culture of ‘good news’ reporting that limited open discussion of risks and stifled challenge.”

“Inadequate control of suppliers”

The Department had to manage multiple suppliers. Three main suppliers – Accenture, IBM and HP – developed components for Universal Credit. The Department commissioned IBM to act as an Applications Development Integrator from January 2012, providing some oversight and overall management of IT development, but creating risks of supplier self-management.

The NAO found that there were inappropriate contractual mechanisms; charges were on the basis of time and materials, leaving the majority of risks with the Department. The NAO said there were “inadequate controls over what would be supplied, when and at what cost because deliverables were not always defined before contracts were signed.”

There was “over-reliance on performance information that was provided by suppliers without Department validation”. And weak contractual relationships with suppliers meant that the DWP “did not enforce all the key terms and conditions of its standard contract management framework, inhibiting its ability to hold suppliers to account”

Said the NAO:

“Various reviews have criticised how the Department has managed suppliers. In June 2012, CESG reported the lack of an agreed, clearly defined and documented scope with each supplier setting out what they should provide. This hampered the Department’s ability to hold suppliers to account and caused confusion about the interactions between systems developed by different ones. In February 2013, the Major Projects Authority reported there was no evidence of the Department actively managing its supplier contracts and recommended that the Department needed to urgently get a grip of its supplier management.”

Suppliers paid without proper checks

“The Department has exercised poor financial control over the Universal Credit programme. The Department commissioned an external review in early 2013 of financial management in Universal Credit. The review found several weaknesses including poor information about the basis for supplier invoices, payments being made without adequate checks and inadequate governance and oversight over who approved spending. The review team checked a sample of invoices against the timesheets of suppliers and found no evidence of inappropriate charging, although timesheet information is not complete and cannot be linked to specific activity…”

The NAO went on to emphasise that there was “insufficient review of contractor performance before making payments. “On average six project leads were given three days to check 1,500 individual timesheets, with payments only stopped if a challenge was raised.”

The NAO added that inadequate internal challenge of purchase decisions meant that ministers had “insufficient information to assess the value for money of contracts before approving them”.

50 people on the UC programme board

“The programme board acts as the programme’s main oversight and decision-making body… The programme board has been too large and inconsistent to act as an effective, accountable group. Over the course of 2012, the programme board had 50 different people attending as core members…

“The board did not have adequate performance information to challenge the programme’s progress. In particular, while the board had access to activity measures for IT system development, it could not track the actual value of this activity against spending.

“In the absence of such measures of progress, the board relied on external reviews to assess progress. Such external reviews were not sufficiently frequent for the board to use them as a substitute for timely, adequate management information.”

Programme board disbanded

 “… during the reset [Feb-May 2013], [the DWP] suspended the programme board entirely.

Failure to act on recommendations

“From mid-2012, it became increasingly clear that the Department was failing to address recommendations from assurance reviews… the key areas of concern raised by the Major Projects Authority in February 2013 had appeared in previous reports.

“From mid-2012, the underlying concerns about how Universal Credit would work meant that the Department could not address recommendations from assurance reviews; it failed to fully implement two-thirds of the recommendations made by internal audit and the Major Projects Authority in 2012. Without adequate, timely management information, the Department relied on periodic external assurance reports to assess progress.”

Ceasing work for national roll-out

“By late 2012, the Department had largely stopped developing systems for national roll-out and concentrated its efforts on preparing short-term solutions for the pathfinder…”

Slippery Parliamentary answers

The NAO lists almost imperceptible changes in the language of Parliamentary answers on Universal Credit.

In 2011 the DWP said in a Parliamentary answer that “all new applications” for out-of-work financial help would be treated as a UC claim; and in November 2012 the DWP said in a Parliamentary reply that in October 2013 it would start to migrate claimants from the old system to the new. But by June 2013 the DWP’s line had changed. By then it was saying in a Parliamentary reply that Universal Credit will “progressively roll-out” from October 2013 with all those who are entitled to UC claiming the new benefit by 2017. In fact all new applications for out-of-work help are not being treated as a UC claim. The NAO says that new claimants in the pathfinder must be “single, without children, newly claiming a benefit, fit for work, not claiming disability benefits, not have caring responsibilities, not be homeless or in temporary accommodation, and have a valid bank account and National Insurance number”.

Will UC ever work?

“ …it is still entirely feasible that it [UC] goes on to achieve considerable benefits for society. But to do so the Department will need to learn from its early mistakes.

“As it revises its plans the Department must show it can: exercise effective control of the programme; develop sufficient in-house capability to commission and manage IT development; set clear and realistic expectations about the timescale and scope of Universal Credit; and, address wider issues about how it manages risks in major programmes.”


Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, says of the NAO report:

“The Department for Work and Pensions has made such a mess of setting up Universal Credit that the Major Projects Authority had to step in to rescue the programme.

“DWP seems to have embarked on this crucial project, expected to cost the taxpayer some £2.4bn, with little idea as to how it was actually going to work.

“Confusion and poor management at the highest levels have already resulted in delays and at least £34m wasted on developing IT. If the Department doesn’t get its act together, we could be on course for yet another catastrophic government IT failure.

“This damning indictment from the NAO gives me no confidence that we will see the £38 billion of predicted benefits between 2010-11 and 2022-23. Vulnerable benefit claimants need a secure system they can rely on.”

NAO report – Universal Credit: early progress

Universal Credit IT working well claims DWP

By Tony Collins

Staff in job centres working on Universal Credit system are writing jobseekers’ personal information down on paper because their IT systems are so “clunky and cumbersome”, Dame Anne Begg, chair of the Commons’ Work and Pensions Committee, told Civil Service World.

“When we visited the Bolton Jobcentre Plus the IT system seemed clunky and cumbersome,” Begg said. Staff making appointments for UC applicants at the Bolton pilot scheme “had to write out some of the [jobseekers’] personal details, just to transfer them from one computer system to another. That’s something that we would have expected to be ironed out.”

The handwriting of jobseekers’ details “could lead to transposing errors”, she said.  Further, the Universal Credit IT system doesn’t allow jobseekers to save their data midway through an online application, Begg said.  She warned that this will penalise those who don’t own computers, who will have to remember to take all of their personal details in one batch to open access computers such as those at local libraries.

But a spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said:

“The IT supporting Universal Credit is working well and the vast majority of people are claiming online. Making a claim to Universal Credit in one session… helps ensure the security of a claimant’s information.”

Last month a leaked survey of staff at the Department of Work and Pensions who are working on Universal Credit programme found dishonesty, secrecy, poor communications, inadequate leadership and low morale.

Computer Weekly reports that the DWP placed just 0.5% of its Universal Credit IT spending directly with SMEs, and that the department’s major suppliers – Accenture, Atos, BT, IBM, Capita, HP and SCC – subcontracted little to SMEs. “The Universal Credit supply chain flowed downstream mostly to multinational technology suppliers such as Oracle, Nuance, Genband and RedHat.” Most Universal Credit IT spending has gone to Accenture, IBM and HP: £57m, £41m and £34m respectively, between January 2011 and May 2013.]


While keeping secret internal reports on the Universal Credit IT project, and while all the signs are that Universal Credit’s IT is in trouble – it’s easier to handle claims at least in part by hand – the DWP’s senior officials, spokespeople and Iain Duncan Smith are telling the public and Parliament that all is well.

Perhaps the next logical step is that they come onto the public stage in costume to tell us nursery tales, while playing stock characters who sing, dance, and perform skits. Maybe then they’ll be more believable.

Another Universal Credit leader stands down

By Tony Collins

Universal Credit’s Programme Director, Hilary Reynolds, has stood down after only four months in post. The Department for Work and Pensions says she has been replaced by the interim head of Universal Credit David Pitchford.

Last month the DWP said Pitchford was temporarily leading Universal Credit following the death of Philip Langsdale at Christmas. In November 2012 the DWP confirmed that the then Programme Director for UC, Malcolm Whitehouse, was stepping down – to be replaced by Hilary Reynolds. Steve Dover,  the DWP’s Corporate Director, Universal Credit Programme Business, has also been replaced.

A DWP spokesman said today (11 March 2013),

“David Pitchford’s role as Chief Executive for Universal Credit effectively combines the Senior Responsible Officer and Programme Director roles.  As a result, Hilary Reynolds will now move onto other work.” She will no longer work on UC but will stay at the DWP, said the spokesman.

Raised in New Zealand, Reynolds is straight-talking. When she wrote to local authority chief executives in December 2012, introducing herself as the new Director for the Universal Credit Programme, her letter was free of the sort of jargon and vague management-speak that often characterises civil service communications.  It is a pity she is standing down.

Some believe that Universal Credit will be launched in such a small way it could be managed manually. The bulk of the roll-out will be after the next general election, which means the plan would be subject to change. Each limited phase will have to prove itself before the next roll-out starts.

Reynolds’ letter to local authorities suggests that the roll-out of UC will, initially, be limited.  She said in her letter,

“For the majority of local authorities, the impact of UC during the financial year 2013/14 will be limited. .. Initially, UC will replace new claims from single jobseekers of working age in certain defined postcode areas.

“From October 2013 we plan to extend the service to include jobseekers with children, couples and owner-occupiers, gradually expanding the service to locations across Great Britain and making it available to the full range of eligible working age claimants …by the end of 2017.”

Some IT work halted? 

Accenture, Atos Origin, Oracle, Red Hat, CACI and IBM UK have all been asked to stop work on UC, according to shadow minister Liam Byrne MP, as reported on consultant Brian Wernham’s blog.

Wernham says that Minister Mark Hoban did not rebut Byrne’s statement but said that HP was committed to carrying on with the project. HP is responsible for deployment of a solution, not development, says Wernham’s agile government blog.


The DWP says that Pitchford has taken over from Reynolds – but separately the DWP had confirmed that Pitchford was leading UC temporarily and that Reynolds had a permanent job on the programme. Pitchford’s usual job is running the Major Projects Authority in the Cabinet Office.

All the changes at the DWP, and the reported halting of work by IT contractors, imply that the UC project is proving more involved, and moving more slowly,  than initially thought. It’s also a reason for the DWP to continue to refuse FOI requests for internal reports that assess the project’s progress.

Perhaps the DWP doesn’t want people to know that the project is on track for such a limited roll-out in October that it could be managed, in the main, by hand. With the bulk of the roll-out planned for after the next general election Labour may be denied the use of UC as an effective electoral weapon against the Conservatives. In other words, the riskiest stage of UC is being put off until 2016/17.

 Francis Maude, who is worried that UC will prove an IT and electoral disaster, has his own man, David Pitchford, leading the project, if only temporarily. Meanwhile UC project leaders from the DWP continue to last an extraordinarily short time. Reynolds had been UC programme director for only four months when she stood down. Pitchford is in a temporary role as the programme’s head, and Andy Nelson has recently become the DWP’s Chief Information Officer.

So much for UC’s continuity of leadership.

The truth about the project hasn’t been told. Isn’t it time someone told Iain Duncan Smith what’s really happening – Francis Maude perhaps?