Post Office considered asking Computer Weekly to review Horizon IT system

The Post Office CIO was tasked by directors with sizing up Computer Weekly for the task of reviewing a forensic investigation into Horizon

By

Karl Flinders,
Chief reporter and senior editor EMEA

Published: 17 May 2024 10:48

The Post Office’s most senior IT executive was given the task of researching whether Computer Weekly could carry out a review of an investigation into the controversial Horizon system.

At the time in 2012, the Post Office and its retail and accounting system were coming under scrutiny following Computer Weekly’s 2009 expose of problems affecting branch managers.

Computer Weekly had revealed the plight of subpostmasters suffering unexplained accounting shortfalls, which they blamed on the system from Fujitsu, known as Horizon. This triggered a campaign by the affected subpostmasters, led by Alan Bates.

The Post Office had prosecuted subpostmasters based on evidence of accounting shortfalls on Horizon and many others had been sacked or made to repay shortfalls, but there were allegations that errors with the Horizon system were to blame.

Faced with challenges from MPs, subpostmasters and the press, including Computer Weekly, the Post Office was under pressure to carry out an investigation into the Horizon system, to reassure interested parties that it was robust.

In 2012, following a suggestion from peer James Arbuthnot, an MP at the time, the Post Office decided to evaluate Computer Weekly as a possible reviewer of a planned investigation into Horizon.

In her witness statement to the Post Office Horizon scandal public inquiry this week, then CIO Lesley Sewell said she was set three tasks by Post Office directors.

Her statement said: “The action points referring to Computer Weekly were in relation to a suggestion made by James Arbuthnot MP that the Post Office should bring them into the business to carry out a review of Horizon.”

She was asked “to be ready to present our view on Computer Weekly and what these views are based on; find out the views of the IT industry and the government on Computer Weekly (possibly ask [the government] CIO); and consider who we might suggest as an independent IT consultant who could carry out a review, two or three possibilities so there is a choice.“

Arbuthnot confirmed the discussion this week, and put it into context. He told Computer Weekly: “When I first went to see [Post Office CEO] Paula Vennells and [Post Office chair] Alice Perkins, I had no idea what we were getting into. I knew that Computer Weekly knew a lot more about computers than I did, and that they were independent and persistent. So I suggested that they might be involved in the process of checking on Horizon because I wouldn’t be able to do it myself.”

Forensic accountants Second Sight were chosen to do a full forensic investigation, but there were initial fears over the firm’s independence from the Post Office, and campaigners wanted its work to be reviewed.

Arbuthnot said: “Paula Vennells’ suggestion of Second Sight [to carry out an investigation] was welcome, but at that stage the MPs and I were uncertain about their independence. That view changed over time, of course. Alan Bates was also uncertain and he suggested that [forensic accountant] Kay Linnell should do the role I was proposing for Computer Weekly, by double checking Second Sight, and the Post Office agreed to that.”

During the latest inquiry hearing Sewell said: “I recall that the UK government had set up an area called [the] Government Digital Service. I was tasked with going to talk to government leaders and others in the industry to seek their views on Computer Weekly and if they were able to conduct a review of Horizon.”

Sewell added: “The proposal to bring Computer Weekly journalists into the Post Office to conduct this review was unusual. The appropriate response, in my view, was to bring in an independent expert to carry out a forensic review of whether there was a systemic issue with Horizon.”

Sewell suggested Deloitte undertake the independent review but Linnell was chosen instead.

Second Sight’s investigation changed the course of the Horizon scandal and confirmed the problems with the Horizon system. Its interim report in July 2013 found the existence of bugs as well as other concerns such as unreliable hardware, exceptionally complex systems and a lack of proper training.

Its 2015 final report was damning, revealing that the Post Office had prosecuted subpostmasters with unexplained shortfalls without investigating the root cause. This raised the possibility of miscarriages of justice with hundreds of people convicted of crimes based on evidence from Horizon.

In her witness statement Sewell said she had no recollection of reading Computer Weekly’s original article in 2009, before joining the Post Office: “I was not employed by [Post Office Ltd] at the time of this article and do not recall being involved in any internal discussions about it when I joined.”

But she said she did read Computer Weekly articles during her tenure but could not recall when she did or which articles.

The Post Office Horizon scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to accounting software (see below for timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal, since 2009).

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal •

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story •

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