Carl Court/Getty Images
show image

Laurie Clarke

Reporter

Horizon IT scandal: falsely accused ex-Post Office workers demand judge-led inquiry

Former Post Office workers who were criminally prosecuted, bankrupted, and left suicidal on the basis of errors made by a glitching accounting system, yesterday demanded that MPs hold those responsible to account. 

Subpostmasters blamed for erroneous accounting shortfalls that appeared on the Horizon IT system (supplied by Fujitsu) used by the Post Office, answered MPs questions at a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee. 

Former subpostmasters Tracy Felstead, Wendy Buffrey and Alan Bates gave evidence to the committee about the gruelling experiences they’d suffered as a result of the Post Office’s response to the bugging software.

Felstead was prosecuted for theft and spent half of a six month sentence in Holloway Prison. Buffrey was prosecuted for false accounting (which she accepted as a lesser charge), and was forced to do 150 hours of community service and pay the Post Office £36,000 that it had claimed she had lost. 

Bates lost his business and suffered financial losses. He now heads up the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, a group which campaigns for justice for the subpostmasters affected. 

This case has stretched for longer than a decade for some of the hundreds that have been affected. Felstead, for example, was first wrongfully accused in 2001; Buffrey has lived with a criminal record since 2010. When they were accused by the Post Office, they were unaware of the hundreds of others also bearing the brunt of the ineffective IT system. 

A group of 550 subpostmasters first sued the Post Office in the High Court in April 2016, with claims that they had been wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting. A High Court judgment in December 2019 confirmed that the subpostmasters’ allegations  that the Horizon computer system was insufficiently robust were correct. The Post Office conceded defeat and agreed to pay £57.75m in damages. 

The ruling judge Mr Justice Peter Fraser said that the original version of Horizon, first introduced in 2000, was not “remotely robust”, which led to a “significant and material risk” of branch accounts suffering from “bugs, errors and defects”.  

The judge also said he would refer Fujitsu to the director of public prosecutions for potential further action, according to reports from the court. 

However, victims are seeking more answers as well as consequences for those responsible. They are now calling for a judge-led inquiry into who is responsible for what happened. 

One point of contention is that the sum paid in damages is insufficient. After costs are subtracted from the £57.75m awarded, only about £10m remains for subpostmasters.

“When you start to talk about dividing £11.5m between 550 people you can see we are not getting very far to recover the cost,” Bates said today. 

Subpostmasters demand that their legal costs be covered by the government, which owns the Post Office.

But beyond financial cost, there is the question of culpability. Communication Workers Union assistant secretary Andy Furey told the committee there was a “perverse irony” that “nobody has been held accountable” from the Post Office, when the 550 victims were so grievously affected.

In addition to facing prosecution and bankruptcy, some have had to live while labelled as a criminal by the state for as many as 18 years. In at least two families, false accusations of theft have as a result of the Horizon system has been a factor in suicide. In other families, there have been attempted suicides.

Furey said: “There hasn’t been any accountability so far, that’s why I believe it is so fundamentally important to get this judge-led independent inquiry. People’s lives have been ruined.”

Buffrey added: “No one is admitting they knew and I am certain they did. I want someone to be held accountable for what they did to us.”  

In the BEIS committee meeting, Buffrey also criticised Boris Johnson’s lack of commitment to ensuring a public inquiry into the scandal.

When asked whether he would commit to an independent public inquiry by the Labour MP for Jarrow Kate Osborne during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on February 26, he replied: “I am indeed aware of the scandal to which [Osborne] alludes and the disasters that have befallen many Post Office workers, and I am happy to commit to getting to the bottom of the matter in the way that she recommends.”

But during the BEIS committee meeting, Buffrey expressed scepticism about the strength of Johnson’s commitment: “If he had said yes, that would have been great, but he did the usual politician thing of skirting around it, almost making the point that he will but not actually saying yes.” 

The BEIS committee is scheduled to question Post Office chief executive Nick Read and former boss Paula Vennells on 24 March.

In a statement, the Post Office said: “The High Court found Horizon has improved over time and the current system is robust, relative to comparable systems. We are continuing to make further improvements and to re-set our relationship with postmasters to work in a genuine commercial partnership.  Extensive changes have been made to support for the postmasters and staff who undertake tens of millions transactions a week for customers through our 11,500 Post Offices. Personalised support is now provided, with dedicated case handlers if there are issues that can’t be immediately resolved.”

A spokesperson added that the Post Office would be launching a scheme for subpostmasters that were not part of the litigation but who believed they had also experienced shortfalls on the system, the details of which will be announced shortly.

Fujitsu has for a long time been a major IT supplier to the UK government. For many years it supplied IT systems to collect taxes and pay benefits. Today, its products and services are still used by a number of government departments, despite being labelled high-risk by the UK government in 2012 due to its poor performance. 

The company said in a statement: “Fujitsu takes the judgement in the second trial of the Post Office Group Litigation very seriously. While Fujitsu was not a party to the litigation, we are conducting a thorough process to review the court’s statements in detail. As a long-term partner to UK public and private sector organisations, Fujitsu is dedicated to supporting our customers, our employees and the people they serve in the UK.”

A 2015 BBC Panorama documentary revealed that Fujitsu engineers were able to access Post Office branch accounting systems and alter lines of code to fix bugs, without the knowledge of local Horizon users. These changes could alter the branch’s financial records displayed on the Horizon system, and is likely the reason for the financial discrepancies that materialised in the system.