The UK’s Post Office responds to Horizon report

The UK’s Post Office responds to Horizon report

The Post Office says that “exhaustive investigations” have shown that its Horizon transaction processing system is “operating as it should”, and that there is no evidence to support claims that problems with the system have been responsible for branch losses. In 2012, the Post Office commissioned independent forensic accountancy firm Second Sight Support Services Limited to carry out an independent review of Horizon, following complaints from former postmasters who believed that flaws in the system could be responsible for recording shortfalls in stock and cash.

Second Sight produced its interim report in 2013, in which it found no evidence of “system-wide issues”. However, as the Post Office concedes, it did point to areas, such as training, where the Post Office could have done more to support postmasters.

The Post Office then set up a Complaint Review and Mediation Scheme as an avenue for postmasters to raise their specific concerns about “Horizon and associated issues”. It also commissioned a further report from Second Sight, to focus on specific complaints raised by applicants to the scheme.

Second Sight produced the first version of this report on 21 August 2014, and sent the final version to the Post Office on 9 April this year, having reviewed most of the 136 cases/complaints accepted into the scheme. The Post Office was dissatisfied with both versions of the report and declined to endorse them because, among other reasons, it believed that the report included a number of statements that lacked supporting evidence and also went beyond its remit of focusing on Horizon.

The Post Office also produced a lengthy reply to Second Sight’s final report. Both the Second Sight final report and the Post Office reply are confidential documents which Postandparcel has seen, but cannot reproduce in whole or in part.  However, the Post Office did issue a press statement on Sunday (19 April) which gave a brief outline of its position.

The Post Office statement began: “Investigations over the past three years have confirmed that the Post Office’s Horizon computer system is operating as it should. It is used successfully by 78,000 people to process six million transactions every working day in communities throughout the UK.

“Both the Post Office and independent forensic accountants Second Sight have found that the majority of the branch losses in complaints put forward to a mediation scheme were, in fact, caused by errors at the counter.

“The Post Office is concerned that the report by Second Sight, recently made available to scheme applicants for mediation purposes, repeats complaints made by a very small number of former postmasters, as well as a number of assertions and opinions. Second Sight has been unable to demonstrate any evidence to support these.”

Although the Second Sight report cannot be quoted directly, much of the material is now in the public domain. Amongst other things, the report includes the claim that the Post Office and Fujitsu (the provider of the Horizon system) can alter branch records without the postmaster’s knowledge. Post Office has refuted this claim, saying that neither its staff nor Fujitsu personnel can edit a transaction recorded by branches. What they can do, apparently, is input new transactions when corrections have to be made – but these new transactions will show up clearly on the branch records.

Reports published today by the BBC and The Guardian reproduced claims made in the Second Sight report that some of the losses that showed up in the branches’ accounts could have been caused by criminals using malicious software (known as “malware”), or by crashes and outages in the IT hardware and software.

The Post Office addressed these claims in some detail in its confidential reply. The main thrust of its argument was that the report failed to produce any evidence in support of these allegations and it also suggested that the report’s claims over malware and transaction processing issues were technically incorrect.

The Post Office’s position seems to be that Horizon is “successfully used to process six million transactions every day”, thereby proving that the system works. On the rare occasion that losses have been incurred, they are generally the result of human intervention. Usually, this means simple human error, but sometimes they could be result of a deliberate act. The Post Office has emphasised that it will only consider prosecution if it suspects that a criminal offence has taken place.

The Post Office has pursued prosecutions in some instances, and it maintains that “having now completed the reinvestigation of the cases”, it “has found no reason to conclude that any original prosecution was unsafe”.

 

UPDATE: CWU calls for independent inquiry

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) has issued a statement saying that it is “extremely concerned” over the findings of Second Sight’s finalised report into the Horizon computer system and the way in which the Post Office has “dismissed” those findings in its rebuttal document.

“Much of what Second Sight raises in its report will resonate strongly with many postmasters,” said the CWU, adding that it is “concerned that postmasters and Crown Office employees are still vulnerable to errors that the Horizon system can cause”.

The CWU added that it is calling for an independent inquiry.

Andy Furey, CWU national official, commented: “This is another damning report which reiterates the serious concerns of many postmasters. The Horizon system has been an emotionally charged subject for years now so we’re disappointed in the way in which the Post Office has responded to this report. Part of the problem throughout has been the bullish behaviour of the Post Office towards postmasters who feel they are helpless victims of a computer system gone wrong.

“CWU is not convinced by the claims made by the Post Office in their own investigations which effectively call into question the professional integrity and competence of Second Sight. We find it unfair that the Post Office challenges this report whilst having gagged Second Sight so that they cannot defend themselves.

“We believe the lack of independent union representation is the root cause of many of the problems that have befallen postmasters. With proper representation we believe that many of the cases that ended up with the dismissal and prosecution of postmasters would not have escalated that far.

“We call upon the Post Office to recognise the CWU to represent postmasters and to do so as a matter of urgency. We are also calling for an independent inquiry as the situation with Second Sight leaves many questions unanswered and raises concerns about the Post Office’s transparency.”

The CWU argued that the Second Sight report “raises serious questions over the integrity of the Horizon system and highlights significant amounts of unreconciled sums of money that have been held in its central suspense accounts with no attempt being made to find out if this money belongs to postmasters or indeed Crown post office branches”.

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