This blog post has been prompted by the July release of an interim report by the forensic accountancy firm 2nd Sight into the Post Office's Horizon computer system.
|A Post Office, earlier today|
It is not just about computer failure. It's about incompetence, intransigence and indifference. It is a story about an organisation's misplaced faith in the infallibility of a computer system and its total disregard for any consequent misery caused. It is a story about ordinary people having their lives ruined through a series of punitive technical, contractual and legal constraints which stacked the odds against them, and then ran them through, good and proper.
My involvement started back in November 2010 when I received a call from a man whose pregnant wife had been sent to prison on the basis of computer evidence generated by Horizon. It led to an investigation broadcast on 7 Feb 2011 on my BBC Surrey show and on BBC1 South's Inside Out programme.
Following the broadcast of the investigation and a subsequent article published in Private Eye magazine, the Post Office announced it would be appointing 2nd Sight, a forensic accountancy firm, to look at Horizon and how well it's working.
The MP for North East Hampshire, James Arbuthnot, who featured in our initial broadcast, was one of the prime movers in all this. He effectively leaned on the Post Office, possibly pointing out the increasing level of media interest in the story, until they agreed to do something.
2nd Sight's appointment was announced in June last year. Matt Prodger, the BBC's home affairs correspondent, had been gathering material on Horizon, and was able to react to this by broadcasting some of the interviews he had already recorded with Subpostmasters who had found their lives turned upside down by their experience.
In the meantime I stayed in touch with the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance, and continued to receive correspondence from Subpostmasters who stumbled across my initial blog post on the subject.
|Ha! Well! Ha! Yes! Ha!|
On the fundamental issue of whether software glitches have caused disruption within Horizon, the report is unequivocal.
"We are aware of 2 incidents where defects or 'bugs' in the Horizon software gave rise to 76 branches are being affected by incorrect balances or transactions which took some time to identify and correct."
Paragraph 8.2.b, 2nd Sight interim report
So, in a relatively short investigation 2nd Sight has uncovered two instances of software glitches affecting computer systems in multiple Post Office branches.
This contradicts the statement the Post Office gave to Inside Out South two years ago, which claimed:
"The Horizon computer system is absolutely accurate and reliable"
When we first broadcast the complaints against the Post Office we were in a tricky place, legally. We had no proof there was anything wrong with Horizon, or that there ever had been. All we had was the word of a series of individuals, some of whom were now convicted criminals, none of whom were computer experts.
There was a public interest in broadcasting the information we had, but it had to be balanced against the fact that we didn't have a single shred of hard evidence - no whistleblower, no smoking gun, no paper trail, nothing. The Post Office, for its part, could point to a 100% success rate when it came to making prosecutions, noting that every time they took a case to court, the jury had concluded beyond reasonable doubt that the Subpostmasters in the dock were criminals. The Post Office refused all interview requests for our Inside Out programme.
|Stephen Mason QC|
Mr Mason believes the legal system is failing when it comes to computer evidence.
Firstly because prosecution and defence lawyers don't understand what they're being presented with, and therefore don't know how to examine it properly, and are therefore unable to ask the right questions of the relevant experts in court.
Secondly, there is an underlying legal presumption that computer evidence is infallible, based on the assertion that "machines do not lie". The wording is odd, because it appears self-evident. Of course machines do not deliberately misrepresent, unless built to do so.
But legally this has come to mean that "machines do not make mistakes" ie if a mechanical device has done the same thing hundreds or thousands of times in exactly the same way, it is not a defence to say it must have started doing something differently. This idea was conceived well before anyone started programming computer software, and was meant to represent basic mechanical devices (say, a cash register), rather than the interlinked electronic eco-systems we depend on nowadays.
Thirdly, there is a widespread public perception that electronic evidence is infallible, hence the readiness of juries to convict on computer records alone.
I asked Mr Mason directly if it was conceivable that the Horizon system was throwing up random glitches, the central allegation of our Inside Out piece. "Yes of course." he replied.
Turns out, from chatting to people who work in IT, these sort of "legacy" (ie old) systems can be extremely problematic. Over a period of time, they degrade. The older they are the more problems can be expected, especially when you start bolting new features and interfaces onto it. But finding someone who works in this area (or more pertinently worked on Horizon itself) who would be prepared to break cover seemed impossible.
I asked the journalist I worked with at Private Eye about all the IT cock-up stories they'd run over the years - where did they get their whistleblowers from? He told me none of the information they received had ever come from anyone inside an IT company. It mainly leaked out through unions and politicians.
I suppose if you work in IT and you see a problem with a system you go to management or charge clients a fortune to fix it. It would be career suicide to go public.
Interestingly, 2nd Sight's report was picked up by the programmer forum slashdot. It's well worth reading the discussion there.
I also spotted this, from Angus Marshall, a "digital forensic examiner/expert witness" (who I have since contacted) on a motoring discussion forum:
"A few years back, I assisted with one case where a sub-postmaster was accused of defrauding the benefits systems by cashing vouchers and keeping the money for himself. The whole case revolved around a discrepancy between the Post Office system and the DWP system. Given that DWP's "error handling" consisted of throwing away any records that it didn't like the look of, without recording anything about them, we managed to get that "evidence" ruled unreliable and inadmissible pretty quickly.
It took about 4 hours of meetings with two of the system programmers - one DWP and one Post Office to discover that no-one had ever bothered to check that the data interchange specs. actually matched on both sides - and they'd never been told to consider the evidential requirements of their systems.
Both systems were (are) run by the same company, btw."
It has become apparent to me that the Horizon story is laying bare the logical inconsistency which governs the way non-IT people (including journalists, juries, lawyers, prosecutors and Post Office directors) think about technology.
We believe the commercial IT systems which affect our daily lives are durable to the point of being incapable of material error. We have to, or we'd never get in a car.
This belief is borne out by experience. Every time I go to the cashpoint, it works. Every time I buy something at the supermarket, it works. Every time I take a flight, it lands. What we're perhaps not aware of is the army of people making sure the software involved in these interactions is solid, by testing and re-testing, ironing out bugs and maintaining the systems at an optimum level.
So Horizon can go wrong or be misused. But so can any other computer system. With Horizon, are we looking at a computer system that is much worse (or more badly-maintained) than equivalent systems being used elsewhere, or are we focusing our attention on the wrong issue?
Let's assume that Horizon is no more unstable than any other bank's accounting system. Let's assume "random" software glitches occur once in every billion banking transactions (or whatever the industry-standard acceptable level of risk is) everywhere.
So what happens in every other banking system?
It all happens internally.
Losses are recorded, managers are alerted, customers are compensated (where appropriate) and codes are re-written/employees are re-trained to mitigate against future re-occurence.
Reports are produced, decisions about IT contracts and/or the investment in IT maintenance/support/training are made and the losses are written off. The risk of random IT glitches affecting the balance sheet is effectively spread amongst the bank's shareholders.
Indeed, we know Horizon "lost" more than two million quid in Crown Post Offices (the big city POs) in the 2007/8 financial year, and the figure was simply chalked against turnover.
|A non-Crown Post Office, today|
Culturally, the PO would far rather pursue individual postmasters for money its accounting system says it's owed than examine the possibility of errors within its own system. Whatever the personal cost to the individual postmaster concerned.
eg: "2nd Sight has asked POL [Post Office Ltd] to deliver... responses that would prove as easy to understand [as our own case review reports] that addressed the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Subpostmasters' complaints; and that were backed by evidence. Whilst the responses received from POL can be seen to be thorough, they are long and highly technical documents. In some cases, they present counter-assertions, based on Standard Operating Procedures and Controls, rather than tangible evidence of what actually happened."
From paragraphs 5.2 and 5.3, 2nd Sight interim report
"Many of the Subpostmasters we have dealt with remain aggreived and dissatified with what they see as POL's defensive and unsympathetic response. Whereas we had expected that some form of closure would be reached between POL and the Subpostmasters [whose cases we are looking at], this has so far not been achieved."
Paragraph 5.7, 2nd Sight interim report
There is also some satisfaction at giving the Post Office a taste of its own medicine:
"It is of course hard for POL to prove the negative (i.e. that [Horizon's] controls have not been circumvented) but it is only fair to say that POL now finds itself in the same situation that has faced all of the Subpostmasters who have submitted cases. They too, were unable to prove that the shortages or transactions that they reported to POL... were not the result of their own (or their employees') errors or criminal activity."
Paragraph 5.5, 2nd Sight interim report
Translation: suck it up and give us the information we want.
"We can't help concluding that had POL investigated more of the "mysterious shortages" and problems reported to it [by its own Subpostmasters] with the thoroughness that it has investigated those reported to it by 2nd Sight, POL would have been in a much better position to resolve the matters raised, and would also have benefited from process improvements."
Paragraph 7.3, 2nd Sight interim report
Translation: if you'd have given a **** when your Subpostmasters raised these issues rather than sent in the prosecutors, not only would we not be here, you'd have far more robust and efficient systems.
"When POL does investigate cases, there is often a focus on 'asset recovery solutions' without first establishing the underlying root cause of the problem. This is also an example of a missed opportunity to be in a much better position to resolve problems and to benefit from process improvements."
From the overall tone of the report it's clear 2nd Sight have some sympathy with the Postmasters' plight.
2nd Sight are being very thorough. On the day their report came out I received a call from the Today programme asking if I could recommend a Subpostmaster who would make a good guest. I gave them the name and mobile number of Seema Misra, the lady in West Byfleet who was sent to jail whilst pregnant because she refused to plead guilty to fraud and false accounting (I would love to see the stats for the severity of punishment handed out to asian Subpostmasters against their white counterparts, but I guess each case is different...).
Since being released from prison, Seema has moved the family out of Surrey and re-trained as a make-up artist.
|Seema (r) and Davinder Misra|
Earlier today I spoke to another Subpostmaster (let's call her Ivy) who had problems with Horizon and avoided prison by the skin of her teeth. Ivy says since the 2nd Sight report came out it's been "exciting".
She pointed immediately to prosecutions against three Subpostmasters (Susan Knight, Tom Brown and Kym Wyllie) which have been dropped since the interim report came out "due to lack of evidence".
The Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance called this "the first demonstration that we have seen that POL are serious about resolving these issues", and seems to suggest a wind change in the PO's strategy.
Ivy says she's still disgusted by the way the PO treated her but thinks they now seem to be aware that "something has to happen, because we're not going to go away."
Ivy has also had regular conversations with a man from 2nd Sight. She says when 2nd Sight man first met her she was sure he thought she was a "bandit", but the more he heard about her story, the more he was shocked, and that this pattern is being repeated higher and higher up the food chain.
But it does seem to me at the moment that the focus of 2nd Sight, POL and the politicians is on the way Subpostmasters are treated by the PO and the terms of the Subpostmaster contract, rather than Horizon's ability to function properly.
I asked Ivy if 2nd Sight man thought there was something inherently unstable within Horizon's software. Ivy is sure he does, but thinks the final report won't say problems with Horizon are "what's the word.... systemic."
Finally I asked her if she thinks the worm has turned, and that she might one day get her conviction quashed. She told me she didn't know what to think right now, but it "would be nice, at least, to get back some of the money I lost."
During our conversation Ivy could not speak highly enough of Alan Bates, who runs the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance, calling him "a hero". Alan is also roundly praised in the 2nd Sight report. He keeps a very low media profile, but he's always happy to natter on the phone. I asked him what's going on now 2nd Sight's report is in the public domain. He pointed me in a number of directions:
First of all he reiterated his unhappiness with 2nd Sight's investigation being commissioned and paid for by the Post Office. He thinks the PO's patronage was reflected in the interim report which went through more than 20 revisions before publication and was "reviewed and reviewed and reviewed by the Post Office until they had reviewed it flat."
Alan also told me that next week the Post Office is going to announce a case review process for Subpostmasters which has been developed with the JFSA and 2nd Sight. It will deal with existing and historic grievances, and could lead to independent mediation of individual cases.
|Jo Swinson MP, 9 July 2013|
Alan is pretty sure the government is now a) aware of the scale of the problem (whatever 2nd Sight conclude that to be) and b) wants a swift resolution, because it is trying to sell bits of POL off and can't have this hanging over it. To that end, the government wants another interim update in October.
Finally, Alan mentioned that POL are advertising for a new computer system. "To replace Horizon?" I asked. "Well it doesn't specifically say that," he replied "but I'll send you the full advert and you can see for yourself. It's certainly a big contract."
To me, the 2nd Sight report represents one thing. Movement. There are an awful lot of people who have suffered, some considerably, as a result of being put in an impossible position. And it does seem as if the problems with Horizon, the Post Office's attitude and the risk-loading of the Subpostmaster contract is finally being taken seriously at the highest levels.
On a wider scale, this story has also reinforced to me the importance of journalism. I have seen, first hand, how the law can be unjust. The people who have been crushed in this case are hard-working, tax-paying and trusting - the sort of people who naturally go to authority when things go wrong.
When they found themselves being prosecuted for "crimes" they often alerted the authorities to in the first place, they believed they would be exonerated.
It is only with extreme reluctance, after they had lost their homes and jobs and been convicted as criminals, they realised they had to speak out. These are not wily, media-savvy people we are talking about. They have no support networks or effective unions. They would naturally trust a police officer, a judge or a company director over a journalist every day of the week.
As a result their belief in society has been shattered. Now they know the justice system, company prosecutors and supposedly benign employers can be heartless and wrong.
That's not to say this isn't all very curious. If the Horizon computer system is degrading into unreliability, it is doing so very slowly. As the 2nd Sight report states:
"The Horizon system involves approximately 68,000 users and processes over 6 million transactions every day. The entire population of over 11,800 branches was notified about the proposed investigation by 2nd Sight and this resulted in 14 additional cases being accepted for investigation. Whilst in no way minimizing [sic] the potential importance of the cases under review, this level of response suggests that the vast majority of Subpostmasters and branches are at least reasonably happy with the Horizon system."
Paragraph 1.11, 2nd Sight interim report
There is also, of course, the possibility that some of the people I have read about, spoken to and dealt with were knowingly defrauding the Post Office for personal gain. I haven't read the court documents or seen the evidence in every single case.
What I do know is that many hitherto blameless people have been suspended, sacked or convicted purely on computer evidence, by prosecutors working within a justice system inclined to believe in the infallibility of computers. Without doubt a large number of Subpostmasters are isolated, poorly-trained and tied into deeply unfair contracts by a company which has a Dickensian "asset-recovery led" approach to industrial relations.
This story will go on for years. There are many who have lost everything through no fault of their own. They deserve redress. They need their convictions quashed, and they need their money and reputations back. We are a long, long way from that, but perhaps the 2nd Sight investigation, the interim report and the way in which it has been received will offer a glimmer of hope.