Monday, 20 April 2015

Exclusive: Is Horizon Fit For Purpose?

I'm just reading through the latest Second Sight report into the Post Office's Horizon computer system. I think I was the first journalist in the country to see a copy. And now I'm sharing bits of it with you. How nice.

The report cost millions of pounds and was written by people who know exactly what they are talking about. And it is damning. It really is.

First off - does Horizon work properly?

Independent forensic accountants spent more than two and half years looking at Horizon. This is their conclusion:

p42 21.23 “For the Horizon System to be considered fully ‘fit for purpose’ for all users, it would, in our opinion, need to accurately record and process, with a high degere of error repellency, the full range of products and services offered by Post Office, whilst providing a clear transactional audit trail allowing easy investigation of any problems and errors that arise. The cases that we have reviewed demonstrate that this design objective has not always been achieved.” 

Hmm. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it? Not really an endorsement at all. It is, in fact refusing to say that Horizon is fit for purpose. So after two and a half years of looking at it, independent forensic accountants refuse to say Horizon is fit for purpose.

Everything else is great, right?

p46 25.1 “As a result of our investigations we have established that Post Office’s investigators have, in many cases, failed to identify the underlying root causes of shortfalls prior to the initiation of civil recovery action or criminal proceedings.”

Woah... so they would accuse people of theft before doing proper investigations? Read it again. There's no equivocation there. Second Sight has concluded ("established") that the Post Office called in the prosecutors and accused people of criminal acts without properly investigating why money was going missing? That's big stuff.

What about the integrity of the system? The idea that the Subpostmaster has responsibility for her (or his) accounts because s/he and only s/he can alter them. The Post Office has always said that the people at Fujitsu who run Horizon and the Post Office who manage it cannot alter branch accounts in any way. Second Sight say:

p5 2.12 “Our current, evidence-based opinion is that Fujitsu/Post Office, did have and may well still have the ability to directly alter branch records without the knowledge of the Subpostmaster”

Oh. Someone's fibbing? Why would they do that?

What about the contract the Subpostmasters have to sign before they sink their savings into owning the business? Is that any help when things go wrong?

p7 3.7 “There is no automatic entitlement to investigative support when problems arise. There is no automatic entitlement to be provided with data held by Post Office with the exception of the data routinely made available to the branch by Horizon.”

p7 3.8 “The contract places Subpostmasters in a difficult position in these circumstances. Post Office generally insists on losses being made good, but the Subpostmaster is not necessarily entitled to receive all of the information and explanations necessary to establish the cause of the loss. We regard this as unfair.”

So it's a fundamentally unfair contract. Oh.

There's more on the Post Office's interesting approach to investigating problems later:

p36 19.6 "The failure to always investigate and correct material discrepancies is perhaps unique to the Post Office's Business Model. Unlike commercial entities that do not operate on an agency basis, Post Office has, in our opinion, little commercial incentive to establish the root causes of discrepancies because the burden of cost (and risk) is being carried in most instances either by its Subpostmasters, in the case of shortfalls, or by its customers or its clients, in the case of surpluses."

That's not worrying at all.

The Post Office have issued a response to the Second Sight report. After their own internal investigations they've actually concluded things are pretty much fine. Yes there were some training issues, and yes they probably could communicate a bit better with their Subpostmasters, but generally everything's fine. Nothing to see here.

With regards to the individual Subpostmasters who have lost their businesses and reputations, been landed with criminal records and suffered ill-health during the immense stress this has put them under, the Post Office is confident it hasn't done anything wrong. Second Sight can't call it conclusively because the Post Office won't hand over the documents they need to draw a firm conclusion.

So have there been miscarriages of justice?

Several million pounds and nearly three years into this investigation, no one knows, because the Post Office have controlled this process from start to finish. It is a slight conflict of interest, in my view.

The Post Office have kindly put their response to the Second Sight report online. But they have not yet made the Second Sight report it's responding to so widely available.

So you'll just have to take their word for it. Everything's fine. EVERYTHING'S FINE! STOP LOOKING!

Several Subpostmasters, in the light of the Post Office's recent behaviour, have given up the ghost on the mediation scheme and approached the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Watch this space.


CORRECTION 1.30pm Monday 20 April 2015: The Post Office have contacted me to point out that the link above takes you to the Post Office's own review into Horizon, published in March 2015. It was being pushed this morning by the Post Office's Director of Communications, among others, and I admit I got confused. The Post Office's point-by-point rebuttal of Second Sight's report (like the Second Sight report itself) has not yet been published. I am reading it now.


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