• Podcasting the Post Office scandal

    Your podcast hosts, hiding somewhere in the IDRC, yesterday.

    When Rebecca suggested we do a podcast to cover the Inquiry, I thought it was a brilliant idea. I’m a broadcast journalist. I’ve done this sort of stuff before. What could be easier than just recording our thoughts at the end of a week and releasing them into the ether?

    Turns out producing a podcast is harder than it looks. And producing a good podcast is a lot harder than it looks. It’s been a learning curve for both of us. I’d like to think we’re getting there, but maybe we’re not. Either way – I think the last two episodes are our best yet, and this blog post is to draw your attention to the latest: Investigating the Post Office Scandal – Episode 17 – The Oppenheim Project.

    You can stream it direct from this website, from the audioboom host site, or, if you get your podcasts via Apple Podcasts or Spotify, you can follow us there and get every new episode delivered to your device. Or just ask your smart speaker to “play Investigating the Post Office Scandal podcast”. I tried it on my Alexa speaker the other day and it was like witchcraft, I tells ya.

    The funding for the podcast comes from subscriptions to the Post Office scandal “secret” email newsletter, so if you feel moved to donate and sign up to the newsletter (info about that here or below this blog post), you are also putting the wind in our podcast sails, for which we are very grateful.

    Whilst the inquiry is sitting we are trying to get a podcast up at least once a week, and we also have a lengthy interview with Lord Arbuthnot in the can, which needs to see the light of day, too. More episodes, soon, therefore!

    Thanks,

    Nick


    My work on the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry is crowdfunded. If you’d like to contribute, please click on the widget you should be seeing to the right of this text (or below if you’re reading it on a mobile). To find out more before donating, please go to my tip jar web page. All contributors will be added to the ‘secret’ email newsletter, which offers irregular, and at times, irreverent insight into the machinations of the inquiry and the wider scandal.

    You can also get every blog post I write emailed to you as soon as it is published by signing up in the email widget box below.

  • The ‘Shredding’ Advice

    The Post Office sign at my local Post Office in August 2013. This photo was taken the same month the 'Shredding' advice was written

    Last week I published the first Clarke advice, which was effectively a THIS ENDS HERE. NOW document written by Simon Clarke, an external barrister working on Subpostmaster prosecutions

    To give context to the initial advice, I have updated that post with some (hopefully) helpful links.

    The Shredding Advice

    Shortly after writing his first advice, Mr Clarke was moved to write a second advice, when it came to his attention that measures put in place to attempt to start to rectify what had been going on with Post Office prosecutions were being subverted (by, as it turns out, the Post Office’s own Head of Security).

    Do have a read:

    Coming soon, the reaction of the Post Office’s General Counsel, Susan Crichton, to being made aware of the Shredding Advice.


    My work on the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry is crowdfunded. If you’d like to contribute, please click on the widget you should be seeing to the right of this text (or below if you’re reading it on a mobile). To find out more before donating, please go to my tip jar web page. All contributors will be added to the ‘secret’ email newsletter, which offers irregular, and at times, irreverent insight into the machinations of the inquiry and the wider scandal.

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  • False Accounts – the notices are in!

    Co-founder of Outcasts Creative Lance Nielsen (l) with Janet Skinner, Wendy Buffrey, Tracy Felstead and many more familiar faces

    It’s a very strange thing, the Post Office scandal. I know there are people still suffering horribly, and in silence, about what they went through. There are no laughs, or jokes, or good times for them.

    As someone not directly connected to what happened, there is a fear that if you ever use humour about any element of this disaster you are disrespecting those whose lives have been traduced and ruined.

    Nothing I have ever experienced comes remotely close to knowing what it is like to lose my business and reputation due to forces beyond my control – to be powerless, or crushed and tossed aside by institutions I might once have believed in.

    I take it seriously. But I can sometimes be glib, or lapse into sarcasm. And I realise that sometimes when I write a jolly newsletter, or make silly comment on twitter, I am running the risk of upsetting the very last people I would want to upset.

    I would fully understand if a large number of people affected by the scandal cannot find any humour in what happened, and don’t want to see or hear glib comments. They want straight reporting, or, as the barristers questioning the witnesses to the Post Office Horizon inquiry are demonstrating – forensic and persistent pursuit of the facts.

    Getting the right note

    For these reasons (and many, many more) I have shied away from a number of overtures I’ve received about getting involved in theatrical presentations of the Post Office Horizon scandal. I have pursued a couple where I thought there was an absolute commitment to getting it right, but ultimately I’ve turned things down.

    I realise that by writing a book about the scandal I could be accused of profiting (or, at least, breaking even) from other peoples’ misery. A balance needs to be struck between legitimate public interest and respecting peoples’ rights to tell their own stories. I’m not trying to take any moral high ground. This is difficult, and complicated. Especially if you decide you’re going down a satirical/theatrical route. Live theatre is a dangerous place to play.

    True account

    When I became aware of the play False Accounts I was absolutely delighted not to have anything to do with it. I spoke to the people involved out of curiosity, and when I suggested I give them the once over on our Investigating the Post Office Scandal podcast, they were more than willing. A good sign. That and the fact that the writer and co-director, Lance Nielsen (working with his Outcasts Creative co-founder, Dickon Tolson), had a track record of dealing with difficult matters. From speaking to Lance at length I was happy to accept that he’d done the work, and he’d done the thinking.

    The podcast interview seemed to go well, and the attitude on social media from the cast and crew were relentlessly respectful towards the Postmasters’ experience, coupled with a determination to make their production land right.

    Opening week

    When it became apparent several people with direct involvement in the story were going to go to the first week’s run in Birmingham (on till 22 Oct), I thought I might drop them a line to see if they’d send me their hot takes, or even write a review.

    I am delighted to say the amazing Wendy Buffrey, whose conviction was quashed last year, very kindly sent the following review from last night’s performance:

    Wendy and Lance

    After listening to Nick and Rebecca talk to the one of the writers of the satirical play False Accounts, I thought – if they are supporting us, the least I can do is go and support the cast.

    My sister Trudy agreed to come with me and off we went to Birmingham. We arrived, parked the car and made our way to The Old Joint Stock Theatre. It’s a beautiful building inside and out. It was extremely busy in the pub downstairs and the noise from other conversations were extremely loud, but as we moved through the theatre door and up the stairs silence fell. I will admit I felt very nervous as did the other postmasters who were there.

    I don’t know if any of us were sure what to expect. We all huddled together at one end of the small auditorium as we waited for the play to start.

    A monologue set the scene. The first few minutes were fast and loud. We all looked at each other in horror. They didn’t get what we had all been through. It wasn’t funny. How could they make jokes like that!

    Then it changed. We started to recognise ourselves and some of the things we had said. 

    My sister turned to me and said: ‘This is so powerful, Sis.’

    We then sat there, completely engaged. At one point the audience were either close to, or in tears. And in the second half we were laughing along with everyone else. Please, if you get the chance to see this play, don’t miss out.

    We met the cast after, which was lovely, with special mention to Alan Wales, William Hayes, Balbir Rallmil, Cathy Odusanya (whose portrayal of her subpostmaster was fantastic) and Elaine Ward who played Paula Vennells, and got her sneer perfectly. I could go on, as each of the cast were brilliant.  

    Thank you to Lance and Anthony for their writing. I know you were worried about the right balance and not upsetting any of the subbies watching. That is a hard job, but I believe you have. 

    Thank you all for supporting us.

    If I were an actor or director and I got a notice like that. I would be very pleased.

    Tracy Felstead, whose conviction was also quashed last year, got in touch to say:

    Excellent acting and really heartbreaking in places, funny in others. Really enjoyed it. They did us proud.

    On twitter, Janet Skinner, another subpostmaster whose conviction has been quashed, said:

    You did an excellent job last night. You and the cast should be very proud of what you have achieved. Well done to you all.

    If it’s good, it gets you, right? Last night, one of the stars of False Accounts, Graham MacDonnell, tweeted:

    Tonight I experienced something truly unique and special at the curtain call, I realised that many of our audience actually lived the story we had told. I’ve never felt so humbled, and privileged to be an actor.

    I realise the play probably won’t be for everyone, but art has its place. It allows people to experience things they cannot express or see in an inquiry, or a TV news piece, or a book, or even in private, when no one is looking.

    The London run of False Accounts begins on 1 November. I’m going to be there on the last night – 5 November. You can buy tickets here.


    My work on the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry is crowdfunded. If you’d like to contribute, please click on the widget you should be seeing to the right of this text (or below if you’re reading it on a mobile). To find out more before donating, please go to my tip jar web page. All contributors will be added to the ‘secret’ email newsletter, which offers irregular, and at times, irreverent insight into the machinations of the inquiry and the wider scandal.

    You can also get every blog post I write emailed to you as soon as it is published by signing up in the email widget box below.

  • Jenkins wants inquiry ‘immunity’

    Gareth Jenkins, the former Fujitsu engineer who has become a person of interest to the Metropolitan Police, has demanded certain assurances from the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry before he gives evidence.

    Jenkins, the subject of the first Clarke Advice and a spectre at the feast during the Bates v Post Office litigation wants an undertaking from the Attorney General that he will not be criminally prosecuted over any testimony he gives to the inquiry.

    This is not an unheard-of request. It was put to use recently in the ongoing Grenfell inquiry. If a potential witness asks for an ‘Attorney General’s undertaking’, and it is supported by the inquiry chair, then the AG makes a decision.

    To help the chair decide whether he will support an application for an undertaking, core participants can make representations. In the Grenfell inquiry, lawyers representing victims (and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea) opposed granting undertakings, but the inquiry panel requested it be supported, and the AG went ahead, giving the undertaking to individual witnesses, but barring coporates.

    Even if a request is supported by an inquiry, it may be refused. Ismail Abedi, the elder brother of the Manchester Arena bomber sought an undertaking before he gave evidence at the Arena bombing inquiry. That was refused. Abedi was ordered to give evidence anyway. He fled the country and was convicted in his absence of failing to comply with a notice to give evidence to the inquiry at Manchester magistrates court. There is now a warrant out for his arrest.

    What’s the right thing to do?

    This is a very tricky one for Subpostmasters, the inquiry and the Attorney General. Obviously what Jenkins has to say is of interest and will assist the inquiry if he feels able to answer freely and frankly without worrying about self-incrimination.

    If he is not granted the undertaking he may refuse to answer certain questions for fear he might incriminate himself.

    Crucially, even if he is given the undertaking, it is restricted to the evidence that he provides to the inquiry (and may be restricted still further – eg oral evidence only). It also doesn’t stop other evidence given to the inquiry being used against him. If the police and CPS feel there is a case against Jenkins without using the evidence he gives to the inquiry, he can still be prosecuted.

    Subpostmaster core participants are currently being consulted on the matter by their lawyers.

    The Metropolitan Police investigation – Operation Olympos – which was launched in January 2020, will soon be approaching its third anniversary. So far, two people have been questioned (one of them three times) under caution. As of 12 September this years, no arrests have been made.


    My work on the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry is crowdfunded. If you’d like to contribute, please click on the widget you should be seeing to the right of this text (or below if you’re reading it on a mobile). To find out more before donating, please go to my tip jar web page. All contributors will be added to the ‘secret’ email newsletter, which offers irregular, and at times, irreverent insight into the machinations of the inquiry and the wider scandal.

    You can also get every blog post I write emailed to you as soon as it is published by signing up in the email widget box below.

  • The first Clarke Advice

    Pic: Jenny Gavin-Wear 
Copyright: Copyright JGW Photography 2016

    The Clarke Advice was written by the barrister Simon Clarke (above) when he worked for Cartwright King in 2013.

    I’m not sure it is has been published in full before, so here it is:

    For context as to the importance of this advice, see:

    What’s in the 2013 Simon Clarke document?

    Oral submission to support the application to receive the Clarke advice

    Barrister quits over Clarke Advice order

    There’s plenty more to dig through on the Post Office Trial website, predecessor to this one. My book (if I might give that a plug) puts the advice, its fall-out, the subsequent Post Office cover-up and the extraordinary reluctance of the Post Office to allow it to be made public even as late as 2021 all into context.

    You may also want to read Simon Clarke’s next advice to the Post Office, known as the ‘Shredding’ advice.


    My work on the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry is crowdfunded. If you’d like to contribute, please click on the widget you should be seeing to the right of this text (or below if you’re reading it on a mobile). To find out more before donating, please go to my tip jar web page. All contributors will be added to the ‘secret’ email newsletter, which offers irregular, and at times, irreverent insight into the machinations of the inquiry and the wider scandal.

    You can also get every blog post I write emailed to you as soon as it is published by signing up in the email widget box below.

  • Nailing Sir Peter Fraser – the legal hit squad

    Recuse, Grabbit and Runne

    During the first week of phase two of the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry we discovered more about Lord Neuberger’s involvement in the decision to ask Mr Justice Fraser to recuse (remove) himself as managing judge from the Bates v Post Office group litigation, something the Post Office recognised internally was “the nuclear option.”

    It’s a squalid little episode.

    In March 2019, Mr Justice Fraser had just produced his Common Issues judgment. It was the first document written by anyone in authority which recognised that the Subpostmaster claimants had been treated appallingly, and that they had a case. Over 1000 paragraphs he spelled out why. It’s a very readable judgment, and it’s obvious how and why Fraser came to his conclusion – it was the only fair result.

    Apoplexy

    The reaction at the Post Office was apoplexy. This week, at the inquiry, Jason Beer KC read from internal Post Office documents, one of which was a note from the Post Office legal team who said the Common Issues judgment was;

    “astonishing; it is unfair and unprecedented. With no hesitation, we strongly recommend lodging an appeal.”

    The Post Office’s top barrister on the case, Anthony de Garr Robinson “recommended that the Post Office consider making an application to seek the recusal of Mr Justice Fraser on the grounds of apparent bias.”

    Mr Justice Fraser

    De Garr Robinson’s advice was given the day before the Horizon Issues trial was due to start. According to Beer: “The issuing of a recusal application was described as “the nuclear option”.”

    This is when the Post Office went to Lord Neuberger for more advice. Not any judge this, but a former President of the Supreme Court. Neuberger wrote the Post Office an eight-page document, which, according to Beer: “advised that there were reasonable grounds for the Post Office to bring an application to recuse the judge, and that the Post Office “has little option but to seek to get the Judge to recuse himself at this stage”.”

    Neuberger attended a Post Office board meeting and offered further advice, but told the Post Office he couldn’t represent them as he was a retired judge.

    Get Grabs

    So the Post Office turned to Lord Grabiner, Head of Chambers at One Essex Court and one of the most expensive barristers in London. Grabiner appeared equally enthusiastic about s***ing on Fraser. 

    Beer says Grabiner gave “strong advice” during a meeting “that the Post Office should pursue the recusal application”.

    A note of the meeting says Grabiner believed there was a “serious prospect of success” and “that this judge had done an unbelievable nonsense and demonstrated apparent bias”.

    Grabiner also said:

    “that in his view if there is no recusal application made then the Post Office will lose the series of trials set up in this matter. Without a recusal application, Post Office is stuck with this judge. An appeal on the law may correct some of the very significant errors in the Common Issues Judgment, but then the case will be sent back to this Judge who has demonstrable apparent bias against Post Office and hence the firm conclusion that Post Office will lose and the financial impact of that will be substantial. Recusal is therefore essential.”

    In the light of the fact that without recusal the Post Office was heading for a massive damages payout which could hurt the business “it was Lord Grabiner’s view that there was a duty on Post Office to seek recusal.” [my emphasis]

    Wow. 

    Neuberger advised for recusal because strategically, the Post Office had “little option”.

    Grabiner was spoiling for it because:

    • he didn’t think much of Fraser’s grasp of law, 
    • the Post Office was otherwise going to lose the case and,
    • the prospect of losing money placed a duty on the Post Office board to go for the “nuclear option”. 

    Two of the most senior legal minds in the country were advocating to misuse a very serious instrument designed to aid fairness as a weapon purely for their wealthy client’s benefit.

    As history records, Mr Justice Fraser refused to recuse himself and when the Post Office tried to appeal, Lord Justice Coulson called their application “without substance”, “misconceived”, “fatally flawed”, “untenable”and “absurd”.

    Related post: Brian comes out of the shadows – the Altman advices.

    Professor Richard Moorhead: President of Nowhere? Some points on Lord Neuberger being drawn into the PO Scandal and What happens when Big Guns misfire?

    Solicitors Regulation Authority press release about the Post Office’s in house team.

    Read the full transcript of Day 2 of Jason Beer KC’s opening statement to the inquiry or watch the video.


    My work on the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry is crowdfunded. If you’d like to contribute, please click on the widget you should be seeing to the right of this text (or below if you’re reading it on a mobile). To find out more before donating, please go to my tip jar web page. All contributors will be added to the ‘secret’ email newsletter, which offers irregular, and at times, irreverent insight into the machinations of the inquiry and the wider scandal.

    You can also get every blog post I write emailed to you as soon as it is published by signing up in the email widget box below.

  • Brian out of the shadows

    The Altmaneister

    Brian Altman KC advised the Post Office on the Horizon scandal from 2013 right up until 2021. He has, in his career, held the title of First Senior Treasury counsel – the most senior prosecution barrister in England.

    Brian Altman’s advice to the Post Office is privileged, which means that had the Post Office chosen not to reveal it, no court or Inquiry could demand it, unless there were exceptional circumstances.

    Thankfully, and presumably because it is in the public interest, the Post Office has agreed to waive privilege on all “relevant” documents pertaining to the scandal, and the Altman advices fall squarely into that definition.

    In the second day of his opening statement to the inquiry, Jason Beer KC described just how involved Altman got in deciding whether or not the Post Office had miscarriages of justice on its hands.

    CK Sift Review

    The first review of Post Office prosecutions was carried out (secretly) in 2013 by Cartwright King, a law firm which also prosecuted Subpostmasters on behalf of the Post Office. It was called the CK Sift Review. 

    We were told this week that Altman considered the CK Sift Review a possible conflict of interest as (in Beer’s words) they were “essentially marking their own homework”, but Altman decided “there is benefit in Cartwright King and its internal counsel identifying and engaging in the review of impacted cases, as they are familiar with their case files and intimate with the process.”

    He went on to say: “But it seems to me it will be wise for me to dip sample some of their work in due course, and I may have to devise some criteria of my own for those cases I feel I should review personally.”

    Beer goes on to describe just how involved Altman got in deciding whether or not the PO may or may not have miscarriages of justice on its hands, who should be told and when. 

    Mediation scheme

    Then, it seems Altman got involved with the Mediation Scheme which was announced jointly between the Post Office, the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and campaigning MPs as a way for JFSA members (convicted of criminal offences or not) to have their cases investigated and be mediated.

    On 9 September 2013, with the scheme only open a few days, Altman spoke to the Post Office, and this is note of that consultation:

    “[Mr Altman] advised considerable caution in relation to mediation cases involving previously convicted individuals (Seema Misra has already indicated an intention to be within the scheme). The concern is that lawyers acting for those individuals may be using the scheme to obtain information which they would not normally be entitled to in order to pursue an appeal.”

    This, I think, is very serious indeed. The Post Office had an unequivocal obligation to give all and any material to convicted individuals if it might cast doubt on the safety of their conviction. The Subpostmasters’ lawyers should not need to be pursuing it, and the Post Office certainly shouldn’t be doing what it could to keep it hidden.

    Beer says the inquiry will look into all this. 

    Whether to keep prosecuting

    Beer says:

    “By late 2013 Mr Altman was also advising the Post Office on their investigative or prosecutorial roles. On 19 December he provided written advice entitled “Review of Post Office Limited Prosecution Role”… In the advice, Mr Altman concluded that he had seen no evidence to suggest that Post Office exercised its investigations and prosecution functions in anything other than a well organised, structured and efficient manner, through an expert and dedicated team of in-house investigators and lawyers supported by Cartwright King Solicitors and their in-house counsel, as well as external counsel and agents when required. He concluded that there was no good reason to recommend that the Post Office should discontinue its prosecution role.”

    I am sure he would make a comment to the contrary, but I don’t see how this didn’t create a conflict of interest when Altman took on the role of acting for the Post Office in the 2021 Hamilton and others v Post Office case. He was defending decisions and outcomes he advised on without, as far as I am aware, fully disclosing his past involvement to the court. 

    Whether theft is worse than false accounting

    Beer then went into an internal legal debate within the Post Office. Cartwright King had apparently asserted that theft and false accounting were equivalent offences, yet Sir Anthony Hooper, a retired Court of Appeal Judge working for the Post Office mediation scheme working group had told Second Sight that false accounting was a lesser charge. 

    Altman wanted to make sure the Post Office’s position on the matter was “defensible” and concluded “the so-called ‘equality’ of the offences is an unnecessary and unprofitable focal point of attention.”

    Beer admonishes:

    “What does not appear is a blunt and unequivocal statement to the effect that, where both theft and false accounting are charged for the same conduct, the charges of false accounting may be seen as less serious, which appears to be exactly the point that Second Sight and Sir Anthony Hooper were both identifying. Also not addressed is whether, in practice, an innocent person may be more likely to plead to what may be perceived as a less serious charge and whether barristers and solicitors are likely to advise their clients that false accounting is, in practice, less likely to result in a prison sentence.”

    Swift Review

    Then Beer deals with the Swift Review and Post Office Chairman Tim Parker’s decision to hide it from the Post Office Board.

    As a result of the Swift Review Altman was invited back in again to find out whether Swift’s assertion that allegations the Post Office went about leveraging unevidenced theft charges in order to bargain guilty false accounting pleas out of Subpostmasters really was “a stain on the reputation of the business”. 

    Altman reviewed eight high profile convictions and concluded:

    “Not only is there no evidence of such a policy, there is positive evidence that such that each case was approached both by internal and external lawyers professionally and with propriety and, unquestionably, case specifically…. Not only have I found absolutely no evidence of the existence of any such policy, I have also not discovered any evidence in the cases that I have been invited to review that theft (or fraud for that matter) was charged without any proper basis to do so and/or in order only to encourage or influence guilty pleas to offences of false accounting.”

    From memory (I’ll find the document UPDATE: I have found it and uploaded it below) I am pretty sure I have seen a document whereby a Post Office prosecutor threatens to slap a theft charge on a false accounting charge if the Postmasters being prosecuted doesn’t indicate they’ll plead guilty. Not sure how ‘proper’ that was.

    Notwithstanding that – given the Court of Appeal’s ruling in April 2021, Altman’s judgment in the light of the Swift review is catastrophically wrong. It does, however serve both the Post Office’s and Altman’s interest. Coincidentally.

    Bates v Post Office

    Beer then goes to some advice Altman provided to the Post Office when it was in the process of heading towards settling the High Court action. This “addressed the risk to the safety of convictions if Post Office entered into settlement with any of the claimants in the Group Litigation.  The advice, dated 17 July 2019 (ie after the Post Office failed to get the judge recused) was as follows:

    • Any admission of wrongdoing by the Post Office to convicted Claimants was to be avoided “as is any public apology that risks misinterpretation or the implication of an admission of fault”.
    • There was “a real risk of Post Office taking an approach which could be interpreted as incongruous with the processes it instituted as a prosecutor”.
    • Settlement would invite critical scrutiny not only of Post Office’s prosecution function but also of its prosecutorial decision making function during the pre-trial and trial processes.
    • Settling or seeking to settle “may be viewed as a sign of weakness, a lack of confidence in both its civil and criminal cases by the convicted claimants, as well as the CCRC, who may then be encouraged to investigate ‘the technical aspects’ of the case heard the Horizon Issues Trial evidence and seek to appeal or to make a reference, which will potentially open the settlement agreement (or the rationale underlying it) to consideration or questioning by the Court of Appeal as part of any appeal/reference hearing.”
    • There was, in Mr Altman’s judgment, “some risk to the safety of convictions of including convicted claimants in any settlement agreement or package”.

    Well, quite.

    This is the internal Post Office document threatening a theft charge if a tranche of Subpostmasters dare plead innocent to false accounting:

    Read the full transcript or watch the video of the hearing on the inquiry website.

    Related post: Nailing Sir Peter Fraser – the legal hit squad

    Have a look at Professor Richard Moorhead’s take on this.

    Solicitors Regulation Authority press release about the Post Office’s in house team.


    My work on the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry is crowdfunded. If you’d like to contribute, please click on the widget you should be seeing to the right of this text (or below if you’re reading it on a mobile). To find out more before donating, please go to my tip jar web page. All contributors will be added to the ‘secret’ email newsletter, which offers irregular, and at times, irreverent insight into the machinations of the inquiry and the wider scandal.

    You can also get every blog post I write emailed to you as soon as it is published by signing up in the email widget box below.

  • Why was Horizon allowed to go live?

    Bag of ****

    In my book I interview someone who was parachuted into Fujitsu [or more specifically, its subsidiary ICL Pathway] into the late 90s to try to rescue the Horizon project. He couldn’t.

    I called my interlocutor Clint because he didn’t want me to use his real name, and there was something steely-eyed about him.

    Of the Horizon IT system, he told me ‘Everybody in the building by the time I got there knew it was a bag of shit. Everybody.’

    Clint was involved in trying to work out what was going wrong and working out how to fix it. After looking at everything, he informed his bosses Horizon’s cash account software was so badly written it couldn’t be rescued. He was moved to a different part of the project.

    At the end of the interview, Clint gave me the single best instantaneous response of any interviewee I have spoken to. When asked to summarise the Horizon IT system, he said:

    ‘It was a prototype that had been bloated and hacked together afterwards for several years, and then pushed screaming and kicking out of the door. It should never have seen the light of day. Never.’

    But it did see the light of day. How? Why?

    Day 1 of Phase 2 of the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry has shed more light on the matter. In September 1999 the Post Office Board refused to sign off on the rollout of Horizon, citing: ‘training, stability of the system (lockups and screen freezes) and quality of accounting data’, but by October, it was being rolled out.

    In her seminal work, Origins of a Disaster, campaigner Eleanor Shaikh notes:

    ‘Three formal change control notes to the existing contact were subsequently signed on 24 September by POCL [Post Office Counters Ltd] and [Fujitsu subsidiary] ICL constituting the Second Supplementary Agreement. This enabled conditional Acceptance and rollout to continue, subject to additional obligations being placed on Pathway.’

    The quality of the accounting data was the serious problem. Across the system Horizon could not get its accounts data to add up. Yesterday we found out a little more about the solution (‘additional obligations’) which allowed the board to give the go-ahead to the Horizon rollout in October.

    In his opening remarks, Jason Beer KC (lead counsel* to the inquiry) went into more detail than we have heard before. He told Sir Wyn Williams, the inquiry chair, that Fujitsu/ICL/Pathway’s ‘proposed remedial plan’ to the accounting problem involved ‘the development of a new piece of software known as The Accounting Integrity Control Release’

    This was:

    ‘a three-way reconciliation mechanism, otherwise referred to as an integrity check, that would validate that (i) the branch counters, (ii) TMS [that’s Pathway Central System] and TIP [that’s Post Office Counters Central System] were all balanced and in sync. Where they were not found to be in sync, the reconciliation would enable corrections to be made by either Pathway or Post Office Counters in their respective TMS or TIP systems or to bring TIP or TMS into line with the transactions logged at the counter and the cash account committed by the postmaster.’

    A new piece of software, you say? What could possibly go wrong?

    Beer continued:

    ‘Given that the accounting integrity control release had not been developed and its efficacy was not yet proven, Post Office Counters agreed to accept the Horizon System in late September 1999 on the condition that additional criteria aimed at demonstrating the efficacy of ICL Pathway’s rectification plans were met.’

    These criteria were contained in the Second Supplemental Agreement Eleanor referred to above.

    Beer told the inquiry this agreement permitted the Post Office to suspend the rollout of the Horizon IT system in the event that Fujitsu failed to demonstrate the effectiveness of the remedial measures, which it had agreed to adopt, in order to address the Post Office’s concerns.

    According to Beer, not every manager was happy about this novel approach to post-delivery product development and he invited Sir Wyn to pursue this further in the coming weeks.

    As you can read in Eleanor’s Origins document (p181 onwards) and the transcript to yesterday’s hearing (p139 onwards) October 1999 was the beginning of a tortured few months in which the Horizon rollout commenced, halted, and continued as Fujitsu did what it could to get the system working properly.

    Of course, it never quite succeeded, but at least Fujitsu, the Post Office and the government had started offloading its unexploded bombs into the businesses and livelihoods of thousands of Subpostmasters all around the country, where they could detonate a long way from those responsible, with devastating effect.

    * From Pinsent Mason’s Guide to Public Inquries: ‘Counsel to the inquiry is invariably a senior barrister who will act as the panel’s main adviser. Counsel to the inquiry will usually be assisted by a team of junior counsel. Counsel will ensure the panel complies with the terms of reference, and, to ensure the independence of the chair and any panel, question witnesses who are giving oral evidence.’


    My work on the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry is crowdfunded. If you’d like to contribute, please click on the widget you should be seeing to the right of this text (or below if you’re reading it on a mobile). To find out more before donating, please go to my tip jar web page. All contributors will be added to the ‘secret’ email newsletter, which offers irregular, and at times, irreverent insight into the machinations of the inquiry and the wider scandal.

    You can also get every blog post I write emailed to you as soon as it is published by signing up in the email widget box below.

  • Crowdfunding the Inquiry

    Rebecca Thomson and Nick Wallis

    Rebecca Thomson and I have decided to try to crowdfund our coverage of the Post Office Horizon Inquiry, which re-starts open hearings this week.

    If you donate you will be subscribed to the “secret” email newsletter, written by me and sent out whenever something of interest is happening in this story.

    Your donation will allow me and Rebecca to report the scandal as best we are able. The more funding we get, the more we’ll be able to do. Our aspiration is to continue producing our self-funded weekly podcast, focusing on key moments of the Inquiry.

    If we get the time and funding Rebecca will post further written reports on her free substack newsletter page (and/or on this website’s blog). I will post all my reports on this website’s blog.

    Rebecca is the journalist who broke the story of the Post Office scandal in the pages of Computer Weekly. You can read about my work on this website’s about page.

    Donating is simple and can be done via the secure payment widget below or on this website’s donate page. Or you can head to Nick’s tip jar – it’s the same secure portal.

    Your money will go towards our reporting of the scandal, covering our time and expenses as we go. lt also be used to pay the webmaster tasked with the building, development and smooth running of this website, which we hope will become a useful public resource.

    If you can spare a few quid, we’d be very grateful. As with the Bates v Post Office High Court litigation and Hamilton v Post Office at the Court of Appeal there will be a huge amount of detail coming out of the Inquiry.

    We hope to provide analysis of Inquiry content which might not otherwise be picked up, as well as the usual interviews and reportage. As with my other crowdfunded work on the Post Office scandal, eveything except the secret email will be free at the point of consumption. Your donation will be helping fund public-interest journalism.

    NB: Please note that your donation should be seen as just that, a donation. We cannot guarantee anything in return. I have a track record of producing crowdfunded journalism going back to 2018, much of which is linked to on this website. Rebecca and I hope to produced the very best value-for-money, but if you are at all concerned about what you might be getting for your cash, please do not donate.

    If you have any queries about donating, please contact me via the contact page. Every message goes straight to my email inbox and will be dealt with in absolute confidence.

    Thanks.

    Nick Wallis

    10 October 2022

  • Post Office London Walk completed!

    Thanks to everyone who kindly joined Ian Fagelson and the Bath Publishing team in his excellent Postman’s Park: Crime and Punishment walk around London.

    I took a break from writing about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard to join the 20+ crew last Thursday 29 September as we negotiated our way from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, through Postman’s Park (by St Martins-le-Grand, the old Post Office HQ), eventually ending up in Charterhouse Square where the survivors photo was taken.

    The walk was exceptionally informative, and Ian (pictured with the red brolly) is a superb tour guide. Those who attended raised £1000 for the Horizon Scandal Fund, which is currently helping people affected by the Post Office Horizon IT scandal by paying for counselling, social events and disbursing cash grants. It was lovely to meet so many people so interested in the story, and I am, of course, deeply grateful to them for their generosity.