• EXCLUSIVE: How not to commission a complex IT project

    Going around the country trying to spread the word about the Post Office Scandal (whilst also hoping to sell copies of my book) has brought me into contact with a class of bright, often retired, professional people who are appalled at what happened.

    Some even have direct experience of the story, usually from an interesting angle.

    Every now and then we strike up a correspondence. The following piece is the result of a chat which started with John’s partner Pam getting in touch after she came to see one of the presentations I gave earlier this year.

    John Murray (pictured) is a now-retired project manager whose most recent job was working for the Cabinet Office as part of its Corporate Services Improvement Programme. Before that he worked for Barclays Bank and before that… the Post Office. For fifteen years.

    John has very kindly written what I think is an important piece about the disastrous origins of the Horizon IT system. I have already suggested (in the light of Dave McConnell’s evidence) that Terry Austin might be recalled to the statutory inquiry. I hope that in the light of what John Murray says below, Basil Shall is asked to give evidence. Here is what Mr Murray has to say:

    Your first mistake is always your second mistake

    Writing about Horizon, the temptation is to start with Alice in Wonderland… but which quote to use?

    – “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!”

    – “It was all very well to say ‘Drink me,’ but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. ‘No, I’ll look first,’ she said, ‘and see whether it’s marked ‘poison’ or not’.”

    – “No, no” said the Queen. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards”

    All of these work perfectly, I think. 

    I was first involved with the precursor to Horizon – the BA/POCL [Benefits Agency/Post Office Counters Ltd] Programme – working in the Post Office as a link between Account Managers in our Business Centres and their clients on opportunities to automate their products in a future where all Post Office outlets had the appropriate technology. 

    I also became involved in the requirements stage for the forthcoming Invitation to Tender (ITT). This was where the trip into Wonderland maybe started. The Programme Team ran the requirements sessions, which were in non-Application areas such as Security, on the basis that as this was going to be a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) procurement then you could ask for whatever you wanted as the supplier would have to provide it! 


    Challenging this approach in these sessions was pretty fruitless as the Programme didn’t want to listen or engage. The problem, of course, was the obvious disconnect with the business case with the Benefits Agency which was based on rollout happening to eye-wateringly tight timescales. 

    It was clear even at this stage that having, say, security requirements that the Pentagon would blanch at would impinge on this. 

    It was around this time I was asked to produce the requirements to go in the ITT for the Post Office EPOS [Electronic Point of Sale – ie front end till position] Application, largely because of my work on previous automation programmes. 

    Now, as the evidence to the Inquiry so far has shown, EPOS was a key factor in all of the future problems.

    Bob n’ Baz

    The issue with trying to write meaningful requirements was twofold: POCL had brought in a new Director of IT Strategy (I think that was his title), Basil Shall, who had convinced Bob People and Paul Rich, the key programme sponsors in the business, and through them the Board, that EPOS could be provided by a standard off-the-shelf solution such as you would find in any supermarket, rather than anything more bespoke. 

    As Basil knew about as much about how Post Offices worked in practice as I do about the Hadron Collider it is difficult to overestimate how much this flawed ‘assumption’ led to the future problems. 

    The second problem was that I was told that PFI meant the requirements had to be based on Outputs rather than any kind of technical specification, which meant that the chosen supplier would need great technical expertise to design from scratch something which could actually support how Post Offices worked, or POCL would need to radically redesign and standardise their processes in agreement with Clients to enable a more simple EPOS system to be implemented. 

    Again, the disconnect with the business case was stark but any attempt to challenge the EPOS assumptions were ignored… to suggest the Emperor lacked a certain something in the sartorial department was seen as career-limiting.

    Flights from Reality 

    It’s also worth noting that Basil Shall sold the idea that the Benefits Encashment Service element could be provided by an off-the-shelf banking package, another flight from reality, as it failed to consider the business rules and exceptions that would need to be included in any specification. 

    I continued to work on how to automate client transactions etc while the procurement continued as we weren’t allowed to speak or interact with the prospective suppliers but when we were finally allowed to meet them I went to a series of meetings with each of the final three shortlisted – Cardlink, IBM and ICL Pathway. 

    I also attended meetings with all three specifically on EPOS together with John Meagher, from the Programme, and Basil Shall and his deputy. At this meeting Cardlink and IBM explained that there was no conceivable way that an off-the-shelf solution could be provided and they would need a considerable amount of input from POCL to design a bespoke solution. It is fair to say that by the end of these meetings, Basil Shall had very little to say. 

    ICL Pathway, by contrast, were confident they would provide EPOS as per the limited requirements. This confirmed my impression from the sessions with the three that Cardlink and IBM had a chance of delivering a workable system, although not remotely to the programme timescales (as this was always a fantasy), but that ICL Pathway, where I’d had my first meeting with Terry Austin, who struck me as a DelBoy Trotter-type character, had no chance at all. 

    Cardlink and IBM produced very professional presentations, and had a clear understanding of the difficulties and complexities involved. This contrasted sharply with ICL Pathway’s presentation, which what was, to my eyes, amateur hour.

    When ICL Pathway were then chosen (which didn’t surprise me as I’d always suspected price would be the ultimate determinant and I was convinced the POCL Board hadn’t a clue about the complexity of what was going to be required), I went to join the Programme, working for John Meagher, to look after the POCL Business Products, as they were called, but that’s another story. 

    I wasn’t surprised how things turned out on a technical level but I couldn’t have envisaged the level of wickedness that would happen. Having worked closely with Subpostmasters on designing and project managing the Capture package, which was sold as an aid to back-office accounting, I knew what decent people they were. Having worked at head office, I suppose the Three Wise Monkeys approach of Post Office senior management was to be expected.

    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.

  • How to destroy a business and a human being: Part 753.

    In December last year, shortly after I’d published the hardback version of my book, I got an email from Lisa Kear. Lisa ran a Post Office counter within her “Pet Stop” shop in Belmont Sutton in South West London from April 2018 until November 2019. 

    Lisa got in touch because she had read the book. She seemed utterly traumatised. I asked her to put her story in writing with a view to publishing it on my blog. Lisa wrote me her note below on 24 Dec 2021. Sadly – things got lost over the Christmas period, I got caught up with other work and the piece never got published.

    I found Lisa’s note whilst searching through my emails yesterday for something else. I thought I’d publish this now as a reminder of the way the Post Office works and treats its Subpostmasters. I’ve edited what Lisa wrote for clarity, whilst also trying to keep her voice. Her experience sounds grindingly awful. 

    My short time with a Post Office 

    So today is Xmas eve and I’m sitting here feeling like the worst person/mum/wife/nan ever. 

    I opened up my first business five years ago. A shop – Pet Stores. I was doing ok. I could see I would never be rich but I was happy and paying the bills. Three years into running my business my local community said there was a need for a Post Office. I love working with the public and love to help so I offered to apply for a counter within my shop. I had a meeting, then a phone meeting and then went for two days training.

    Private Eye 

    When I was at training an old man walked into my shop and said to my husband “Are you the one opening a Post Office?” 

    He said: “My wife is, yes.”

    The old man said: “Tell her she is mad,“ and handed him a photocopy of an article in Private Eye about the Post Office’s Horizon IT system. 

    I asked the Post Office about this article and was told, “it’s a handful of people led by a man who’s got it in for the Post Office” [presumably this was Alan Bates]. 

    I asked if this could happen to me and she said she couldn’t talk about it as it’s still ongoing.

    “But,” she added, “let me say all the people involved had nice new cars and had lovely holidays,” and winked.

    We both laughed and I didn’t think any more of it. 

    Fitting the Post Office counter 

    We had nothing but problems from day one! No one kept to appointment times and we had to help design the layout.

    The day before we opened, the Horizon system didn’t work and it took many, many people from the Post Office, phone calls and workers coming to see what the problem was. Nobody could work it out until a man from BT walked in and said our switch was off in the main box. 

    I had missed my six days on-site training due to this and had to ask for more for when we eventually opened. I got four different trainers split over a week or so.

    During our first month, when I was locking up to go home (the Thursday before Good Friday), my alarm wouldn’t set. I phoned for help and was passed from pillar to post for the next two hours. I explained that I had a disabled son at home and really needed to leave. At last, someone told me the alarm needed a workman to come and look at it but the earliest they could get there was Saturday. But more than likely Tuesday after the Bank Holiday. 

    I asked if I had clearance to go home as the alarm wasn’t set. I was told “I cannot give you the clearance, sorry.” 

    I said “So – I’m meant to sleep in my shop over the Bank Holiday? What about my son?”

    I was told I had to stay in the shop by more then one person that night.

    In the end I emailed Paula Vennells, locked up and went home. 

    The next day I had an email from Paula, phone calls from all departments apologising and everyone running around, getting me help. 

    Summer 2018

    One day I cash up and the Horizon end of day balance check says I’m £1600 out. How? Why? What had I done ? 

    I counted and counted but couldn’t get it right. I needed help. I phoned the helpline in bits. The man on the phone told me to press a few buttons. He didn’t know why my balance was out but not to worry – just put the £1600 back in! 

    I now am crying and can’t believe it. I phone one of my trainers. He tells me to print off some reports and see if I could find it and if not, then yes, I have to pay the £1600 back! 

    I printed off the reports but to be honest I didn’t even understand the report let alone find a mistake in it! 

    I did try another trainer but couldn’t get hold of her so I had to admit defeat and start paying it back, bit by bit, out of my shop till every night. By now I’m spending so much of my time at the Post Office side I had lost a few of my shop customers. Yes I gained lots of Post Office customers but they didn’t really spend in my shop. 

    Paying back the Post Office was killing my business. As were the letters saying I had sent back money short by the odd £10 or £20 or a fake £50. That ALL needed paying. 

    I got my ‘debt’ down to £700 and guess what? One night it jumped up to over £1600 again.

    As a last resort I phoned the lady I had my first ever meeting with about opening a Post Office. I believe she worked for Network Transformation [part of the Post Office’s shift from salaried posts to commission-based branches]. 

    She couldn’t believe what I was telling her. On 18th October 2018 that lady walked in my shop to see how I was doing. I burst into tears. I was telling her it seems to be every time a specific local business deposited a large sum of cash, it went wrong. 

    She asked me to balance and I did. By chance, the owner of the business in question then came into make a deposit. She watched me count £2000 twice and enter it on Horizon.

    She said I had done it exactly right. She asked me to balance again. It should have been exactly £2000 more than the last time, but it was under again. 

    She then asked me to sell a 1p stamp, and balance again. My balance should have been a penny different. The difference leapt to £500. The woman told me not to pay another penny and took pictures of the screen. 

    She emailed the pictures to someone. From then on I was between £100 out £300 a night out. A lady from the Post Office called me to say she would look into it – but maybe I had handed out £50’s instead of £20’s by mistake. I told her I wasn’t that thick. Anyway –  I didn’t hold enough £50’s! 

    A gentleman came from post office to see if he could help me. He said I was doing everything right. I explained to him about the problems with Horizon and things seeming to misbalance after a local business pays in money. He said with a smile “You’re not one of them people are you? That blames it on the system?” 

    My First (and only) Christmas as a Subpostmaster

    I’ve now got lots of stamps to book in and I’m not sure if I’ve done them right. It turns out I hadn’t and I phoned the Horizon helpline once again. I was asked to press a few buttons (don’t ask me what as I don’t have a clue, nothing was explained). After a few minutes the lady on the phone said “Oh no I’ve not done that right. I’ve made it worse.“ 

    This happened a few times until she was happy it was right. 

    I work alone and was sold the idea of the Post Office counter as a hop-on hop-off thing. Not true. I didn’t have time to hop to the toilet let alone on my shop till. No help was offered. I then received a training phone call on mails and how best to sell them, because I failed my mystery shopper. This was to take place on a working day in December. I asked “Can I close my Post Office for the hour or so for the call?” 

    I was told no, you have to serve also. 

    It was impossible to concentrate on both and get the job right. I had to hang up the phone! 

    After Christmas…

    After many letters about fake banknotes, I phoned helpline. I told them this is so unfair, I’ve had no training on what a real or fake note looks like and it’s killing my business as every penny counts at the moment. 

    They said they would send a leaflet showing me what to look for. They NEVER did! 

    Special visit… 2019

    I had a phone call from the lady who trained me at training school for two days. 

    She was coming as the Post Office had found a problem with the accounts.

    I was so excited to finally have an answer to the money that was disappearing.

    I was wrong. This lady – Jane – knew nothing about this money and had apparently turned up to tell me that nearly a year ago I had entered stamps in wrong (last Xmas?) 

    She came with a bit of paper that told her what to enter on Horizon. I logged on with my name and she entered the stamps and at the end it said I owed around £1200. Jane told me I had to pay by the end of the trading period.

    I couldn’t understand. If the stamps were not there I must have sold them. If I sold them but didn’t enter them, would my stamps not be minus and my money up? 

    Jane said she thought what was happening to me was very wrong (as I also had to pay 2019 prices not the 2018 price when this happened). She spoke about a group that can help Postmasters and said she will email them and they would be in contact. Nobody ever did!  

    I also explained to her about the local business and the problems that happened every time they paid any cash as a banking deposit. She said from now on they can only pay in sealed envelopes. Don’t count it or open it. Just stamp it. 

    I started doing this then got a call from the Post Office saying the information was wrong and I would be liable if there was a mistake in the sealed envelopes.


    It was a Royal Mail worker that told me about the union and a Facebook group I had found. I joined and it was the best thing ever. I couldn’t take any more sleepless nights or stress. My family couldn’t take any more and my health very getting very bad. A woman came down from CWU to look at my paperwork (something the Post Office didn’t do). The lady from CWU found the papers to prove I had entered the stamps in wrong then corrected it 3 days later with the help from helpline. 

    More letters for money

    More fakes. Why me? Only one business pays them in, funny it’s the same one as before when the balance goes wrong. I ask can I stop them paying £50’s in? I’m told no. I saw on the CWU site I could ask for a u/v light so I did. I used it every time I got a £50 note, under my cctv. 

    I get another letter telling me I’ve been accepting fakes, so I phone to ask how can this be when I’ve used the equipment you provided? The answer I got was, oh don’t trust that 100%.

    My business and health hanging on… just.

    I remember the woman from the CWU telling me I could dispute any Transaction Corrections sent down by the Post Office (something I’ve never been told I can do).

    Times goes on but my head will not take anymore, I’m crying daily, my memory isn’t working and my body is in pain. 

    The hospital thinks I may have MS

    Another £600 Transaction Correction and then a £500 one. I’m now to scared to dispute them, I’ve been reading horror stories of what happens and people going to prison. 

    I’m petrified and I think I’m having panic attacks… so I pay up!  

    I decided enough is enough, I can’t do it anymore. I have bills coming out of my ears, I’m scared to touch the Horizon screen in case I end up owing it more money and I’m now really not well, I can’t afford staff so feel my only choice is to close my Post Office and shop. 

    Walk away with nothing 

    I phone the Post Office and explain I cannot carry on. My health, money, my mind isn’t working and my tenancy is coming to an end. I didn’t have to renew if I didn’t want to.

    I tell them I have to be out by the end of November. They ask me to stay on and work December (bearing in mind I’ve already told them my memory isn’t working very well and I’m likely to make mistakes). I was thinking about it and she then said “I have to warn you you will not be paid for it as you do not get the last month’s payment”.

    I said, “so you want me to work the busiest month for no pay?” 

    I was still thinking of doing it for my customers. Then I said “Hold on, I’ll have no stock left, so what about my rent that month if I work for you for free?” She said “You would have to pay that.”

    I declined and closed mid-November 2019. 

    Closing Audit

    I had counted the money, my husband had counted the money and two members of Post Office staff had counted it. I knew it was over, and told them when they came it would be. I was so scared I had put money into it that morning to make sure it wasn’t under. 

    The Auditors gave me the money back that was over and everything else was spot on. 

    Four days later I got a letter to say I was £10 short. It’s never-ending.

    I did contact my local MP. The one and only Paul Scully. He never replied.

    Now I’m jobless, in pain and with no money. I’m having to claim universal credit. I started my claim back in October 2021 and only got my 1st payment today – 24 December.

    I get £350 a month. I don’t want to leave my house but have to. I had to use a food bank. Do you know how embarrassing and downgrading this makes me feel! I am sitting here on Christmas Eve feeling like a let-down, a disappointment, rubbish.

    My membership to CWU will stop as I can’t even afford to pay the only people who helped me! 

    A job I loved, with customers I loved, gone

    I’m heartbroken and can’t see where my life will go from here, but I will climb back up somehow.

    I have now been diagnosed with Functional Neurological Disorder. Every doctor I speak to believes it’s due to the stress of trying to run that Post Office and losing money. 

    I joined the historic claims scheme but was told my computer was not one of them in the timeline affected. 

    The Post Office did phone me to apologise nearly a year later, offering me around £1500. I said I hadn’t been treated fairly. As I was bankrupt I wouldn’t have seen a penny. 

    My case is now with the solicitors but I don’t hold out much hope.

    I will never be the same person I was. It has changed me massively!  

    I know it was only a short time and my story is nothing compared to others but to me it was everything. They destroyed me.


    I haven’t asked the Post Office for a comment on Lisa’s case. The Post Office have told me many times they don’t comment on individual cases. Assuming Lisa is correct about what she remembers, it’s hard to say exactly what was going wrong – but this article points to a pot pourri of disastrous business practices and harmful behaviours which inevitably lead to appalling outcomes. Every time I think I can’t be surprised by what the Post Office has done to people (and I fully accept I haven’t heard the other side of the story in this case), something new comes along.

    UPDATE: I have been in touch with Lisa to let her know I have finally published her memoir. She sent me this update on 27 November 2022 and very kindly allowed me to publish it as well:

    “It feels great warning other people but my god that was hard reading it again!

    I see another Post Office has opened last month a few doors down from where mine was. A new family shop that only opened itself the year before. I wish them all the luck but can’t bring myself to go in there.

    My case is still with the solicitors and I think my bankruptcy is the big problem (ironic as I wouldn’t have been bankrupt if it wasn’t for the Post Office). They said hopefully they will know more after the 8th December.

    My health still isn’t great but I now receive help and the housing have made adaptions to my home that help with daily life.

    After lots of therapy my mental health is improving somewhat.

    I will never get over what happened and will never be the same person as I was but knowing it wasn’t JUST me helps.

    Thank you for taking the time not only to read and listen to me, but getting it out for all to see.”

    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.

  • Inquiry Phase 2: Star Witness – Dave gives it both barrels

    David McDonnell, a former Deputy Development Manager on the Horizon IT project with Fujitsu/ICL gave evidence during the Horizon IT inquiry on the morning of Wed 16 November.

    What he had to say was devastating. In October 1998 McDonnell co-wrote a report on the Horizon EPOS system with Jan Holmes, a Fujitsu/ICL internal auditor (and a very interesting witness in the afternoon of 16 November). The Task Force report was put together to try to address the serious number errors in the Horizon project at the time. You can read it here.

    The Task Force report has surfaced already during the inquiry. It was damning, and included this choice phrase:

    ‘Whoever wrote this code clearly has no understanding of elementary mathematics or the most basic rules of programming.’

    Over three hours McDonnell gave some extraordinary evidence. You can listen to the highlights on Episode 22 of Investigating the Post Office Scandal (which includes clips from the last four witnesses), or you can watch the entire evidence session on video and read along with the full transcript, by clicking on the inquiry website here

    McDonnell describes the EPOS programming team as like ‘the Wild West’.

    When asked what he meant, he replied: ‘There were no standards in place, there were no design documents. The culture of the development team was – I wouldn’t say it was a holiday camp, but it was free format. There was no structure, no discipline; it was crazy, never seen anything like it.’

    Of the code itself, he said:

    ‘it was so bad. It was beyond anything I’ve ever seen. Even in the 25/30 years since that project, I’ve never seen anything like that before. Some of the stuff that we found buried in the code was unbelievable. There was unreachable code… It was a mess.’

    Among techies at Fujitsu/ICL, McDonnell quickly discovered the EPOS team were the ‘joke of the building’, telling the inquiry ‘everybody knew, specifically the test team who, when I spoke to those guys, they would make it very clear that the quality of code that was being delivered was to such a bad, poor level that they’re wasting their time testing it.’

    The solution

    McDonnell’s rather obvious solution was to get some better coders in and re-write the cash account from scratch. He was overruled by the Horizon Programme Manager, Terry Austin. McDonnell found the resistance to his solution odd, and believes the way it has been portrayed by other witnesses at the inquiry as too big a problem to realistically deal with, ‘betrayed a basic misunderstanding of how the EPOS system was built or even potentially suggests an attempt to obfuscate the issue.’

    He described it using a Lego analogy:

    ‘if you understood that it was built out of Lego bricks, you could replace the Lego bricks one at a time starting
    with the most critical, the most important, which I would argue was the cash account. Here, you could even — because it was a batch process that wasn’t part of the counter client/customer interaction, you could rewrite that as a separate module and have it running as a shadow process on the counter. You could run the cash account twice at the end of the day or whenever, as a secondary confirmation, and use the replacement module to check the validity of the first one. Once you’d proved that it worked, you could take the old one out and just continue with the new one. This was not a large task. It was not something that – I couldn’t understand why they didn’t do it, because it was such a – it’s not a small piece of work but relatively small, and you could have done it without introducing any danger to anything else on the counter.’

    The CSR+ solution

    McDonnell says matters reached a head when he was called into Terry Austin’s office and offered a promotion. He accepted on the condition the EPOS cash account was re-written. McDonnell says Austin became ‘frustrated’ by his insistence:

    ‘He wasn’t very happy with me putting a condition on that acceptance. It was clear that the cash account wasn’t going to get written. That conversation was very quickly brought to a halt, and I was ushered out of the office, and I never really spoke to Terry after that again.’

    Fujitsu, in its wisdom, chose to try to fix the code, which took a year, and by November 1999, after the system had been accepted, they were getting a similar number of errors and bugs. Fujitsu got acceptance from the Post Office by agreeing to write a new bit of code, known as teh CSR+ release which would monitor the cash accounting discrepancies within the system. McDonnell had been moved off the project by that state, but described the CSR+ release as a ‘big bone of contention at the time.’ The way he saw it:

    ‘At the end of the Task Force they were given the report that we co-authored detailing what the senior engineers, senior auditing guy, and all of the experienced people around the project were saying, detailing the problems. It’s like the captain of the ship’s been told that there’s a hole in the boat and it’s filling with water by the engineers. Instead of fixing the hole, what they did was they went away and constructed this CSR+ release, which is akin to painting a plimsoll line on the outside of the boat so that they could measure how fast it was sinking.

    ‘The whole context of this CSR+ release was about being able to detect discrepancies between the counter and the middle and back office, the APS systems and such, and highlight where there was a difference between the number of transactions or the balance between the two being different. That’s just building a dipstick instead of actually fixing the hole in the boat. They spent a year, an inordinate amount of time and resource, on this release instead of fixing the problem.’

    The only question left unanswered at the end of McDonnell’s three hour session was why he didn’t come forward sooner. Mr McDonnell declined an interview after giving 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.

  • False Accounts – London run review by Eleanor Shaikh

    If she didn’t have her hands full fisking the inquiry evidence of a former Post Office executive or writing a mammoth document on the disastrous origins of the Horizon IT system, Eleanor Shaikh would make a fine theatre reviewer. Here’s her take on the London production of False Accounts:

    “Only a hardened dramatist would consider going anywhere near the Horizon scandal and it would take almost madness to tackle it with black comedy. It would also take an unusually brave bunch of actors to recreate the carnage left in Horizon’s wake, in the knowledge that some of those most deeply affected are sitting just metres away.

    But Lance Nielsen, Dickon Tolson and the Outcasts Creative have embraced these risks with consummate skill, delivering a fast-moving, multi-layered critique of Post Office’s Empire, whilst simultaneously paying homage to those sucked into the upside-down world of its infamous IT scandal.

    Elite Sparrow sub-committee

    There’s perhaps no better way of exorcising the demons of Post Office’s regime than through satire, it’s deployed like ammunition by the Outcasts in relentless waves. They train their sights on Fujitsu and the NFSP; they spare neither lawyers nor auditors, trainers nor the elite Sparrow Sub-Committee in their attack. They juggle outrageous costumes with mercurial skill; seize puppets and masks as shields and decoys to defend against any accusations of defamation which real world lawyers might seek to launch in retaliation. 

    But these moments of hilarity punctuate tortuous scenes in which the survivors’ lives and sanity are systematically stripped away. This piece wasn’t conceived to be a comfortable watch and the writer doesn’t recoil from showing us an endless stream of ‘Smiths’ being beaten into submission by their corporate taskmasters. Nielsen knows that, to do justice to the real Sub-Postmasters (to whom he dedicates the show), he must take the audience to their toughest, darkest places. The inevitable consequence is a solitary speech, under a single light, which takes us to the brink of one man’s devastating despair.

    Alan BSmith

    The Outcasts Creative makes high demands on its actors as they race through multiple roles, reeling between fact and fiction, ruin and hope. Along their way, they leave behind some priceless cameos; the finely drawn portrait of ‘Alan BSmith’ whose relentless sense of justice is the unifying force for rebellion; a tender nod to Julian Wilson; an Aujard, paralysed by news of the failed recusal attempt and an alarmed Vennells summoned by her boss…

    But for all these brilliantly observed, interconnected threads, ‘False Accounts’ offers no honeyed resolution; it ends with actors addressing the audience directly to remind us that the fight is very far from over, the balance of power has yet to be restored. There is a final, moving moment as the company bows to those in the audience whose accounts they have so truthfully told, before leaving us with the lingering question of where on earth do we go from here…

    One day, the story of the greatest miscarriage of justice in British legal history may be honoured with the budget and the weight of a full-length feature film; the heroic struggle of its survivors deserves no less. But in the meantime there is perhaps no sharper medium to take on the staggering sweep of this story, and the human suffering at it’s heart, than that of of raw theatre in the hands of a genius writer/director and his impassioned band of Outcasts.”

    I am grateful to Eleanor for allowing me to publish her review here. You can read first tranche of notices from the Birmingham production here (with thanks to Wendy Buffrey, Tracy Felstead and Janet Skinner). And the second tranche – again from Birmingham (this time with thanks to Nicki Arch, John O’Sullivan and Ian Henderson) 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.

  • Miller Time – ep 18 of Investigating the Post Office Scandal is live

    Rebecca and I have made a new podcast – do have a listen.

    If you’d like to come and see me do a live presentation in Henley-on-Thames on the Post Office Horizon scandal alongside former Subpostmaster Pam Stubbs (who was treated so badly she gets a chapter to herself in my book), tickets can be bought here. I would be very grateful – we’re at the “almost breaking even” stage of ticket sales, which represents a good number of people already coming – it would be nice not to make a loss!

    If you want to share the box office link, here it is: https://kentontheatre.co.uk/event/the-great-post-office-scandal/

    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.

  • False Accounts – London run approaches

    False Accounts cast

    The London run of False Accounts – a satirical play about the Post Office Horizon scandal by the Outcasts Creative theatre group – starts its one week run on 1 November.

    It has attracted quite a bit of interest from many people directly affected by what happened, some of whom have been kind enough to submit reviews.

    I got the first tranche of notices – from Wendy Buffrey, Tracy Felstead and Janet Skinner – up here (along with a short treatise on the difficulty of trying to get laughs from such a serious subject). What follows are some more reviews of the Birmingham run.

    My thanks to everyone who submitted their thoughts. Some of the quotes circulating on social media and in the last blog post have been used in the official publicity material for the production!

    Nicki Arch, former Post Office manager, falsely prosecuted by the Post Office said:

    Nicki Arch, Lance Nielsen (writer) and Steve Arch

    “I didn’t know what to expect. How can a play be made out of this catastrophe? Is it really entertainment? Well I laughed and cried, sometimes at the same time!! The whole cast were really amazing and somehow they just get it. I still haven’t fathomed out how, but they truly captured the highs and lows. Very clever with such minimal resources! I found it really emotional at times but Hubby wants to go to watch it again in London so I might just repeat the experience if that is at all possible. Summing up: intimate, emotional, clever, respectful, memorable, funny, gut-wrenching, astonishing, honest, raw and proud all at the same time.”

    John O’Sullivan said:

    “A special delivery from Outcasts Creative. As a serving Subpostmaster with a payout from the Historical Shortfall Scheme I travelled to the last night of the play at the Old Joint Stock Theatre in Birmingham not really knowing what to expect. Could it tell me things I didn’t already know? Would a play about the largest miscarriage of justice in our legal history really entertain? I neednt have worried. It did all that and more. The play is aware of the absolute trauma Subpostmasters went through and what people and trade bodies put them through it. As in real life the victims are dignified, law-abiding members of communities. Those prosecuting were out-of-touch Brand Zealots. The anger and frustration of the Subpostmasters is well-portrayed. As for the villians – well – go along and boo and jeer them!”

    Ian Henderson from Second Sight wrote:

    Fictional Ian Henderson with the real Ian Henderson!

    “I was fortunate enough to see False Accounts at the intimate Old Joint Stock Theatre in Birmingham on Thursday 20 October. An extra bonus was meeting a number of former subpostmasters who were supporting the event.

    The Outcasts Creative team achieve the near impossible in creating a satirical romp through 20 years of scandal telling the story of the greatest miscarriage of justice in English legal history in a way that is both informative and entertaining.

    Told in the form of a series of short vignettes linked by a narrator, it covers most of the key moments and deals sensitively with difficult issues such as the suicide of a former subpostmaster. All of the main participants were name-checked and some were portrayed in a unique and highly amusing manner, such as the muppet caricature of a senior member of Post Office management.

    Essential viewing for anyone with a professional interest in this subject or indeed anyone who wants to learn more about this appalling scandal.”

    False Accounts will run at the Questors Theatre in Ealing from 1st to 5th November. Saturday’s matinee will be followed by a Q&A with a former Subpostmaster who will discuss their personal experience of this disaster. Buy your tickets here. I am not connected with this production in any way, but I am looking forward to going along to see it myself on the evening of 5 November.

    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.

  • 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!



    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.

    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.

  • 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.