Secret email about the Post Office Scandal. Shh!

Bad code, bad systems, bad times

The Good Folkes

Good afternoon from a wet Walton-on-Thames.

It’s been another fascinating week at the inquiry. To summarise, the Post Office bosses were under pressure from the government to get Horizon live system out, Fujitsu were trying to pretend it was more stable than it was and no one outside the legal department was thinking about how data from Horizon could and would be used to prosecute Subpostmasters. And no one inside the legal department was telling the board what they were planning to do.

Rebecca and I have, around our other jobs, listened to and/or read the entire week’s videos and transcripts and come up with a podcast drawing everything together. We’ve utilised some of the audio from the witnesses at the inquiry, which will give you some insight into just how bad Horizon was thought to be inside Fujitsu and how that was kept from their clients.


Sir Wyn Williams, inquiry chair, trying to find his glasses

Exploding the whole thing

There is a November 1999 document (produced after Horizon had been accepted by the Post Office) which notes that some members of the Fujitsu team were still lobbying for the Electronic Point of Sale (EPOS) software to be rewritten. A management decision was taken in terms of cost to put resources into maintenance of the live system rather than a re-write.

Andrew Simpkins, a technical sort brought in as a consultant to the Post Office from Grant Thornton, said this was a very important document. Jeremy Folkes, a senior Post Office technical sort, told the inquiry that if the Post Office had known about this internal document at Fujitsu the Post Office might not have accepted Horizon at all. It would, in his words, ‘have made the whole thing explode’.

Folkes was a good witness. He understands IT systems and the business risk they present. He expressed his frustration at the contractual situation which Fujitsu used to stop him from from being able to see and understand the Horizon system during its development and the risk that transferred to the Post Office (and, inevitably, Subpostmasters as a result).

Why prosecute Subpostmasters?

As we know, Horizon was rolled out. And it didn’t work very well. And this wouldn’t have mattered a great deal (although my heart goes out to all the Subpostmasters involved in the first wave of rollout) had the Post Office not decided to use Horizon data as evidence in criminal prosecutions.

Or as Folkes (pictured giving evidence) said: ‘what I don’t understand is how magically this went from a system which was getting out there, things were being fixed but may be shaky, to anybody thinking it was in the right state to go round prosecuting without doing the correct investigations in the middle.’

Hazarding a guess, Folkes came to the conclusion: ‘there were people within the investigation and prosecution side in POCL [the Post Office] who, I think it is called “confirmation bias”. They were convinced that subpostmasters were misbehaving and then, if the system came up and showed that somebody was £14,000 down, rather than taking into account “Is the system right or is there some mistake?” it gave them what they wanted.’

It is a conclusion I share.

Simpkins from Accounting (not this one)

The most electrifying contribution came from Andrew Simpkins (pictured). He was deeply involved in trying to get Horizon to work before roll-out, yet was visibly moved by the sheer insanity of the Post Office’s corporate behaviour. At one point he blurted out:

‘I never knew, in my entire time on the project, that there even was a Post Office investigations team, let alone that people could be prosecuted. I just did not know that existed… I had never been in a business environment where, in Lloyds TSB or the Inland Revenue, where there is a discrepancy in accounting report and someone goes to prison for it. I mean, that was just beyond my conception.’

Simpkins was also very helpful to a lay person like me on Horizon’s structural unfitness for purpose, telling the inquiry: ‘within the EPOS system, there was some basic misconceptions as to how it had to work as an accounting system.’

Asked who had those misconceptions, Simpkins replied:

‘By the original requirements gathering process, the original systems analysis, the original systems design. It is as though people didn’t realise that, when you had an accounting transaction, it had to generate a debit and a credit somewhere. It wasn’t just a matter “Oh, great, we processed the sale of a stamp”. When you process the sale of a stamp what debit and credit transactions does that generate and where are they generated in the system? And if people are not clear where those accounting processes are taking place and where that balancing activity is being done in the system, you have got a design flaw… You are not clear on how the accounting flows are going to work through the system in order to ensure that everything balances at the end of the day.’

There is more from Simpkins on our podcast, but his entire contribution is well worth a watch. It starts at 1h07m on the first video on this page, and runs on into the second.

The useless boss class

Anyone watching the inquiry this week and hoping for insight and clarity from those further up the Post Office management chain on how Horizon data came to be used in criminal prosecutions would be sorely disappointed.

Stuart Sweetman, the Post Office MD at the time of Horizon’s rollout and Jonathan Evans, a long-serving company secretary, did not have a clue about it.

Both were taken to a clause in the Horizon contract which required Fujitsu to give the Post Office access to Horizon data for use in prosecutions, and it is clear that neither of them had given it a second’s thought, let alone discussed or acted on it. Evans was particularly unimpressive – a patrician lifer who seemed to have risen without trace to board level whilst watching things run on wheels around him. He described the prosecution of Subpostmasters using Horizon data as ‘business as usual’. Sam Stein KC, one of the barristers representing Subpostmasters seemed particularly riled by Evans. If you want to watch just a short snipped from the inquiry this week, it might be worth having a look at the very end of Evans’ evidence (here – 2h46m in) when Stein asks some questions.

Computer Weekly and Giving it a Shaikh

Karl Flinders at Computer Weekly has produced some excellent work this week. You can read his inquiry reports here:

2 Nov: Game of ‘hardball’ in Horizon negotiations left subpostmasters exposed to tragedy

3 Nov: Confirmation bias led Post Office to prosecute subpostmasters without investigation, inquiry told

and Eleanor Shaikh (pictured) has picked up on the evidence of John Roberts (former Royal Mail group CEO) to the inquiry – noting some contradictions between his oral evidence and contemporaneous documents. Eleanor’s piece has been published by James Christie.

Eleanor went to see False Accounts last night. I’ve published her review here.

I’m off to the final performance of False Accounts tonight, having successfully persuaded Mrs Wallis to come along, and then tomorrow I’m travelling up to Derby to take part in their city-wide book festival. If you live up that way and want to say hello, you can book tickets here and my session starts at 2.30pm.

Early Bath

I know many people reading this email will already have bought The Great Post Office Scandal, but if you haven’t, or if you think there might be some friends or relatives who would appreciate a £13.99 copy of the brand-spanking-new paperback version, please do pre-order direct from the publishers. The publication date is 17 November – if you order before then, Bath Publishing won’t charge you any P&P.

On Thursday I’m going to be in Henley-on-Thames with Pam Stubbs (pictured) at the Kenton Theatre talking about the scandal. If you know anyone in the area who you think might get something out of an evening like this, do please forward them this email or this link to the box office:

Pam is a superb speaker and was a brilliant witness at the Bates v Post Office litigation in the High Court. I am very much looking forward to spending some time in her company.

Re-thinking the workflow

I am grateful to everyone who has a) read this far! and b) joined the swelling ranks of secret emailers in recent weeks. I hope you find these newsletters useful.

Rebecca and I are finding covering all of the inquiry, making a podcast and putting together our written output quite time-consuming and stressful so we’re going to have a re-think about our workflows next week. This inquiry has the potential to be the breaking of us as we also have to work full time elsewhere to make enough money to live on.

Watching through three days worth of evidence, pulling the relevant audio off, discussing what we’d put in the podcast and then editing and uploading it took me a good 13 hours yesterday, which is why you didn’t get a newsletter at the end of it. It may be Rebecca and I go down the route of divvying up the days of the inquiry we’re going to cover, write short daily reports (much in the way Karl did on a couple of days this week) and then pull everything together in a monthly podcast. We’ll see. The current model is not sustainable – or at least it isn’t whilst I’m still racing towards a book deadline.

You will still, of course, get regular secret emails. This one has taken a couple of hours to write, but I enjoy putting them together.

Have yourselves a grand weekend and don’t forget if you ever feel moved to drop me a line, just hit reply to this email – it goes straight to my inbox. I can’t guarantee to respond, but I do read every one. They are sometimes very helpful to my work – if you do have any useful information to share, please be assured everything will be kept in the strictest confidence.



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