I first became fascinated by the Post Office’s willingness to place loyalty and length of service over ability in 2018 at the Bates v Post Office litigation at the High Court.
During the litigation’s first trial, a succession of Post Office witnesses took the stand. Some were sharp, some were the dimmest of dim bulbs, but all had one thing in common – the extraordinarily long amount of time they had been working for the Post Office. The smallest period of unbroken service was ten years. The longest nearly forty. Almost all had worked their way up after joining the Post Office either as a counter clerk or postman.
Andrew Winn, who gave evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry on Friday 3 March 2023 started at Royal Mail in 1996 as a part-time postman, briefly moving to Parcelforce (part of the Royal Mail Group), before switching to the Post Office in 2001.
By 2008, Winn somehow found himself a senior middle manager within a department called Product and Branch Accounting (P&BA). He reported to Rod Ismay, author of 2010’s infamous Ismay Report.
Before P&BA, Winn worked in the Post Office’s problem management team, which he described as:
a response to basically the Post Office moving onto an IT-type platform… the concept was that anybody within the Post Office who got a problem [including Subpostmasters] reported it to the problem management team… the problem management team managed the problem in terms of making sure the relevant people were involved in correcting the problem, rather than actually resolving the problem themselves, which I found a difficult concept to deal with.
During his evidence on Friday, Winn was asked if his P&BA role required knowledge of and understanding of the operation of the Horizon System. He replied: “Yes, but I didn’t have knowledge of the Horizon System. So I would have said I was a bad placement into that role.”
Asked how he got the job, Winn told the Inquiry:
that’s probably one for the people that were interviewing, rather than – in fact, I don’t think there was an interview for that. I think I was placed in there. So that was more probably a case of Alison Bolsover, or whoever within P&BA, talking to my manager in the reporting team at the time and seeing how the fit went, after I said I’d expressed an interest in the role.
When counsel to the Inquiry, Jason Beer KC, wondered what gave him the edge over other potential candidates, Winn replied that it was probably due to “a lack of competition”, telling Beer: “there was very few people within the Post Office who’d got much IT knowledge, to be frank.”
The Prosecution of Seema Misra
Andrew Winn is a man of interest for many reasons (and I would recommend watching or reading his evidence in full), not least because he was present at a joint meeting between the Post Office and Fujitsu likely held in late September or early October 2010, to discuss a bug in Horizon.
The bug was known as the Receipts and Payments mismatch bug, which had caused discrepancies in Postmaster accounts. The meeting was held shortly before the trial of Seema Misra, a Postmaster from West Byfleet in Surrey. Mrs Misra claimed the £74,000 hole in her accounts was due to the Horizon computer system.
The minutes of this meeting noted the discussions around fixing the discrepancies and how sensitive the whole issue was, given the “ongoing legal cases where branches are disputing the integrity of Horizon data”.
Mr Winn was taken to a request which reached him via the Post Office legal team in July 2010. Seema Misra’s representatives had asked the Post Office for access to the Horizon system:
in the Midlands where it appears there are live, reproducible errors, access to the operations at Chesterfield to understand how reconciliation and transaction corrections are dealt with, access to the system change requests, Known Error Log and new release documentation to understand what problems have had to be fixed.
At the time, Winn replied to his colleagues:
Rod Ismay the head of P&BA is not happy at the prospect of an open-ended invite. He has asked the question of what are the legal parameters we are working within. Simplistically if we refuse or impose conditions do we lose the case? I think we need more guidance on how something like this might reasonably operate.
An update to the disclosure request came in September 2010, either just before or just after the Receipts and Payments mismatch meeting. In an internal email, a Post Office member of staff wrote:
This was discussed by Andy Winn/Rod Ismay. I have today spoken with Andy Winn and he has informed me that Rod had made a decision to not allow this. Therefore could you please update me with the latest progress on the case.
Painfully slowly, Jason Beer sought and received confirmation that the “open” and “honest” thing to do would have been to say:
Look, there’s someone on trial for a very serious crime here based on data produced by Horizon. She’s alleging that the data’s not accurate. We know that the data produced by Horizon may not be accurate. We need to find out a way of ensuring that she knows what we know.
Winn struggled to explain why this did not happen, telling Beer:
I’ve got to say that I didn’t put up any impassioned disagreement with Rod. I accepted that he took a considered view of things and he was my boss and, yes, I didn’t put up a fight.
Winn was asked if the disclosure request was on his mind when he attended the Receipts and Payments mismatch meeting with Fujitsu. “No”, he answered. Beer reminded him that the specific issue of court cases was raised during the meeting. He asked if there was any reference to Seema Misra during the meeting.
“I don’t recall,” said Winn. “I don’t recall that case being raised.”
Mr Beer suggested the general tone of the Post Office’s communications around this period appeared to be: “we can’t disclose material that might undermine our system, even if the system is, in fact, faulty.”
Winn called this a “fair summation”.
Twitter’s “Malcolm V Tucker” (not, I suspect, their real name) posted on Friday that they had been watching Winn’s evidence in the office, and wrote:
My co-worker who only knows the outline of the PO story kept giving me looks that varied from incredulity to mirth, to outright anger at his performance. For any time you’ve wondered how institutional evil has occurred, this is your explainer.
In October 2010, after repeated failed attempts by her legal team to get the disclosure they were asking for, Seema Misra was found guilty of theft by a jury at Guildford Crown Court. In November 2010, on her son’s tenth birthday, Seema was sent to prison. It took eleven years for her conviction to be overturned by the Court of Appeal.
Rod Ismay currently works as Director of Finance and Estates at Ashgate Hospice in Chesterfield. He appears to be a religious man, and well known in the York Diocese, where he served as Interim Finance Manager in 2018.
Ismay has not given evidence to the inquiry yet, nor do we know if he is under police investigation.
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