Horizon remote-access 2016-style
Sue Edgar is Chair of the National Federation of Subpostmasters and a serving Subpostmaster. Her story is fascinating. The evidence she gave to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry on the afternoon of Fri 4 March will undoubtedly be seen as significant for a number of reasons, but I would like to focus on what she said about remote access to Subpostmaster branch accounts.
By 2016, the Subpostmasters' campaign for justice was well known to the Post Office and the National Federation of Subpostmasters. Remote access to the Horizon IT system was a live issue.
In order to maintain confidence in the integrity of its prosecutions (and sackings/asset recovery processes), the Post Office had to convince everyone that Subpostmasters were in sole control of their accounts.
After all, if someone else had access to them through the Horizon system back-end, particularly if that access could not be detected, then they were not in sole control of their accounts. If that was the case, it was a little unfair to criminally prosecute them. More than a little unfair, in fact.
In 2015 three Post Office executives stated, on the record, to a Panorama producer:
"It is 100% true to say we can’t change, alter or modify existing transaction data, so the integrity is 100% preserved."
The Panorama producer checked: "And that’s true now, and has been for the duration of the system?"
To which the Post Office execs answered an unequivocal "Yes."
This was not true. Proving it was not true would require a multimillion pound High Court case which eventually went to trial in 2018.
But in 2016, according to her evidence on 4 March 2022, Sue Edgar and a fellow Subpostmaster called Ann were invited to Fujitsu HQ. And this is what Mrs Edgar said happened:
"They were showing us what the Horizon would do and what it couldn't do after a conference one year... and we went and we were looking round and we were saying, 'Oh, so this is where you do whatever, and this is where you write the programmes', and what have you.
And then they took us into another room that we weren't allowed to discuss because we shouldn't have been in there apparently and this guy was showing us ... so we said, 'What do you do?' He said, 'Oh, I go through the systems and blah, blah'.
I can't really exactly say what he said but he said, 'Look, I can get into every Post Office in the land, I can get into their system', and Ann and I just looked at each other and he said, 'I'll show you'. What he did, he said, 'There, look what I'm doing', and he went into a postmaster's stock unit and he took I can't remember the amount but he took some Euros out of that guy's stock unit, and our jaws just dropped to the floor, and we were looking at each other and said:
'But won't he be short now? Are you putting them back in?'
'Oh no, I'll put them back in tomorrow.'
'Right. Well, what happens if it's his trading period or he wants to balance?'
'Well, he'll be short but they'll be back tomorrow and he'll find them tomorrow.'
And we said - 'But you can't do that' - it was wrong.
'Oh no, no, it's okay, it's okay. I'll put them back tomorrow.'
Now, we left that night and got on the train to come home but we didn't know if he'd put them back in and whether that postmaster was right or whether he balanced right or he balanced short.
People used to say they could do that and I said 'no', but I used to say 'there will be a back door', I mean even though I'm not techie I knew there must be a back door into a system because every computer has that and I did mention this to... I can't remember exactly the date but we think it was about 2016 and I mentioned this to my contracts manager.
I mentioned it to a couple of people that were in the Federation at the time who were higher than me, because I was just at the branch secretary then, and they more or less - especially Post Office, they just fobbed me off with: 'No, he was just carrying on. He was just like showing off. He can't do that. He's just like telling you that. Because you don't understand he's just saying that'. But we actually saw it. Two of us saw it at the time and, to be honest, it was a topic of conversation all the way home."
You can watch Mrs Edgar's saying the above here, (thanks to Tim Brentnall):
Not only is Mrs Edgar's evidence extraordinary in itself, it almost exactly echoes the experience of Michael Rudkin, a former NFSP exec, who visited Fujitsu HQ for a look-see at the Horizon system in 2008. Here are the relevant passages about this episode from my book:
"Rudkin was met at Fujitsu reception by a friendly chap called Martin Rolfe, who signed him in, gave him a guest pass and took him on a little tour of the building. This concluded at Rolfe’s own office space.
Martin introduced Michael to one of his colleagues, who didn’t take well to a Fed exec being in his place of work. ‘He was rude and rather negative,’ said Michael. Martin engineered a swift exit. ‘He said, “Let’s get out of here. Come with me, Michael.” As though I was his long lost friend.’
The two men went through several secure doors which needed a pin-pad entry code. As they did so, they discussed some of the issues Rudkin wanted to raise around problems with bureau de change and accounting for foreign cash.
They went downstairs and ended up in the doorway of what Rudkin describes as ‘a boiler room. A subterranean office. All their gubbins – the air conditioning, the central heating was in that room.’
In what sounds like some kind of bizarre dream, Rudkin told me that alongside the machinery in this boiler room, there were two desks, with two Horizon terminals sitting on them.
The terminals were recognisably the same as the terminals Rudkin had in his own Post Office – that is, exactly the same hardware you’d find on a Post Office counter top – and they were running the same software. Four men in office-wear were present. Rolfe introduced them as ‘The Covert Operations Team.’
As soon as the men clocked the arrival of visitors, three of them left. They were not friendly as they did so. One remained sitting at a terminal. Rolfe gestured towards the unattended Horizon terminal and said,‘This is one of the offices we have a problem with.’The man who had left the terminal in a hurry was still logged on.
Rudkin said Rolfe was showing him the branch’s figures and told him, ‘This is the live system.’ Rudkin asked what he meant – could the figures be adjusted in real time on the system?
According to Rudkin, Rolfe ‘made an alteration on screen to demonstrate to me that he could do that. He then reversed the transaction and he made a joke about reversing the transaction, otherwise the office would not balance.’
Rudkin challenged him. ‘I said, “Have you just altered the bureau de change figures in that branch?” and he said “Yeah.”’
Rudkin was aghast. ‘I said to him, “For years, we’ve been told that you do not have remote access into Post Office branch accounts.”’
Rolfe seemed to think it was a bit of a joke. Rudkin didn’t, asking in that rather intimidating baritone, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’
Rudkin told me he could not be escorted out of the building quickly enough."
The day after Mr Rudkin's visit to Fujitsu he was suspended by the Post Office over an alleged discrepancy. Michael resigned his position on the NFSP and was systematically discredited by the organisation's leadership (for the full story, please do buy my book).
The point is - here was something almost identical happening to another Subpostmaster, eight years later.
As Mrs Edgar states - she mentioned this experience to the Post Office via her contracts manager, and to her NFSP superiors. Everyone denied it.
What was going on in there?
If you would like to know more about this story, please consider buying my book, The Great Post Office Scandal. If you purchase a copy through Bath Publishing you will be invited to join a "secret" email list for free. This irregular newsletter provides updates on my work documenting the various twists and turns of this story. 10% of the book's proceeds goes to the Horizon Scandal Fund. Many thanks.