Institutional investigative ignorance

Paul Whitaker giving evidence on 16 November 2023

Paul Whitaker, as it says in the screengrab above, used to be a Post Office Investigator (and, almost inevitably, before that, a postman). In his evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry on Thursday, Mr Whitaker was taken to a 2011 email chain regarding his investigation into a Post Office branch in St John Green in Rotherham.

The branch had been “audited” by the Post Office, and there was an £11,000 discrepancy. A counter clerk was under suspicion. Unusually, possibly because the branch was run by a charity, the police were involved. In his email to a colleague, Jane Owen, Whitaker states: “The case has been reviewed and the police officer has asked me to get a statement demonstrating the robustness of the Horizon system at the branch.”

Whitaker tells Owen that a charity is running the branch and notes: “we were asked to get involved at the outset in order to possibly mitigate the adverse publicity of us demanding our money back from them.”

As ever, business priorities and PR appear to be part of the equation, even when it comes to criminal investigations and justice.

The requested “statement demonstrating the robustness of the Horizon system” would have to come from Fujitsu. Before the request goes to Fujitsu, Owen passes Whitaker’s request up the chain to another colleague, Penny Thomas. Owen writes: “Just wanted to run this by you before I make any kind of formal request. I assume that we will just request a statement as normal but would need to put it around some dates?”

Thomas replies that getting some dates might be a good idea, and this message is passed back down to Whitaker. Whitaker seems to think this is unnecessary, replying: “At present, the police haven’t asked for Horizon records although I am sure that if they know we can provide them they will ask for them (and then not use them). All the officer asked was if we could provide a statement saying that the Horizon system was operating correctly in the run up to the shortage being identified.”

Getting Dunked

The Thomas, Owen and Whitaker brains trust eventually agree to ask Fujitsu for a statement of Horizon’s reliability within a six month window. The message reaches Fujitsu’s Andy Dunks, a man who, in 2019, came in for serious criticism from a High Court judge.

But even Andy Dunks has standards. Replying to Whitaker’s request, Dunks replies:

“I am unable to say for definite that the Horizon system was working okay. What I can do is look at all calls logged by this PO during the date range and state that there were no faults reported by the PO to suggest any faults. If you want me to get the calls extracted to examine the calls we will need ARQ numbers to cover this request. Please let me know what you would like us to do.”

The prospect of anyone at the Post Office or Fujitsu doing even the most cursory investigative work seems too much for Whitaker, who decides that Dunks’ response is enough for him. He replies:

“No need for anything beyond this, Andy. I have explained to the police that all you can say is that no faults were logged and they are happy with that.”

To his credit, Dunks puts Whitaker straight. “I think you may have misinterpreted my email”, he replies, “I have not said that no faults were logged. What I am saying is that if you want me to extract the calls logged so that I can examine them to see if there are any fault calls during these dates.”

The rest of the email chain appears to be lost to history.

Yesterday, the barrister questioning Whitaker suggested that the limit of his investigative ambition was “seeking a catch-all statement from Andy Dunks in relation to a case where the police had asked for assurances about the Horizon system.”

Whitaker was not asked to comment on this. Instead, the barrister wondered if Dunks’ refusal to sign off on a blithe assurance about Horizon raised any alarm bells.

“It’s difficult to say…” replied Whitaker, “my background was that it had always been sort of infallible and, certainly, I don’t think it had been tested in court yet and I think the sort of underlying message would be… until we get something coming back certain to say definitely, you know, Horizon’s at fault, to sort of carry on in the belief that it’s not.”

Belief. They investigated and prosecuted, fuelled by belief. No wonder so many innocent people were given criminal convictions.

My thanks to Nigel Derby who alerted me to this passage of evidence at the Inquiry.

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7 responses to “Institutional investigative ignorance”

  1. ““I have not said that no faults were logged. What I am saying is that if you want me to extract the calls logged so that I can examine them to see if there are any fault calls during these dates.”

    I think this means
    “We can tell the court we haven’t found any records of errors. We don’t need to tell the court that’s because we haven’t looked”.

  2. “The rest of the email chain appears to be lost to history. ”
    Given the unfortunate reluctance to take you to court over “cover-up”, you could amend this statement in future to:

    “The rest of the email chain appears to have been deleted from history. “

  3. Can I use this opportunity to draw attention to an earlier, but very similar event?

    In 1988 Barlow Clowes went bankrupt. BC was an investment company who operated a scheme which paid out an over generous returns that relied on future investments. Following extensive complaints by MPs the Secretary of State for the DTI, Lord Young, set up an enquiry by a QC [Le Quene] with a very restricted remit.

    On receipt of this report, Young tried to kick the matter into the long grass, denying that anything justified compensation. A furore then ensued, resulting in back bench MPs referring the matter to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

    When his report, critical of the government and recommending compensation, was received, Nicholas Ridley, the then Secretary, initially tried to hold the line. but after more furious lobbying, the government, without any further Public Enquiries, caved in and paid compensation of £154M.

    So what was the difference between BC and Horizon? Perhaps it was that the 18,000 defrauded BC investors were mainly retirees from the Home Counties, possibly voting Tory to a man. Whereas the Horizon sufferers were….

    If the Government had the slightest integrity it should [in the light of the BC precedent] close down the current Enquiry, give an instant interim payment [say £100k] to all affected Sub Postmasters who have yet to be compensated, arrange a general pardon, set up an independent body to determine final compensation free of any legal costs, start legal proceedings against any PO or Fujitsu employees who broke the law, and strip any PO manager who took decisions over the relevant period, of any rewards.

    Anything less will leave a permanent stain on the British legal system.

  4. I’m struck by the number of witnesses being questioned in the inquiry who started their careers in the Post Office as counter clerks or postmen. Very few have any recognisable qualifications. From postman to senior investigator without any formal training or gaining any qualifications seems dubious if not a dangerous leap. The PO appear to have very few ‘brought in’ qualified experts. The whole organisation is incestuous and led by rank amateurs.

  5. Geoffrey Freeman avatar

    It occurs to me that quite a number of witnesses have been questioned on their witness statements provided to the courts in connection with cases against sub-postmasters. Counsel to the Inquiry has established that such witness statements contained errors e.g. auditors/investigators completing audit reports which implied that the subpostmaster was slipshod in allowing the safe to remain open during opening hours, when this did not actually happen. Such matters could amount to evidence of perjury and/or perverting the course of justice. I would like to see such witnesses face charges. I am sure it would be in the public interest to see that when making a witness statement in criminal proceedings, the person giving the statement is under a duty to see that it is accurate and that there are consequences if it is not.

  6. Having watched almost all the Inquiry to date, it seems to me that the inability of most PO witnesses to say exactly where their belief in Horizon’s robustness came from points to that belief originating in their own minds. There have been some examples of corporate messages, but in the operational bubble that was the audit/investigations/prosecutions/legal area it looks like no-one understood what Horizon actually was, and that includes some very highly-paid people. If you don’t understand the implications that a massive distributed IT system will have for your part of the organisation then you are going to fit the “computer” or “calculator” or “machine” into your business-as-usual mental model. And we have seen how confirmation bias shaped that model and sucked empathy out of the process. You don’t think about the system, you don’t put yourself in the shoes of people using it, and you simply proceed as you have always proceeded. Got some concerns? Like the slightly anxious patient holding out their arm for the jab and saying “this won’t kill me, will it?” you turn to Fujitsu and ask “the computer is all right, isn’t it?”

    There should have been mandatory Horizon impact assessments done in every part of the PO’s business. For one thing, that would have forced people to consider the “we don’t know what we don’t know” conundrum and maybe actually ask for some information. But the ignorance appears to have started at the top, with believing that ticking all the acceptance incident boxes meant that you were “improving” the system you were about to drop on people who had not been involved in its development. The idea of working out the business change implications and – heaven forbid – getting the users involved seems never to have been part of senior management thinking.

  7. It strikes me that everyone involved in the persecution of the subpostmasters, right back to the beginning when the “culture” was set, should all be sacked and lose their pensions. Those who have already rather conveniently left POL should be made to lose their pensions too and everyone should pay proportional reimbursements to the wrongly accused postmasters’ costs. Tough? Maybe, but look what they have collaboratively done to so many.

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