back to article Subpostmasters prepare to fight Post Office over wrongful theft and false accounting accusations

Over 1,000 subpostmasters whom the Post Office accused of dipping into the tills — wrongly, many complained, citing problems affecting the Post Office's Horizon IT system — could be set to join a group litigation order to clear their names. According to the legal firm Freeths, which is leading the action, hundreds of affected …

  1. Terry 6 Silver badge

    About bleedin' time

    Private Eye has been reporting this scandal for years.

    The sheer number of cases is enough to demonstrate that the problem is in the system. Either that or the Post Office has been recruiting postmasters from outside (or inside) the gates of Pentonville.

    1. handleoclast

      Re: About bleedin' time

      Terry 6: "The sheer number of cases is enough to demonstrate that the problem is in the system. Either that or the Post Office has been recruiting postmasters from outside (or inside) the gates of Pentonville."

      If they've been recruiting ex-cons then the problem is STILL in the system. The Personnel Dept rather than IT, but still a system problem.

      1. Terry 6 Silver badge

        Re: About bleedin' time

        OK. The comment was for the purpose of ironic stress, but I'll grant the validity of the response.

        1. Triggerfish

          Re: About bleedin' time

          The numbers make no sense, OK you may get one or two people who try and defraud a system, but near 10% of offices, really? A common sense check should have indicated that was a rather high rate.

    2. bilaczenko

      Re: About bleedin' time

      Flawed Internet Technology.

      Alexander Graham Bell the inventor of the telephone never intended telephones to carry internet financial transaction over millions of miles of copper lines. I have nothing against the internet for the sharing of information.

      With millions of financial transactions sent over the internet each day inevitably 2 or more transactions sent as electronic data meets simultaneously at the junction of a computer chips set for processing both electronic transactions are incorrectly processed at the same time when only 1 transaction should be processed at a time. As a result computer chip set algorithms [programming] becoming corrupt, further transactions will follow a corrupt path producing bad/corrupt financial transactions of financial detriment.

      There is an inherent flaw in internet technology, the remedy for personal computers is to reboot the PC [switch off and restart] to reset chip set algorithms [programming] to default.

      The same identical flawed internet computer technology is not only used by all global stock exchanges and stockbrokers but also all the banks EFTPOS, aviation flight centers, national shipping and other commercial applications.

      Banks still use obsolete Dial up internet because Dial up is free or $1 a month compared to $50 a month for broadband. 2 different incompatible internet technologies, Dial up and broadband of incompatible band width frequencies run together within the same computer systems resulting in anomalies, glitches, malfunctions .

      I have had my life's savings and mortgage stolen by 4 stock brokers, and am suffering from financial hard ship.

      type in google toolbar, "topstocks important message to all investors" and or " ANZ Share Investing & directshares" and or Etrade's Faulty consumer product"

  2. frank ly

    Words

    "In 2015, the Post Office refuted the findings of that report, ..."

    Did they refute the findings or did they deny the findings or did they disagree with the findings? There is a difference.

    1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      Re: Words

      Did they refute the findings or did they deny the findings or did they disagree with the findings? There is a difference.

      There's only a difference if you care - and the PHB's at the post office didn't care - this is one case where (of far) the PHB's have beaten the PFY's into submission (and jail).

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Words

        "and the PHB's at the post office didn't care"

        Maybe it's time they started. If the complainants establish their case and the prosecutions then get looked at the possibility of perjury charges starts to raise its head.

    2. Stripes the Dalmatian
      Thumb Up

      Re: Words

      It's amazing how many people think that 'liking the idea of refuting' something is the same thing as 'actually refuting' it.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    IT Angle

    The Post Office Horizon system and Seema Misra

    The Post Office Horizon system and Seema Misra

  4. Your alien overlord - fear me

    Is it called Horizon because their system is on it's back (and legs in the air aka the dead fly pose)?

    1. Bloodbeastterror

      "their system is on its back"

      FTFY.

      "their system is on it is back" makes no sense.

      1. sabroni Silver badge
        Headmaster

        Grammar nazi fail! You need the icon!!

        1. Hollerithevo

          Good grammar needs no icon

          We do it properly, in correct English.

          1. Terry 6 Silver badge

            Re: Good grammar needs no icon

            Hmm. I'd have thought "correctly" the better term here. "Properly" has a certain sense of being more about adequate or acceptable, rather than right .

            1. horse of a different color

              Re: Good grammar needs no icon

              We make word speak good.

              1. Stevie

                Re: We make word speak good

                Hodor!

      2. terven
        Headmaster

        "their system is on its' back"

        1. Bloodbeastterror

          "their system is on its' back"

          I can think of nowhere that this version could be used - I don't believe it exists. The s-apostrophe is used for plural possessive (one dog's tail, several dogs' tails). One exception is when the word is already plural (men's beards, children's toys).

      3. Triggerfish

        @Bllodbeatsterror

        Sorry I downvoted you, because I read the bottom sentence and though hold on your correction missed the apostrophe if it is a contraction of that sentence. Then I realised I made a mistake in comprehension. I am a tit.

        1. Bloodbeastterror

          Re: @Bllodbeatsterror

          And you spelled my name wrong too... :-)

          No worries. If a single downvote bothered me I'd be too afraid to post anything. Even though I know I'm right... :-)

          "The person who never made mistakes never made anything". Wise words, those.

          1. Triggerfish

            Re: @Bllodbeatsterror

            And you spelled my name wrong too... :-)

            Well.... bollocks.

            No worries. If a single downvote bothered me I'd be too afraid to post anything. Even though I know I'm right... :-)

            Indeed and a correct attitude, especially the second sentence :) But honour demanded. :)

  5. SkippyBing

    'We continue to have confidence in the Horizon system, which has around 78,000 users across 11,600 branches nationwide to process six million transactions a day."'

    Well that would certainly make it unique amongst Public Sector IT Systems.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Joke

    Looks like a typical case of...

    Computer says no...

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Good grief! Is this *still* going on? This was raised years ago.

    My parents ran a post office in the ninties and early noughties. I'm so glad they sold the business before their systems got upgraded to Horizon, because if they'd got caught up in this mess, the stress of it would probably have killed them.

  8. Bloodbeastterror

    Disreputable...

    A state entity like the Post Office, with a long and honourable heritage, should be utterly ashamed of their conduct in this matter, especially in their attempts to brush under the carpet the vast amount of evidence showing that the fault is not with postmasters but with the computer system.

    Disgraceful and un-British.

    1. Red Bren
      Pirate

      Re: Disreputable...

      "A state entity like the Post Office"

      It's no longer a state entity, it was sold off for a fraction of it's true worth by George Osborne. Utterly by coincidence, a hedge fund fund that employs Osborne's best man was allocated a large chunk of shares, from which it made £36million profit overnight.

      I can't help but wonder if this whole debacle has been swept under the carpet so as not to jeopardise the privatisation. You can be damn sure that any illegal activity will be blamed on the previous management and any fines or compensation will be paid by the tax payer.

      Compare this with the bailed-out banks, where the crooks formerly in charge walked away scot free with their ill-gotten gains, and the subsequent fines have been paid by the reluctant new owners - the UK tax payers (who's ranks do not include the crooked bankers as they hide their wealth offshore)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Disreputable...

        "It's no longer a state entity, it was sold off for a fraction of it's true worth by George Osborne. Utterly by coincidence, a hedge fund fund that employs Osborne's best man was allocated a large chunk of shares, from which it made £36million profit overnight"

        Thieving Tory Bastards

        1. Stevie

          Re:Thieving Tory Bastards

          Doubly redundant statement.

          Amazingly, one can remove any two of the words and still know who's being described.

  9. John Mangan

    This is hideous!

    I haven't followed this story but at various times I've heard bits about postmasters being suspected and criticisms of the system but I hadn't realised how serious the whole thing was or how long it has been running.

    That people have had their reputations blackened and their livelihoods destroyed while the Post Office at least had grounds for suspecting there might be a system issue is intolerable.

    This, if proven, requires exectives to be imprisoned.

  10. Anonymous South African Coward Bronze badge

    If only one contractor showed losses, then it was most probably due to some dipping into the tills.

    But if multiple contractors all show losses, then the lowest common denominator (the IT system and its associated software system) need to be investigated firstly and properly before accusing anybody of dipping.

    But it is so much easier to accuse than to admit that there's a problem with your system... probably somebody siphoning off funds somewhere, thus framing innocent people?

    1. Terry 6 Silver badge

      In effect you bury the problem under a pile of bodies.

    2. Denarius Silver badge

      Pom PO and Oz centerlink

      do they have same management or did they go to same school ?

  11. TRT Silver badge

    So basically...

    The Post Office suspect a problem, hire a company to investigate the system, then write the investigator's report themselves, deliberately misinterpreting the findings and hampering their own contractor by withholding vital evidence from them...

    Let me just look at the list of directors at the time and see if any of them have ended up in other companies or organisations since...

  12. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge
    FAIL

    Injustice

    Most of the cases seemed to allege ringing up amounts and then not handing over the cash, pocketing that. It seems pretty stupid for any Postmaster to even try that on, and incredible that so many would.

    But courts were finding that to be the case and Postmasters were unable to prove more was being rung-up than they were taking in. The innocent had Hobson's Choice but to settle out of their own pockets and admit false accounting or face even more serious charges of fraud with a very real risk they would be found guilty.

    They were in a no-win situation, their lives were ruined either way, and did what most people would do; paid-up to minimise consequences.

    As well as holding the Post Office to account; we need to take a closer look at how our legislative and justice system let this travesty continue. There was far too much confidence that the computer evidence was right, true and accurate.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Injustice

      "we need to take a closer look at how our legislative and justice system let this travesty continue"

      An obvious factor is that the cases are prosecuted one at a time. It makes it very difficult for the pattern to emerge before considerable damage is done.

  13. owston.ferryman

    The Post Office is NOT Royal Mail

    It's a shame that El Reg's budget doesn't run to a better image. Royal Mail has been a separate public company since 2013 and has no connection with the Post Office. My partner runs our village Post Office and has no issues with Horizon. OK it's still on Windows NT and takes several hours to restart after power failure but its numeracy has never been a problem for us.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: The Post Office is NOT Royal Mail

      I was given to understand that Horizon accounted for valued stock transfer, for instance stamps, postal orders, tax discs, stationary etc. such that if £20,000 of stamps were transferred to a branch, then the value of those was added to the store inventory. In several cases, it seems, things like this were credited to a branch but the physical items were not actually transferred or logged as received even though the system had receipted it. So there were lots of valuable things missing from the inventory at the branch. It's not entirely a separate entity in that there were valuable transfers between them.

  14. John H Woods Silver badge

    "Royal Mail has been a separate public company since 2013" --- good point

    "its numeracy has never been a problem for us" --- anecdote which is, in this context, statistically insignificant.

    1. Adam 52 Silver badge

      I spent a fair bit of my career analysing Horizon data. Different branches use Horizon very differently so there could well be a class of error that only affects some use styles.

  15. Bob Rocket

    Horizon Errors

    Oral evidence: Post Office Mediation, HC 935

    Tuesday 3 February 2015

    https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/cy/request/horizon_errors

    You would think that someone called 'George Thomson' with a title of 'general secretary, National Federation of SubPostmasters' would be an advocate for SubPostmasters.

    1. Burbage

      Re: Horizon Errors

      The National Federation of SubPostmasters was struck off the register of unions in 2014 (see http://sub-postmasters.co.uk/national-federation-of-sub-postmasters-removed-from-list-of-trade-unions/)

  16. Ian Mason
    FAIL

    "We continue to have confidence in the Horizon system, which has around 78,000 users across 11,600 branches nationwide to process six million transactions a day."

    Ah, this is what I like to call the "Eat Shit!" argument, much beloved of advertisers in the 1960's - "Eat Shit! Seven billion flies can't be wrong!". When someone claims that a system or product *must* be good, purely on the number of users or size of the system you know that they either don't have a clue or must be lying.

    "Taxation! It must be widely loved because almost everybody pays tax!"

    "Death! So popular that everybody does it!"

    etc. etc.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Horizon, I know it well! (Well did, and bits of it)

    A good few years ago I was asked to do some Integration work, to get Horizon (in the PO estate)- to talk to some internal RMG (Royal Mail Group) systems. For example, things like Royal Mail and Parcelforce tracking information captured in a post Office on behalf of RMG. There were (and still are) a lot of interfaces between PO and RMG!

    The original Horizon system was built to deliver one function (something to do with benefits payments if I remember correctly), and for whatever reasons, it used a fixed width flat-file format for all data transfers. As anyone knows, extending these types of files to add new data can be a pain. (I suspect whoever in the PO specified the original platform, was an ex Mainframe person!).

    By the time I got involved, Horizons usage was being expanded on greatly, and for many different types of services (bill payments, parcel tracking, parcel collections etc.), and they realised they couldn't fit all this data in to the fixed-width flatfile format they were using (it had one interface, with one flatfile structure, for everything going into RMG!).

    So someone decided to use XML, this was over 10 years ago, so all-in-all, not a bad decision really, except....

    Rather than changing the current interface or building a new XML interface to run alongside the old one, they decided to just tag the XML onto the end of each line in the flatfile! So you ended up with something like 180 chars of fixed-width data, and then up-to something like 2000 characters of XML data, this without any whitespace (so no linefeeds, or tabs etc.). You then had a linefeed at the end of the XML, and then another 180 chars of flat data, then more XML and so on, with typically several hundred lines of text in each file/message.

    To make matters worse, the Horizon team created schemas for the XML (there were several flavours of XML depending on the Horizon service), and we coded to the schemas. Good so far.

    But when the Horizon team implemented it in code at their end, for reasons they never explained, they couldn't guarantee the order in which the elements were produced withing the resulting XML portion (despite the schema that they created, being in a rigid fixed structure!).

    It's no wonder their IT is so expensive to look after, and so difficult to migrate, when they allow incompetent people to specify solutions like this, and seemingly no one to then push back on the specs, to say "Seriously? You want to do what!".

    Hmm, sorry for the rant! It's Monday! ....and breath....

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Horizon, I know it well! (Well did, and bits of it)

      That description immediately raises one possibility because elements of it are all to familiar. It sounds as if all sorts of modules were producing the XML portion. And if they couldn't produce valid XML in some modules it's quite possible that they might also have failed to produce well formed XML. I've certainly experienced that in the past. We had to train the staff in the primary contractor's tame Indian S/W house to write well-formed XML. Periodically they'd rotate them out and the next thing we'd receive a new variant which mis-handled names such as O'Neil. In our system I'd make sure that file was rejected and feedback was sent up the line. But if some non-well-formed XML were allowed to fail silently...

      A/C, you have my sympathy.

    2. bazza Silver badge

      Re: Horizon, I know it well! (Well did, and bits of it)

      I'm not sure when Horizon first came into being, but there's been viable and mature serialisation technologies since the late 1980s. ASN.1 springs to mind, complete with size and value constraints. Like a lot of protocols of that type it stems from something thinking they don't really need one, and then inventing a terrible one.

      What you describe sounds like the very worst of engineering debt that'd built up for a long time following a poor decision taken age previously. Sympathies owed indeed!

      1. Stevie

        Re: Horizon, I know it well! (Well did, and bits of it)

        "I suspect whoever in the PO specified the original platform, was an ex Mainframe person!"

        Spoken like a true toy computer programmer.

        We mainframe Cobol types have enjoyed the freedom of variable length records since, well, forever really. Comes from a backing store technology based on Magnetic Tape and adapted to johnny-come-lately drum and disc devices (which enforce a much less flexible space usage regimen on one).

        No, I think (with as much evidence behind me as the "mainframe" poster had) that this will be found to be some C++ or Java twonk's bad thinking, possibly forced on them by the cheap minitat the clients have to run on. Didn't someone mention Windows NT?

        I'll bet there are some floating point idiocies lurking in the shadows too. So few college grads seem to grasp the difference between FP and scaled decimal when it comes to doing money sums after the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater.

        Still, never mind. It's not like anyone died is it? Oh, hang on ...

  18. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Unhappy

    No Surprise - Unfortunately

    It's interesting that the Post Office, The Royal Mail and BT all come from the same original stock, and all seem to have exactly the same attitude to their customers victims.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Two possibilties - thousands of criminal postmasters or...

    ..shit Indian coding teams creating shit code and losing bad data.

    You pick.

    1. Terry 6 Silver badge

      Re: Two possibilties - thousands of criminal postmasters or...

      Disagree. Other possibilities. Poorly specified project extended well beyond its capabilities, (see above). Poor coding teams from elsewhere. Poor design of any or all of the newer modules and/or links between them. Inadequate funding for development. Inadequate of no funding for real world testing. Poor error or inconsistency trapping due to any of the above causes. Projects or package too unwieldy to actually do any of the above.

      All of them no more than speculation, of course.

    2. 2fast748

      Re: Two possibilties - thousands of criminal postmasters or...

      I don't think you can blame this one on off-shoring. It's a very British problem.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Apology is in the mail

    Bwaaahaahaaaaa

  21. MBD1

    In unrelated news - Turkeys welcome Christmas

    PO welcome the action...... yes, I like it when the police accuse me of speeding too, as it gives me a chance to demonstrate either a) how legal I am b) that my car goes very fast.

    So no appeal, and hanging for the perps at the PO - all at taxpayers' expense.

    Gotta love the courts!

  22. NickWallis

    Kickstarter campaign to report the trial

    Hi - I'm a freelance journalist. I've been reporting this story since 2011. In 2015 I produced a Panorama on the subject. I am aiming to spend every day in court for both trials of this class action - the first starts on 5 November - the second (which will focus on Horizon) starts on 4 March. But no news organisation is going to pay me to do that. If you can possibly back my kickstarter campaign or share the link to anyone who think might be interested in doing so, I would be most grateful. I doubt I'll be able to post the link here - so just search Reporting the High Court Post Office Trial and it'll come up. Many thanks.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon