The Post Office’s
‘Horizon’ IT system, introduced in 2005, has been tainted by scandal in recent years.
About 150 sub-postmasters (people who
own and run post office branches) say they were wrongly accused of false accounting by the Post Office as a result of problems with the system. 43 received criminal convictions and a number went bankrupt as a result. The stress was even blamed for driving one sub-postmaster to suicide.
The sub-postmasters claim issues with Horizon caused losses in their post offices, and they were forced to make up the shortfalls from their own pockets despite the errors lying with the system.
MPs, journalists and campaigners have taken up their cause, arguing the sub-postmasters are the victims of a serious injustice. The Post Office has denied this and insisted Horizon is ‘effective and robust’, pointing to the fact about half a million people have used it.
However independent experts
Second Sight found software bugs when they investigated the system in 2012, and said the cash shortfalls could have been caused by malicious software or faulty IT systems.
After news emerged this summer that the Post Office is set to replace the controversial Horizon system, here is a timeline of the saga so far.
1. 2000: Horizon accounting system introduced
The accounting system, built by Fujitsu, started to be implemented across the 11,500-odd post offices across the UK. It was intended to boost efficiency and cut the amount of time sub-postmasters needed to spend on bookkeeping.
2. October 2009: Problems start to be made public
Although some sub-postmasters say they experienced issues with Horizon immediately, their plight only really got public attention in 2009, when 30 of them formed an action group and came forward to the Post Office with their complaints. They were told they owed £430,000 in total to the Post Office.
3. October 2011: 85 sub-postmasters take legal action against Post Office
Law firm Access Legal announced plans to take action on behalf of 85 sub-postmasters, bringing a claim in negligence or breach of contract for damages, based on loss of capital, earnings and shops.
4. June 2012: Post Office hires firm to conduct external review of Horizon
The Post Office launched a review into Horizon in response to the legal dispute with sub-postmasters and concerns about the system raised by MPs. They appointed forensic accountants Second Sight to review 10 cases.
5. July 2013: Interim report reveals two software defects
Second Sight’s interim review revealed it had found two software faults, leading to shortfalls of £9,000 at 76 branches. The Post Office claimed the review had found no "system wide problems" in relation to the Horizon software. However the report concluded it had failed to properly investigate the cash shortfalls before starting legal proceedings against sub-postmasters.
6. August 2013: Post Office launches ‘mediation’ scheme for outstanding complaints
© Nick Wallis
The Post Office opened a mediation scheme for sub-postmasters, promising to try to resolve outstanding complaints. It had received submissions from 150 sub-postmasters by the time it closed in November.
7. December 2014: MPs say Post Office mediation is ‘failing’ alleged victims
© Campaign4Change/BBC Panorama
A group of MPs supporting sub-postmasters with grievances over Horizon (for example Jo Hamilton, pictured) claimed the Post Office was ‘failing’ to redress their issues via its mediation scheme. They accused the Post Office of being ‘high handed’ and running a ‘flawed, degraded and deteriorating accounting system’. James Arbuthnot MP said the Post Office had been ‘duplicitous’ over the investigation.
8. February 2015: Committee of MPs start Horizon inquiry
The Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee launched an inquiry into the Post Office mediation scheme, interviewing senior figures from the organisation, union representatives, campaigners and Ian Henderson, who led the Second Sight review.
9. February 2015: Second Sight claim Post Office obstructed independent probe
© Post Office
During its committee hearing, Second Sight claimed the Post Office was obstructing its probe into problems with its Horizon IT system by refusing to hand over files relating to the prosecution of 150 subpostmasters. Ian Henderson claimed the Post Office had brought investigations against subpostmasters with “inadequate investigation and inadequate evidence”.
10. April 2015: Report says Post Office failed to investigate cash shortfalls
The Post Office
failed to properly investigate the root cause of cash shortfalls at sub-post offices before sacking or prosecuting over 150 subpostmasters, Second Sight’s independent report concluded. The review confirmed cash shortfalls could have been caused by "inadequacies" with Horizon such as poor error detection processes, "faulty equipment" and software bugs. The Post Office said it would close its mediation scheme, saying a ‘number’ of cases had been resolved.
11. April 2015: Criminal Courts Review Commission launches review into sub-postmasters plight
The Criminal Courts Review Commission, which investigates miscarriages of justice, launched a review into claims by sub-postmasters that they had been wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office due to problems with Horizon. It said it had received 20 applications from sub-postmasters seeking redress for prosecutions.