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Horizon scandal ‘ongoing’ as sub-postmasters pursued for thousands of pounds

Jacqueline Franklin has been badly affected by the ongoing Post Office Horizon scandal
Jacqueline Franklin has been badly affected by the ongoing Post Office Horizon scandal - Andrew Fox/Andrew Fox

Postmasters are still being traumatised by wrongful demands for thousands of pounds due to continuing faults with the Horizon IT system, The Telegraph can reveal.

The self-employed branch managers have warned of an “ongoing scandal”, with repeated letters from the Post Office, some as recently as last month. leaving many feeling they have to pay up.

Some said they had paid back up to £10,000 as a result of glitches in recent years, despite the landmark Bates vs Post Office ruling in 2019, which found “bugs, errors and defects” in the Horizon software.

Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, one of the key drivers in exposing the original scandal, has called for an “urgent” investigation into the new claims.

Lord Arbuthnot called for an 'urgent' investigation into the new claims
Lord Arbuthnot called for an 'urgent' investigation into the new claims - Chris McAndrew/Chris McAndrew

Horizon was updated in 2017, with the High Court describing the new version as “robust” relative to comparable systems.

However, The Telegraph has unearthed evidence of widespread and repeated shortfalls.

Although the threat of prosecution has been removed, sub-postmasters are still required to attempt to explain any shortfalls.

They have described the process of disputing their culpability as “laborious” and “stressful”.

Some said they have only recently gained the confidence to challenge head office, thanks to the publicity around the public inquiry and ITV drama, but that previously they would pay back the money to avoid the “mental torture” of the process.

However, wrongful repayments made after the 2017 Horizon update cannot be reclaimed via any of the compensation schemes, on the basis that the IT system has improved.

Jacqueline Franklin, a sub-postmaster from rural Warwickshire, has paid back £7,000 since 2019.

“People out there don’t realise that this scandal is ongoing,” she said.

“The shortfalls are regular, and when they happen it’s mental torture.

“You don’t know what to do.”

Lead claimant Alan Bates outside the High Court in London after the first judgment was handed down
Lead claimant Alan Bates outside the High Court in London after the first judgment was handed down - Sam Tobin/PA

Mark Harrison, who runs two branches near Doncaster, has paid back more than £5,000 since 2017.

“The way the Post Office goes about it, you forget that there’s no longer a compulsion to pay,” he said.

“They make it feel like there is.”

Lord Arbuthnot said: “The thought that some post masters are still going through this awful process is deeply concerning and one that should be looked into urgently, including, if necessary, providing compensation for them.

“I hope the Post Office realises that these problems do not go away if you ignore them.”

The Post Office suppressed evidence of faults in the IT to enable prosecutions, Sir Wyn Williams’s public inquiry has heard.

Fujitsu has also apologised after admitting it knew about bugs in the software as far back as 1999.

The convictions were subsequently described as the worst miscarriage of justice in British history.

A new group, Voice of the Postmaster, is spearheading an effort to persuade the government, which owns the Post Office, to restructure the company, handing ownership to branch operatives.

A Post Office spokesman said: “We are much more transparent when it comes to alerting Postmasters about any potential problems.

“Our CEO has been very clear that in the past there was an assumption that Postmasters were wholly responsible when it came to unexplained losses.

“That was wrong and today we start with a presumption that they are not.”


‘My mother was still trying to pay them money in her final weeks’

For Jacqueline Franklin’s family, the Horizon scandal is now in its second generation.

‌Her mother, Lilian Hopkins, was a postmistress of the old school – trained in manual book-keeping, punctilious in accounting for every penny transacted at her beloved Post Office branch in the village of Tysoe in rural Warwickshire.

But Lilian’s final years were blighted by repeated unexplained shortfalls as a result of the now-notorious IT system she and thousands of others were forced to use.

‌“Mum always kept to the rules,” said Ms Franklin this week. “She had motor neurone disease, but when the shortfalls started she would spend hours poring over the paperwork trying to identify any mistakes.

‌“In the end she put in her own money to make them up, living off her pension.

“She worked right up to the end. Even the week she died she tried to work.”

Lilian died aged 76 in 2019.

That was the year the High Court ruled that there were “bugs, errors and defects” in Horizon, a fact the Post Office had aggressively suppressed to enable hundreds of wrongful prosecutions.

Landmark judgment

Yet despite the landmark judgment, Ms Franklin, who took over the branch from her mother, says the reality of unexplained shortfalls has barely changed.

In fact, she has paid back more than £7,000 since 2019.

“The shortfalls are still carrying on, I’ve had several in the last year,” she said.

“When it happens, you don’t know what to do. It’s mental torture. You’re frantically trying to work out what you got wrong.”

Mark Harrison, who runs a branch near Doncaster and another in Goole, said his latest unexplained shortfall – this one for £1,260 – was just three weeks ago.

“At my estimation, I’ve paid back on or about £5,000 of my own money in the last seven years trying to make the system balance,” said the 59-year-old.

While the Post Office no longer prosecutes as a result of these shortfalls, they still ask for the money.

‌Sub-postmasters are entitled to dispute the claim.

However, many of them have described to The Sunday Telegraph how the reality of doing so is intimidating and difficult, with the Post Office often pushing back, sometimes repeatedly.

‌“It’s not a nice feeling, so you think ‘let’s get things settled up and move on’,” said Mr Harrison.

‌“There are still a lot of postmasters out there who are afraid of the Post Office and of the repercussions of not paying.”

He said that, in his own case, when he did persist in challenging a shortfall, Post Office never conceded that Horizon was at fault, but offered to write off the sum “as a commercial gesture”.

“I still think there is a major problem with the system, even though they say there’s not. It’s an ongoing scandal.”

In 2017 Horizon, which is provided by Fujitsu, was upgraded to an iteration called HNG-A.

‘Robust’ system

When questioned about the performance of the current system, the Post Office is quick to point out that, while its ambition is to replace Horizon completely, the present version is, in the words of the 2019 High Court judgment “robust”, relative to comparable systems.

‌However, in the trial itself, internal Post Office documents were read out that appeared to demonstrate the lack of confidence executives had in the upgrade.

In one, Rob Houghton, chief technology officer of the Post Office, said: “whilst HNGA runs on updated Windows software, fundamentally its architecture is the same. This means that it remains a ‘closed’ and inflexible platform that cannot support the business’ strategic objectives…”

Ultimately, the judge concluded that, despite some improvements: “Horizon is not free from bugs from any particular date.”

Despite this, any wrongful repayments made by sub-postmasters as a result of glitches cannot be reclaimed in compensation under the Horizon Shortfall Scheme if they took place after 2017, on the basis that the current system is “robust”.

This was confirmed to The Telegraph this week by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, whose spokesman used the same “robust” formulation in his response.

‌Mr Harrison summed up the frustration felt by many of his colleagues.

“For a lot of people, it’s only in recent months, what with all the publicity, that they’ve had the confidence to challenge these shortfalls, rather than just pay up,” he said.

“I think there is a lot of regret among people at the money they paid back.

“Now, we can’t claim for it.”

The apparent injustice has this weekend prompted concern from Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, who as a Conservative MP was one of the original driving figures in exposing the Horizon scandal.

“It is absolutely essential for the post office to provide the written evidence needed for sub-postmasters or their accountants to challenge computer evidence from a Horizon system which is, in the eyes of the public at least, wholly discredited,” he said.

“The thought that some postmasters are still going through this awful process is deeply concerning and one that should be looked into urgently, including, if necessary, providing compensation to them.”

‌He added: “I hope the Post Office realises that these problems do not go away if you ignore them.”

All of this comes at a time when sub-postmasters are struggling for their very existence.

60-hour weeks

‌One, from the west of England, who preferred to remain anonymous, said they were taking home less than £600 a month, despite working a 60-hour week

“I’m at the end of my tether. I’m just wondering whether to hand back my keys to the business, but then I’d lose my home,” they said.

“Because of the reputational damage to the Post Office brand, these businesses have no value any more.

“Then you get hit with hundreds of pounds in shortfalls and letters from head office.

“The Post Office hasn’t changed at all. We’ve completely lost faith.”

Ms Franklin, whose branch serves 19 villages on the Warwickshire-Oxfordshire border, also wondered how long she can continue.

“I know I’ll be the last postmaster in this village,” she said.

“We have a great relationship with the local people – we’re a lifeline to many of them – and they want us to survive, but we’re working ourselves to the bone.

‌“We don’t have a lavish lifestyle or go on holidays.”

Many sub-postmasters partly blame the controversial “network transformation” of 2014, a compulsory reorganisation they described as “bullying” which left them struggling for viability.

‌A grass-roots drive to overhaul the structure towards a model of mutualisation, for which the government indicated tentative support last week, is seen by many as the only hope.

Meanwhile, despite its role in the scandal, Futisu was set to have received more than £3.4 billion through contracts running with Treasury-linked organisations since 2019, the Commons Treasury Committee revealed this weekend.

Around £1.4 billion of these deals have been awarded since the High Court ruling.

‌A Post Office spokesman said: “We are much more transparent when it comes to alerting postmasters about any potential problems.

‌“Our CEO has been very clear that in the past there was an assumption that postmasters were wholly responsible when it came to unexplained losses.

“That was wrong and today we start with a presumption that they are not.

‌“Any postmaster that has a concern about Horizon can raise it with our Branch Support Centre or via their dedicated area manager.

“It has been our long-stated intent to replace Horizon with a new cloud-based system for a number of years.

“Around 250 serving postmasters are helping make sure the system is fit for the future with an effective and efficient roll-out across the network.”