Post Office had 'bunker mentality' towards press, lawyer tells inquiry

A sub-postmaster victim of faulty IT software Horizon was described as a "bluffer" when he alerted senior Post Office officials about bugs in the system.

One of the Post Office's heads of legal Rodric Williams dismissed the complainant and told the Post Office Horizon Inquiry on Thursday there was "bunker mentality" among staff in relation to the media's coverage of the IT system.

The inquiry has been hearing evidence to examine who in government and the Post Office knew what and when about the accounting computer programme that falsely generated financial losses at Post Office branches across the UK and led to the conviction of hundreds of sub-postmasters who ran branches for theft and false accounting.

As a result of Horizon's errors, many other sub-postmasters lost homes, moved out of their communities, and became unwell having wracked up significant debts and had their reputations ruined.

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But in 2015 - while prosecutions were taking place with Horizon data and four years before the Post Office would apologise for the miscarriage of justice - the warnings of former sub-postmaster Tim McCormack were dismissed.

"Generally, my view is that this guy is a bluffer, who keeps expecting us to march to his tune," Mr Williams - who is now tasked with dealing with Horizon complaints - said in an email to colleagues.

"I don't think we should do that, but instead respond with a straight bat."

The lawyer had been asked by former chief executive Paula Vennells to look into, what Mr McCormack said, was "clear and unquestionable evidence of an intermittent bug in Horizon that can and does cause thousands of pounds in losses to sub-postmasters".

'Bunker mentality'

Mr Williams agreed that there was an element of siege mentality at the Post Office against media questioning.

"I don't know if I can speak for senior management but I do think certainly where I was sitting it did feel a bit bunker mentality, yes," he told the inquiry.

When asked by barrister for the inquiry, Jason Beer: "It's that siege mentality again, Mr Williams, isn't it? Challenges to the Post Office are hostile and must be fended off rather than considered on their merits."

Mr Williams responded, "I think that's maybe overstating but there's probably something in that, I think, that's fair".

'Take it or leave it'

In response to a 2014 media request about Horizon satisfaction levels among sub-postmasters, Mr Williams effectively said they could use the system or leave.

"We don't need to do research on Horizon - it's the system we provide to our agents and require them to use. If agents don't like it, they can choose not to provide services for us," he said at the time.

"The vast majority of our agents and other users work with it just fine, and we're not required to bespoke our point of sale accounting system to the whims of each individual agent."

He was asked if it was his view, in 2014, that sub-postmasters could either use Horizon or leave he replied "yes".

Mr Williams began at the organisation in 2012 as a litigation lawyer and still works there as the head of the remediation unit set up to address sub-postmaster complaints about Horizon.

His evidence continues on Friday.

Ms Vennells has said: "I continue to support and focus on co-operating with the inquiry and expect to be giving evidence in the coming months.

"I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the sub-postmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system.

"I now intend to continue to focus on assisting the inquiry and will not make any further public comment until it has concluded."