The fallout for the Post Office and its long-running dispute with postal staff over errors in Fujitsu’s Horizon IT system, continues this week.
It has been reported that bosses at the Post Office were told as far back as 2011 that Horizon could be to blame for missing money, but it still pursued prosecutions against staff anyway, with hundreds of postmasters sacked, going bankrupt or wrongfully convicted.
In December 2019 the Post Office agreed to pay almost £58 million as part of a settlement after legal action by sub-postmasters after they were wrongly accused of taking money.
The case centres over the use of the Horizon accounting system, which has been in place since 1999 and records transactions across Post Office branches.
But alleged mistakes with Horizon caused sub-postmasters to be wrongly accused of fraud, and many were told to pay back supposedly missing funds or face prosecution.
The problem became a political issue in 2009, when reports surfaced of sub-postmasters who had received heavy fines or jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they said resulted from problems with Horizon.
Thousands of sub-postmasters independently operate smaller post offices, and are obliged to make up shortfalls out of their own pockets.
In 2011, 85 sub-postmasters sought legal support in claims against the Post Office after being wrongly accused of taking money.
In later years this figure rose to 550 sub-postmasters suing the Post Office.
The Post Office always argued that there is no evidence of systemic problems with Horizon, but set up the mediation scheme in 2013 after independent investigators found defects in the software.
In 2014 more than 140 MPs said they could no longer support the Post Office’s mediation scheme after numerous complaints about Horizon.
A total of 960 convictions linked to the scandal are currently being reviewed, in what has been dubbed the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history.
A BBC Panorama investigation revealed managers knew problems with Horizon could make money disappear.
Senior Post Office managers were reportedly told back in 2011 that computer technicians also had access to the system and could change postmasters’ data.
An Ernst and Young audit report, which was sent to Post Office directors, said it “has again identified weaknesses” in the Horizon system.
It warns that some IT staff have “unrestricted access” to postmasters’ Horizon accounts which “may lead to the processing of unauthorised or erroneous transactions”.
Panorama first reported that postmasters’ accounts could be accessed without their knowledge in 2015.
But the Post Office at the time strenuously denied this type of remote access was possible and complained to the BBC.
Two years later during the trial, the Post Office admitted remote access without the postmaster’s knowledge was possible.
“It is very serious that the Post Office were sitting on information that told them, and could have told the courts, and their sub postmasters, that other people could access their systems,” said Rachel Reeves MP, who had been leading an inquiry into the Post Office and Horizon for the business select committee.
In response the Post Office has reportedly said its new leadership has made changes and is working closely with postmasters to provide support.