Monday, March 11, 2019

Horizon trial: Day 1 - Post Office IT "not fit for purpose"


Oh, hello. On day one of this trial, we have already had reference to an internal Post Office document (dated Jan 2017) which says Post Office IT is "not fit for
 purpose, expensive and difficult to change." and "we need to quickly rationalise and resolve
 misaligned contracts enacted to support legacy IT,
 obsolescence, a lack of PO technical competence,
 particular focus on Fujitsu and Accenture."

Post Office IT = Horizon
Fujitsu = the people who run Horizon

It adds:
"The IT strategy outlined a view of the current
 state of technology within PO as failing to meet PO
 aspirations on any assessment lens."
and:
"The following highlights the current operational
 risk areas referred to earlier in the document and the
 initiatives underway or proposed... to migrate these
 into risk appetite:
purple - severe risk,
red -
 high risk,
amber - within appetite but attention
 required"

In the words of the claimants' QC, Patrick Green:
"your Lordship will note that the Horizon branch
 systems box is in red in the Post Office's own internal
 document.
"
High Risk Horizon! Wonder why?! Wonder no further. This from an internal Post Office document dated 22 Oct 2016:
"Our back office also struggles with the
 complications of dealing differently with each of our
       many clients, heavily manual processes, reconciling
 disparate sources of data, retrospective financial
       controls and a lack of flexibility.  This backlog of
 challenges, poor support contracts and a lack of skills
 have led to a prohibitive cost of change, preventing the
 about [sic] improvements that should occur as part of
 a business as usual."
Mr Green also noted that 18 months previous to the above document, in response to a Second Sight query (the independent forensic accountants eventually fired by the Post Office in acrimony), the public position on Horizon was thus:
"Questions were raised about Post Office's plans to
 change to a new system when the Post Office's current
 contract with Fujitsu in respect of Horizon comes to an
 end in March 2017.
 "Post Office's intention to move to a new system
 does not reflect any dissatisfaction or lack of
 confidence in Horizon.  It is simply that the current
 contractual arrangements are due to expire."

So Horizon is a high risk, not fit for purpose, pile of s***e, right?

Ah well - the answer, my friend, is not that simple. In the majestic words of the Post Office QC, Anthony de Garr Robinson:
"Over the period 2000 to 2018 the Post Office has had
 on average 13,650 branches. That means that over that
  period it has had more than 3 million sets of monthly
 branch accounts.  It is nearly 3.1 million but let's
 call it 3 million and let's ignore the fact for the
 first few years branch accounts were weekly. That
 doesn't matter for the purposes of this analysis.
 Against that background let's take a substantial bug
 like the Suspense Account bug which affected 16 branches
 and had a mean financial impact per branch of £1,000.
 The chances of that bug affecting any branch is tiny.
 It is 16 in 3 million, or 1 in 190,000-odd. The chances
 of affecting a claimant branch are even tinier because
 the claimant branches tended to be smaller than ordinary
 branches. One could engage in all sorts of
       calculations, but your Lordship may recall from
 Dr Worden's second report that he ends up with
  a calculation of a chance of about 1 in 427,000-odd. So
 for there to be a 1 in 10 chance for a bug of this scale
 to affect one set of monthly account for a claimant
 branch, one would need something like 42,000 such bugs.
 Of course there's a much simpler way of doing it
 which really is just a straight calculation.  There have
 been 3 million sets of monthly accounts so the chances
 of the Suspense Account bug affecting any given set of
 monthly accounts is 60 in 3 million or about 5 in
 a million, so to get a one in 10 chance of such a bug
 you would need to have 50,000 bugs like it.
 But, my Lord, all the roads lead to the same basic
 result which is that even for a significant bug of that
 sort, the number of bugs that would need to exist in
 order to have any chance of generating even a portion of
 the losses that are claimed by the claimants would be
 a wild number that's beyond the dreams of avarice. It
 is untenable to suggest that there are 40,000 or 50,000
 bugs of that scale going undetected in Horizon for
 20 years."
and:
"the difference now
 being played out between the experts is at the margins.
 They accept that there are imperfections in the Horizon
 system with the result that in some rare cases bugs
 affecting branch accounts occur and will not be
 immediately fixed.  The issue between them is how slight are the relevant imperfections.
 The scale of this difference is magnified by the
 adversarial process but in the scheme of things, in my
 submission, it is in fact tiny and to plagarise
 Lord Justice Lewison in section 1 of his first chapter
 in the interpretation of contracts, the lazy reader can
 stop here.

My Lord, we say that what is already common ground
 between the parties means that the claimants must fail
 in their primary endeavour to persuade the court to draw
 the inference or make the presumption that they want the court to make or to draw or make, to the effect that
 when faced with a shortfall in a set of branch accounts
 the shortfall was caused by a bug in Horizon.
"
Indeed. So what's been happening then? That, says Mr de Garr Robinson, is for another trial.

Disclosure datclosure

Mr Green started this morning with a complaint about the availability and delivery of information to the claimants. The Post Office, it seems, does not like to give up information without a fight. It appears to have a strategy of vehemently denying something is true or possible until it is forced to admit it is, in fact possible. Then its seeks to deny the thing it once said was impossible is now relevant or that big a deal. It also likes to unload information when it is almost too late to do anything with.

During a long exposition of this alleged manner of dealing with important information the judge asked:

"What's the name of the Post Office person who signed the statement of truth on the
 generic defence?  There is just a signature on it but I can't see what the name is.
MR DE GARR ROBINSON:  My Lord, it is Jane MacLeod.

MR JUSTICE FRASER:  Jane MacLeod, right.  Thank you.
"

I wonder if he might want to speak to her in the future.

The issue of remote access was discussed. As we know from the previous trial, the Post Office long insisted that remote access to branch accounts was impossible. Then, in 2016 it admitted it was possible, but only in very limited circumstances. In the run up to this trial, it considered the written evidence of Richard Roll, the  Fujitsu whistleblower featured on Panorama, who said not only was it possible, it happened regularly whilst he worked there. The Post Office initially said Richard Roll was mistaken. Now it accepts Fujitsu technicians remotely accessed Post Office branch terminals on a regular basis. But, says the Post Office, the chances this kind of access could materially affect branch accounts is very unlikely.

And likeliness is what this trial seems to hinge on. Because Horizon is so vast and because it has been in service for so long, it would be a Sisyphean task to look for every error in Horizon and investigate whether or not it had materially affected branch accounts. So the arguments are about likelihood. The Post Office says it is deeply unlikely that any Horizon error caused material discrepancies in any of the claimants' branch accounts. The claimants say the Post Office can't possibly know that.

Transcript, written statements, tweets

The second battleground in the trial is the robustness of Horizon. How robust a system was it in its various iterations down the years? The Post Office says its independent IT expert thinks it's robust, with plenty of error-repellency built in, reducing the likelihood of errors. The Post Office expert says it's so robust the likelihood of any errors directly affecting any of the claimants' branch accounts is vanishingly small. The claimants disagree, they say:
"The combination of Horizon's admitted imperfections (and discovered bugs and remote access) and the volume of many millions of transactions, is entirely consistent with the levels of errors reflected in the Claimants' case."
You can read it all yourself, if you want - the uncorrected and unperfected version of today's transcript are here for your reading pleasure. Definitely do that.

I have also uploaded the written openings from both parties. You can read the claimants' opening here and the Post Office's defence here.

And if you want to see the live tweets from today, they're here on twitter and embedded below.
Over the next few days we will hear evidence from various former Subpostmasters who may have experienced problems with Horizon which materially affected their branch accounts. We will hear from the director of Second Sight, Ian Henderson and we will hear from Richard Roll himself.

More tomorrow.

PS You will note at the top of this blog post there is an exciting photo of a Post Office logo. This is because I got bored of photographing the Rolls Building where this litigation is taking place. I have invited secret emailers to send me their photos of Post Office branding - signs, mugs, logos, letterheads etc etc. The results will be used to illustrate these blog posts over the next few weeks. If you have any to share, please contact me via the contact form on this website. Thanks

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