Monday 18 March 2019

Horizon trial day 5: Into the Horizone

Angela van den Bogerd arriving at the High Court this morning
Angela van den Bogerd was the in the witness box all day. She is the Post Office's business improvement director. On Friday the judge ruled that during the Common Issues trial, Mrs van den Bogerd had deliberately tried to mislead the court on more than one occasion. He added:

"Unless I state to the contrary, I would only accept the evidence of Mrs Van den Bogerd and Mr Beal [a senior Post Office colleague] in controversial areas of fact in issue in this Common Issue [sic] trial if these are clearly and uncontrovertibly corroborated by contemporaneous documents."

So we were all ears today. And there were all sorts of revelations.  

The MoneyGram duplicate transactions error

There's no doubt Horizon appears to work well for most Subpostmasters most of the time. But that's no comfort to a Subpostmaster on the end of a Horizon error. The Post Office's case is that yes Horizon has errors and yes a small number of them might affect branch accounts, but because of the systems in place and information largely only available to the Post Office, no claimant Subpostmasters have ever had to give money (much less be accused of stealing it) to the Post Office because of a computer error. It would only ever be a user error or fraud. The claimants dispute this strongly, but they have to prove it, in this trial, beyond the balance of probabilities to the judge.

Patrick Green QC
This afternoon, Patrick Green, QC for the claimants, produced a loaded gun and then for some reason, didn't fire it.

The case is that of Mr Aakash Patny, a claimant who gave evidence last week. Mr Patny had a number of problems with Horizon, all hotly disputed by the Post Office, and one concerned a MoneyGram reversal which Mr Patny performed on 23 February 2016 when a customer wished to send £3,100 abroad, but could not do so when his debit card was declined. What Mr Patny did was cancel the transaction, but in fact the Post Office claims he should have reversed it by calling the Horizon helpline and being taken through the steps to reverse it. 

At the end of the day, Mr Patny found he was £6,200 down. He called the helpline and they reversed his £3,100, but he was held liable for the remaining £3,100, which he disputes. 

Mr Patny's cross-examination on Wednesday last week was a little confusing. I think it was because the Post Office barrister Simon Henderson didn't seem ready for Mr Patny's explanations of what happened - and, if I might be so bold, seemed a little unclear as to what actually had happened.

Mr Henderson insisted that Mr Patny had followed the wrong procedure in not calling the Helpline to reverse the transaction at the time and he produced a document describing the correct procedure which he asked Mr Patny to agree with. 

Mr Henderson then said that Mr Patny called the helpline but did not perform the reversal. Mr Patny said he did - he called the helpline after something called "polling time" which is 7pm, when Horizon rolls over into the next working day. He called after 7pm because until that point he thought he had successfully cancelled the MoneyGram transaction, but then after balancing, he noticed he was £6,200 down. Mr Patny thought this must be the declined transaction which had somehow magically doubled. Mr Patny then said that the Helpline agreed he had a £3,100 reversal which needed performing, but he was then held liable for the other £3,100.

After a brief weird interlude during which Mr Henderson accused Mr Patny of committing a criminal offence over a ludicrous stamp declaration (which Mr Patny said was another Horizon error) we returned to the MoneyGram issue. Mr Henderson said the extra £3,100 was actually £3,694.88 and it was down to a variety of discrepancies caused by user error (quite why he thought the £3,100 couldn't be hidden within that larger number I don't know, but Mr Patny didn't challenge him on it). 

Mr Patny was having none of it. He said his area sales manager Mark Irwin came to have a look agreed it was probably a double transaction and actually lobbied the Post Office on his behalf to stop his branch being held liable.

And that was how we left it on Wednesday.

So let's go to today. Patrick Green established with Angela van den Bogerd that the very month Aakash Patny had a problem with his alleged double phantom MoneyGram transaction, there was a problem in the system causing double phantom errors.

The error was caused by a software update from MoneyGram in January 2016 causing "system latency". In MoneyGram's quarterly business review, the error is reviewed and readers are advised 

"Duplicate transactions are created in [MoneyGram] systems as a result of Post Office time outs. A joint MG/POL team is working to ascertain impact on settlement and implementation of an appropriate plan of action."

I thought Mr Green was going to suggest that here we had the evidence that a software error affecting Post Office systems was causing duplicate transactions identical to the one Mr Patny was being held liable for. But he didn't instead he said:

   Q.  It wasn't wildly well advertised to subpostmasters that
       this problem was being dealt with at the time?
   A.  No.  People were aware there was an issue, clearly, in
       branch and then --
   Q.  People in the branch had an issue, but they were
       probably being blamed for user error, weren't they?
   A.  Well, they knew there was an issue and they were ringing
       into NBSC at the time.
   Q.  Sorry?
   A.  They knew there was an issue and they were ringing into
       NBSC at the time.
   Q.  Well they were claiming there was an issue but they
       might be met with "This is user error"?

This to me looked like it was building up to the first clear cut copper-bottomed evidence of a Horizon error which had left a branch Subpostmaster out of pocket, but Mr Green didn't ask Mrs van den Bogerd if she thought that was a possibility. He didn't pull the trigger. I wonder why.

Shonky hardware, shonky software

In the morning session, there were two belters. In fact, during one of them, Karl Flinders from Computer Weekly leaned over to me and whispered "he's just put a 35 yarder in the top right hand corner", which, for those not familiar with sporting idioms, is an Association Football reference meaning "he's done quite well there". 

First of all Mrs van den Bogerd is taken to paragraph 13 of her witness statement in which she says she has been made aware of "phantom sales" in Horizon in around 2000, but, crucially, says Mrs van den Bogerd, "they should not cause a discrepancy in a branch's accounts". She then goes on to list how certain mysterious out of hours transactions take place which are either down to user error, standard Horizon processes or fraud.

Mr Green picks up on this and says that if Mrs van den Bogerd was told about phantom sales by a Subpostmaster, she'd assume it was user error. Mrs van den Bogerd agrees.

Mr Green takes Mrs van den Bogerd to something called a master PEAK created in 2001. This is a document "where there are a number of iterations of a problem what Fujitsu do is they pull together a number of PEAKs into a master PEAK to collect the cases of different people who have had the same problem."

It is about a Horizon issue which has been closed without the permission of the Subpostmaster, who is understandably irate. He is £1500 down, he has had to make good the amount and he is now at risk of suspension for refusing to make ongoing discrepancies good. The PEAK notes the Subpostmaster "wants a face-to-face meeting with someone in
 authority from [Horizon/Post Office] to discuss the issues. [The Subpostmaster] feels very strongly about this and says he is willing
 to take POCL [Post Office Counters Ltd, as was] to a tribunal/court because of the stress he has suffered because of the problems."

So - stressed out Subpostmaster, lots of money at stake and he's hacked off because the complaint was erroneously closed. Mr Green notes that the Subpostmaster had been told it was probably user error. 

A month later some Royal Mail engineers go out to have a look (Post Office was still part of Royal Mail in 2001). They see the phantom transactions for themselves.

"Now, pausing there," says Mr Green, "that is independent site visit
 corroboration of the problem by Royal Mail's own engineers at the branch, isn't it?

Mrs van den Bogerd agrees. 

Eventually after lots and lots of to-ing and fro-ing with several Subpostmasters all appearing to have the same problem, it turns out it was a fault with the touch screens which were creating the phantom entries.

Mrs van den Bogerd agrees this is clearly a hardware error affecting multiple branches.

But we see from the PEAK that the official resolution is to refuse to acknowledge the problem as a Horizon error as user error could not be precluded from it. So the stressed out Subpostmaster presumably got a new touch screen, but he didn't get his money back.

Mr Green then leaped forward 10 years to a software error reported in another PEAK dated February 2011 which showed negative stock items which the Post Office branch in question didn't even sell.
"The office went into the declaration and confirmed
 it showed the PO saving stamps and other stock items,
 some showing as minus stock amounts, that were not
 correct to the branch.... it somehow seems that the system has somehow picked
 up this declaration and this is the cause of the
 discrepancies appearing on the system.  The SPMR was
 told to declare the correct stock figures but is
 reluctant to do this as this will cause discrepancies
 when she next balances that are not relevant to herself."

Serious stuff.

Mrs van den Bogerd agreed this was an example of a software error on Horizon.

Let's end with an internal Post Office email exchange!

The first email is dated 9 Dec 2013, and is from the Helpline team to the branch support team (which Mrs van den Bogerd was part of). The helpline team email starts: 

"Branch reporting that he has found sensitive issue with Horizon when the system put a phantom cheque on the cheque line in July 2013.  Claims to have evidence to support his claim.... Although he himself did not suffer a loss, thinks that Horizon is flawed.  Did not ask to be contacted about this. Just wanted to say that he had this information and threatened to go to MP as a result."

Nigel Allen from the branch support team sends it up to Andy Winn saying: "Given the current media and in particular the BBC's attention on Horizon, do you think it is worthwhile looking into this 'alleged flaw' with Horizon that this SPMR has highlighted to preempt any enquiries from his MP?"

The response comes back from Mr Winn:

"There is nothing I can investigate given the level of detail provided unless he only accepted one cheque in July 13.  Even then I don't have the level of detail needed and would need Fujitsu support.  Without a date/value we can't really raise a request. I don't really understand what the purpose of the call is.  Does he want it investigated or not?  My instinct is that we have enough on with people asking us to look at things. I can't figure out how if a phantom cheque appeared on Horizon he could avoid a loss unless another phantom transaction took it away again!!!!"

Interesting. Mrs van den Bogerd is asked what she thinks of this email exchange. Would it not be useful to be a little bit curious about a potential Horizon error? Maybe ask for the evidence? Mrs van den Bogerd agrees this is a "totally inadequate response." Mr Green says " And the point about that is that shows, red in tooth and claw, that if a phantom cheque comes up into your account you're going to suffer a loss, aren't you?"

Mrs van den Bogerd agrees that is what Mr Winn is saying.

Mrs van den Bogerd continues to give evidence tomorrow.

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