Friday, 26 February 2021

Press release: book deal

 PRESS RELEASE FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

26 FEBRUARY 2021


Nick Wallis and Bath Publishing to publish definitive 

account of Post Office Horizon IT Scandal


Journalist Nick Wallis has teamed up with Bath Publishing to publish the definitive account of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.


The decades-long affair has been described in the House of Commons as "one of the worst disasters in public life since the contaminated blood scandal" which "may well be the largest miscarriage of justice in our history.”


Nick has been following the story for more than ten years, fronting BBC investigations for Inside Out, The One Show and Panorama as well as being supported by crowdfunding. Nick also co-wrote the 2020 Private Eye Special Justice Lost in the Post and presented the double award-nominated ten-part BBC Radio 4 series The Great Post Office Trial.


The book’s working title is The Great Post Office Scandal. It is scheduled for publication in Autumn this year.


Helen Lacey, Editorial Director of Bath Publishing said:


I am delighted Nick has chosen us to help publicise one of the biggest scandals to hit our shores. The story is, quite frankly, shocking and the main reason why it is now being brought to the attention of the public is because of the hard graft put in by Nick.


Nick Wallis said:


Bath Publishing’s enthusiasm and determination to produce the definitive account of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal has been inspiring. Hundreds of Subpostmasters had their lives ruined and livelihoods taken away by institutions they should have been able to trust. This book will tell the whole story.


David Chaplin, Publishing Director of Bath Publishing said:


I have spent years publishing books that help lay people through the maze of the courts. When Nick raised the idea of working together I jumped at the chance. Although, as the reader will find out, the challenges faced by the Subpostmasters caught up in this scandal are of a different order altogether.“ 


Today Nick launched another crowdfunding campaign (his first was 200% funded within ten days) on his website www.postofficetrial.com to support his work covering the Court of Appeal process, the government’s ongoing Post Office Horizon IT inquiry and the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.


For more information, interview requests or pics:


Nick Wallis - 07976 432174 or nick@nickwallis.com

David Chaplin at Bath Publishing - 01225 577810 or david.chaplin@bathpublishing.co.uk 


Editors note:


The Post Office Horizon IT scandal began at the turn of the century when the Post Office network was automated. A novel PFI-funded IT system called Horizon was rolled-out into the Post Office network. At the time, suppliers Fujitsu described it as the “largest non-military IT system in Europe”. Horizon didn’t work properly, and errors and discrepancies appeared in hundreds of Subpostmasters’ accounts. 


The Post Office held Subpostmasters liable for these discrepancies. Thousands were forced to pay the Post Office sums they didn’t owe, many were sacked. Some 800 people were prosecuted by the Post Office and many were sent to prison. 


In 2019, after a three year multimillion-pound legal battle, in which the Post Office was supported by the government, the Post Office admitted defeat and settled out of court. Dozens of criminal convictions are due to be overturned at the Court of Appeal in March. There have been suicides, mental health breakdowns and hundreds of family tragedies. No one has been held responsible for the false prosecutions. 


About Bath Publishing:


Bath Publishing was set up nearly 20 years ago. Their first book was The Family Court without a Lawyer: A handbook for litigants in person written by Lucy Reed, barrister at St John's Chambers in Bristol. Bath Publishing have continued to commission other books aimed at the non-lawyer, for those needing help at the most critical stages of their lives, whether they are divorcing, have just lost their job or are supporting an incapacitous member of their family. 


They believe everyone should have access to justice. It's not just about money - it's about transparency of the court system and the legal profession as a whole. Their slogan is Making Law Make Sense. There's more information about their range of titles at bathpublishing.com


About Nick Wallis:


Nick is a BBC-trained journalist who first came across this story in November 2010 when he was a breakfast show presenter at BBC Surrey. A cab driver told him his pregnant wife, a Subpostmaster, had been sent to prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Nick presented his first investigation on BBC Surrey in Feb 2011 and has been following the scandal ever since.

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Crowdfunder 2: Special Incentives



In 2018 I tentatively launched a crowdfunding campaign to see if there was enough interest in this story to fund my presence at the first Bates v Post Office High Court trial. My target was £3000. Within ten days I had been entrusted with more than £6000. The money allowed me to sit through every day of that first trial. 

Since that initial crowdfunding campaign I have maintained a virtual tip jar. Without the contributions I would not have had the time to find the documents and make the contacts which led to last year's Panorama, File on 4, the Radio 4 series and the Private Eye Special. So - thank you.

Now I am launching another short crowdfunding campaign. I would like your support to allow me to cover the week long hearing at the Court of Appeal from 22 - 26 March, the government's Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry and the activities of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance in their continuing quest for accountability and redress.

The reason this is slightly different from my first campaign is that there is another incentive on offer. As well as posting on this blog, live-tweeting from court and sending out regular secret emails, I am delighted to tell you there will be an option to get a book in return for your kind donations.

On Wednesday I signed a deal with Bath Publishing to write The Great Post Office Scandal - the story of the entire Horizon debacle from the mid nineties to the present day. It will be the definitive account, told in a (hopefully) page-turning style.

If you can afford to donate £25 you can join the secret emailers, support public interest journalism and get an ebook. If you can afford to donate £40, you can join the secret emailers, support public interest journalism and get a signed hardback book, with free UK shipping. 

If you can't afford these sums there are options to donate less. If you don't want to donate anything and just want to get your hands on the book/ebook, wait until April/May. Then both formats will become available at their full price of £25 (+ £3.50 UK shipping) or £8.99 for the ebook.

So many people have been so generous in the past, I realise there are only so many times you can go to the well. But if you have been thinking about donating, or have actually been waiting for a formal campaign, or just fancy a book and don't mind chucking one final donation into the tin, believe me I would be very grateful. 

You might actually be able to make a donation directly from this webpage via the donation options below. If you can't see it, this link should take you there.

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

How much did the Post Office and the government know about Horizon pre-launch?

A bag of s***, about to wreak havoc

On Friday 19 February, I got a piece away in Computer Weekly featuring an interview with a man who says he was a development manager working on Horizon in the months before and after its rollout. 

His educated opinion was that Horizon was "a bag of s***."

Specifically, he says Horizon’s Electronic Point of Sale [EPOS] system (ie the bit that sat in the branches used by Subpostmasters) was initially built with “no design documents, no test documents, no peer reviews, no code reviews, no coding standards”.

He concluded: "It was a prototype that had been bloated and hacked together afterwards for several years, and then pushed screaming and kicking out of the door. It should never have seen the light of day. Never."

Yet it was rolled out, into 18,000 Post Offices across the country, where it wreaked havoc. Our source says he told his bosses at Fujitsu, unequivocally, that part of the system did not work, and would not work unless it was rebuilt from scratch. He says his bosses did not want to know.

More clues

On publication of the Computer Weekly piece, I was struck by a couple of responses. One came from Eleanor Shaikh, who has done a fantastic job of digging into public documents to aid the Subpostmasters' cause. Eleanor drew my (and twitter's) attention to the fact that Alan Johnson, then Minister for Competitiveness at the DTI, chaired something called the Horizon Working Group in 1999. This was attended by the Post Office, the National Federation of Subpostmasters and the Communications Workers Union.

Eleanor got this information from an appendix to a document published by the Trade and Industry Select Committee in November 1999. In it, the committee expresses concern about Horizon's rollout, noting:

"the failure to meet the first milestone cannot but cause concern in a project with such a chequered history."

You can find the appendix here. Unfortunately, the link to the main document, snappily titled:

"GOVERNMENT OBSERVATIONS ON THE ELEVENTH AND TWELFTH REPORTS FROM THE COMMITTEE (SESSION 1998-99) ON THE HORIZON PROJECT FOR AUTOMATED PAYMENT OF BENEFITS THROUGH POST OFFICES (HC 530) AND THE 1999 POST OFFICE WHITE PAPER (HC 94)"

... does not work. I will try to get hold of the document by other means.

The second notable response came from a secret emailer who pointed me in the direction of Duncan Campbell-Smith's excellent book Masters of the Post

Richard Brooks and I bought this book as part of our research for the Private Eye Special Report we produced last year. Richard used a line from Duncan's book which noted that in September 1999 the Post Office board had "serious doubts over the reliability" of Horizon's software. 

Horizon was rolled out in late 1999. If the Post Office board had serious doubts as late as Sep 1999, and in November 1999 the government tells a select committee that a minister is chairing a working group to ensure the project stays on track - what information were they looking at?

I emailed Duncan (who I've had the pleasure of dealing with before) to ask if he still had a copy of the Post Office board minutes he quoted from in his book. Duncan did not have the document in his possession. He had in fact taken down the quote whilst perusing board minutes held at the British Postal Museum and Archive, currently closed due to lockdown. But he was kind enough to give me what information he had, stating in his reply:

"I have gone back to my notebooks to check on the background to that sentence from p. 666 of my book. Not a lot to add, I fear, but here's the entry in my notes:

Minutes 1999/No.90, 14 Sept: Horizon -- contract signed with ICL in July.

'Acceptance' of the system was supposed to happen on 18 August.

'Unfortunately, three high priority acceptance incidents [sic] … remained unresolved and … resulted in Acceptance being deferred until 24 September'.

But rectification not expected before December!

Latest acceptance date: 15 November. So, another cliff-hanger … (No payments made to ICL until acceptance.)

Board discussion. Note made of fact that 'serious doubts over the reliability of the software remained'.

In subsequent entries in my notebooks, I find these three minutes:

Minutes 1999/No. 109, 26 October: Horizon now accepted. 200 offices/wk being converted.

Minutes 1999/No. 111, 26 October Financial overview: Horizon write-off leading to 420m loss after tax for PO.

Minutes 1999/No. 123, 30 November: Unaudited half-year results - exceptional charge of 571 on Horizon. PO and Ernst & Young had clashed over treatment of this charge. Audit C'tee decided PO had adopted the right approach."

Looking at the above, the questions remain: what on earth happened between the "serious doubts" of 14 September and the decision to accept Horizon into the network on 26 October? Who told the Post Office board what? And what persuaded the board the information was valid?

On 10 June last year, in a debate in the House of Lords, there was a discussion about who should chair the government inquiry into the Post Office Horizon debacle. Lord Mann suggested the following to the government:

"Being experienced, knowledgeable and of impeccable character, and having no vested interest, were seen to be the appropriate qualities required for the person to chair this inquiry. Can the Minister think of anyone better suited than the former postman Alan Johnson?"

It might be that the public interest would be better served if Sir Wyn Williams asked Mr Johnson to be a witness instead.

I am deeply grateful to Duncan Campbell-Smith for digging out his notes and allowing me to share them with you. He is a brilliant writer and I do recommend his book. If you want to join the secret emailers, information on how to do so is below. It's basically just an irregular newsletter, but if you're at all interested in this story, it might be worth your while!

*****************

This website is entirely funded by donation. You can contribute any amount through the tip jar via a secure payment portal I have set up for the purpose (click here for more info or to donate).

If you are able to give £20 or more you will be added to the secret email list. This alerts you to upcoming developments on this scandal before they are made public, as well as links to articles and stories posted here on this blog or elsewhere.


Tuesday, 16 February 2021

"They turned my dream into a nightmare."

Shann Rodgers, Subpostmaster at Goldsithney, Cornwall

I have finally got round to watching and reading the transcript of the first (and so far only) focus group session to be posted up on the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry website. It happened in January.

Oral testimony can sometimes be more powerful than the written word. It can also be surprising. Anyone who has taken part in a job interview or panel discussion will know the answers you give to questions can develop on the hoof into new ideas or novel expressions of existing ideas over the course of a sentence or two. Even if you start off pretty clear on what you want, your thoughts can change direction as they try to clamber over the language formulating in your brain, in real time. 

In a loosely-structured three hour discussion, the contributors at this session were given free rein to visit and revisit various themes, and it was fascinating to watch. Two of the three contributors are well known to me, Pete Murray and Mark Baker.

Mark Baker

Mark I have met many times. For years he has been doing tireless work defending Subpostmasters from the Post Office. He has never been a victim of Horizon, but through his work as the National Secretary for the Communications Workers Union Postmaster's Branch, he has clearly dealt with cases of such appalling mismanagement they would make your skin crawl.

You can read a piece Mark wrote for me back in January 2019, well before the Post Office announced it had changed its spots, and just after it had fought a court case during which it asserted its contractual right to treat Subpostmasters "arbitrarily, irrationally or capriciously". 

For years Mark was one of the only people in the country actively working on a daily basis to stop Subpostmasters being suspended, or trying to get them reinstated, or point out to the Post Office that it was abusing its (already draconian) powers. 

Mark used to be a bit of a cheese at the National Federation of Subpostmasters, but left when the NFSP would not be persuaded that siding with the Post Office over Horizon was destroying its members livelihoods and lives. He joined the CWU but has never been paid for his work. I have heard more than one Subpostmaster say Mark has literally saved their lives by intervening at their very lowest moment, when no one else seemed interested or able. During the inquiry session Mark spoke of the guilt he felt about not being able to help everybody, telling Sir Wyn:

"I do have this sense of being on a rescue boat and I've grabbed someone’s hand, who was drowning in the water and I've tried to get them on the boat to save them and they've slipped away. That is a recurring thought that goes through my mind."

Pete Murray

Pete Murray's story was covered in a four part epic on this website. Pete took over Hope Farm Road Post Office after the previous incumbent took his own life. The Post Office did not tell him about the branch's past. The Horizon problems which led to Martin Griffiths' suicide continued for Pete. Just as Mr Griffiths was blamed, Pete was also blamed and suspended in 2018 without pay (in both his branches). 

He has since suffered a stroke and multiple breakdowns, as well as losing goodness knows how many tens of thousands of pounds in lost income and forced repayments under the threat of legal action. In the oral session Pete describes his experience of being nearly ruined by the Post Office:

"It's left me completely devastated. It's caused absolute havoc in my family. I feel alienated from my children. I've had several nervous breakdowns... the last three Christmases have been destroyed by breakdowns.... Falling into tears at the drop of a hat over nothing... I feel ashamed, even though I still know that I've done nothing wrong...  I've now had it confirmed that I'm suffering from PTSD, which has been a great weight off my shoulders, 'cause I've shared that information with my kids. I feel like they understand a bit more."

Shann Rodgers

The third contributor was Shann Rodgers, Subpostmaster at Goldsithney Post Office in Cornwall. Shann is an extraordinary individual and an example of someone who, like Pete, has refused to be broken by her experience. She's a tough cookie, too. According to the BBC News website she once chased a knife-wielding robber out of her branch!

After 17 years working for Post Office HQ, Shann was bored. Newly divorced, she moved 300 miles west with her 9yo daughter, to start over as a Subpostmaster in the tiny village of Goldsithney. 

Shann's "bubbly" personality made her a natural pillar of the community and she was quickly welcomed into the village. Life was good until Horizon started playing up. Despite regular "blue screen of death" crashes, she was told she was the only one having problems with the system, and she was held responsible for inexplicable Horizon discrepancies. Repayment threats meant that at one stage Shann ended up having to cash in a savings account she had set up for her daughter's first year at University.

During the oral evidence session Shann told Sir Wyn Williams that despite the fact she feels unable to give up her job because the village depends on her, she "dreads" going into Post Office. Without her, the branch would close - no one would take it on as a business, as it is no longer a going concern. And as for her employers:

"I hate the Post Office. I hate them... This was our dream and they turned my dream into a nightmare."

The Williams inquiry is accepting evidence from anyone and everyone until 23 February.

You can read the full transcript of the three hour session here. You can watch it here.

Read Mark Baker's story for this website: ""Be careful", he said to me as he left."

Read the first of Pete Murray's pieces for this website here: "The Post Office claim I owe them £35,000, despite never showing or telling me what I have done wrong."

*****************

This website is entirely funded by donation. You can contribute any amount through the tip jar via a secure payment portal I have set up for the purpose (click here for more info or to donate).

If you are able to give £20 or more you will be added to the secret email list. This alerts you to upcoming developments on this scandal before they are made public, as well as links to articles and stories posted here on this blog or elsewhere.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Ruling allowing Subpostmaster appellants leave to plead both limbs of the CCRC's Abuse of Process argument

In all but four of the 41 Subpostmaster cases referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, the Post Office said it would contest the second limb of the CCRC's Abuse of Process argument. In three cases, the Post Office said it would contest the appeal in its entirety.

This led to a split between the lawyers representing the remaining 38 appellants, first reported back in October. One group wanted to forget the second limb and get their clients' convictions quashed on the uncontested first limb. The other, smaller group, wanted the right to have their conviction recognised as an Affront to the Public Conscience, the basis of the second limb of the referral.

A hearing was held at the Court of Appeal on 17 December 2020. After hearing all the arguments, the three judges, led by Lord Justice Holroyde decided that all the appellant Subpostmasters could contest their convictions on both limbs, if they wanted to. Seema Misra's case, deemed to have circumstances where the Abuse of Process may be particularly acute, will go to the front of the queue and have her case considered first when the hearings begin on 22 March 2021. Next month!

Please see the full ruling below, which was handed down on 15 January. You can also read it here on the bailii website.

R v Hamilton Court of Appea... by Nick Wallis

*****************

This website is entirely funded by donation. You can contribute any amount through the tip jar via a secure payment portal I have set up for the purpose (click here for more info or to donate).

If you are able to give £20 or more you will be added to the secret email list. This alerts you to upcoming developments on this scandal before they are made public, as well as links to articles and stories posted here on this blog or elsewhere.