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:


... 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!


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