The Post Office has said that it is serious in how it is taking reports of the persecution and prosecution of subpostmasters, using data from a system that pre-dated the controversial Horizon system at the centre of the widest miscarriage of justice in modern UK history, and will investigate cases brought to it.
But the organisation is refusing to answer detailed questions about the system known as Capture, leaving uncertainty around how many subpostmasters could be affected.
MP Kevan Jones, who has campaigned for many years for justice for subpostmasters affected by Horizon errors, is looking for answers to why subpostmasters were blamed for unexplained shortfalls that occurred when using software, known as Capture, in Post Office branches in 1990s. He highlighted evidence that the Post Office knew the system was flawed, but still blamed and even prosecuted subpostmasters when auditors found unexplained accounting shortfalls.
Stories have emerged now that the Post Office Horizon scandal is in the public eye. Computer Weekly first exposed Horizon scandal in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered as a result of the Horizon system (see timeline of all articles below).
As the Horizon system and Post Office scandal is now headline news, former subpostmasters have come forward to describe the problems they experienced with the predecessor system, which had a similar impact on an unknown number of subpostmasters.
Jones said: “Since the Mr Bates vs The Post Office ITV drama aired in the first week of January, [I have] been contacted by as many people affected by Capture as by Horizon. The Post Office needs to come clean about Capture – it knew it was faulty, yet it still prosecuted people on the basis of it.”
Computer Weekly asked the Post Office to explain what the Capture system was, whether it was part of a pilot, how many branches used it, and how many subpostmasters were prosecuted based on data from capture, but received no answer to these questions. However, the Post Office did say that people affected by Capture errors should contact it.
A Post Office spokesperson said: “We take very seriously any concerns raised about cases from before the Horizon system was first rolled out in 1999. We are investigating, including specific cases brought to our attention, and will transparently publish our findings.”
Documents reveal that there was a capture development team based in a Post Office location in London, with a Branch Focus newsletter – a weekly update for subpostmasters – in September 1995 revealing that subpostmasters were experiencing problems with the software.
The Branch Focus newsletter read: “We were aware that, as a new software, there would inevitably be faults in the programme. These faults were generally considered to be of a low category and it was our plan for these to be corrected under the terms of our 90-day warranty following initial acceptance.”
Mark Baker, a recently retired subpostmaster who was the subpostmaster representative in the Communications Workers Union, said that he was aware of the Capture system, but thought it was just a pilot: “I thought it was just being used by a handful of select subpostmasters as part of a trial, and didn’t realise people were being held liable for the figures it was producing.”
Jones has written to Kevin Hollinrake, under-secretary of state at the Department for Business and Trade, demanding answers about what the Post Office knew about Capture errors and why some subpostmasters were “persecuted and prosecuted“ based on the Capture-generated data.
He wrote: “We know that the Capture software was faulty, resulting in corrupted data. We also know that the Post Office knew about these faults at the time, as it openly communicated with subpostmasters about them. However, several former subpostmasters have now come forward – including some who have spoken openly to the media to put their stories on the record – to say that despite these faults being known, they were accused of being responsible for inaccurate shortfalls.”
He said that some of the affected subpostmasters were prosecuted, others put tens of thousands of pounds of their own money aside to make their accounts balance, and many lost their livelihood and their good standing in their community after their contracts with the Post Office were ended.
“I am shocked that we are only just beginning to scrape the surface on what seems to be a second scandal involving the persecution and prosecution of subpostmasters on the basis of evidence from a computer system that was known to be faulty,” said Jones.
Steve Marston, a former subpostmaster in Bury, Lancashire, who was prosecuted in 1996 for theft and false accounting following an unexplained shortfall of nearly £80,000, said that he had never had any problems using the paper-based accounting system until his branch, which ran from 1973, began using the Capture system.
“We were pushed into using it by the Post Office in 1996,” he said, describing it as a standalone system, which required the subpostmasters to buy their own computers to run the software. He added that he felt pressured into using the system at a time when many branches were being closed by the Post Office.
“It was a choice of moving to this system or remaining with the manual system and risk closure. I had no problems for 20 years using manual accounting processes, but within 2 years of using Capture, I ran up a debt of £79,000,” said Marston.
He said that he didn’t inform the Post Office because he thought he was making mistakes and that it would correct itself. He was not experienced with computers and believed that they could not make mistakes.
“Computers had just come out and I was under the impression that computers can’t make mistakes. Every time I had a loss, I thought it must be me – that I made a mistake even though I hadn’t for over 20 years.” Marston covered the losses with his own money, but it kept getting “worse and worse”, he said.
After an audit revealed a loss which he couldn’t fully cover out of his own pocket, he was advised to plead guilty of theft and fraud to avoid jail. The judge took into account two bravery awards Marston had previously received for standing up to armed robbers, saving him a jail sentence. He received a 12-month suspended sentence, lost his home and business, and went bankrupt.
Computer Weekly first exposed the scandal in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered as a result of the Horizon system (see below a timeline of all articles since 2009.)
Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal.