The public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal has just completed its fourth phase, with the closing statements of barristers condensing months of hearings, often covering complex issues of law, into easily digestible statements that raise the question of serious criminality within the Post Office.
Hundreds of criminal convictions are set to be overturned en masse if unprecedented legislation gets through Parliament as planned. These relate to former subpostmasters and branch workers who were convicted based on evidence from the Post Office’s controversial Horizon computer system. They come on top of more than 100 wrongful convictions already overturned.
What is clear is something went wrong – and it was no accident. An “us and them, blinkered and win at all costs culture”, combined with the prioritisation of commercial interest and personal gain over human welfare, plus a large dose of incompetence, all within an organisation displaying the characteristics of a cult, saw Post Office investigators and lawyers pin the blame for phantom losses on subpostmasters. Tim Moloney KC, representing former subpostmasters, described this as an “obscene reversal of the presumption of innocence”.
Those accused were deemed guilty unless they could prove the computer was wrong, which, according to the Post Office’s “stock line”, was never the case, according to Moloney. Without data and an understanding of how the system works, this was “something that they could not prove or probably could not prove”, he told the inquiry when summing up the latest inquiry phase.
Post Office staff continued to pursue the tactic of blaming subpostmasters, which included intimidating them into pleading guilty to the lesser charge of false accounting rather than theft, for which there was no evidence. The goal was to recover the money that the computer system wrongly recorded as missing – a goal pursued by a team that was incentivised to do so.
Phase four of the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry has named names and forensically questioned the faces behind those names, which are now known to an eventually interested public. As Moloney said: “It is only when the tide goes out that you can see who has been swimming naked.”
Sam Stein KC, also acting for victims of the scandal, said in closing: “Phase four has pulled back the curtain on the decades of the great Post Office cook-up and cover-up. That has been made up of these four key ingredients: The disdain and dislike of subpostmasters by the Post Office and their employees because, and I quote a Post Office investigator, they are ‘all crooks’; secondly, an appalling lack of professionalism of lawyers combined with bullying investigators; thirdly, a refusal to investigate the Horizon system because of what that would reveal; and lastly, and finally, fourthly, the Post Office cult – the almighty Post Office must be protected at all costs.”
He described Post Office witnesses before the inquiry as a “rogues’ gallery” and a “parade of liars, bullies, amnesiacs and arrogant individuals”.
Phase four laid the ground for the very real prospect that former Post Office staff and those supporting the Post Office at external companies could face criminal investigation themselves – and this time it won’t be based on flimsy and inaccurate evidence, but months of rigorous investigation by the inquiry, backed up by years of the same by subpostmasters, campaigners and journalists, including this publication.
Maloney said: “At worst, [their] actions now, as perhaps just a starting point, lay some witnesses open to rigorous criminal investigation.”
Today, the nation is watching and the world is watching. Since the airing of ITV’s drama about the scandal, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, and the accompanying documentary, The Real Story, the Post Office scandal has entered the UK’s public and political discourse, even triggering unprecedented emergency legislation. But this has not stopped at the country’s shores – the world is watching too.
The rogues and their evidence
Jarnail Singh, former head of criminal law at the Post Office
Jarnail Singh worked in the Post Office’s criminal law team as a senior lawyer during a period when hundreds of subpostmasters were prosecuted for financial crimes based on evidence from the Horizon IT system. His name is widely known in the public inquiry, appearing in many documents throughout.
He was not even a qualified criminal lawyer and ran a private practice alongside his job at the Post Office, where he had risen to the top because he was the only person left after the organisation outsourced much of the work.
During the previous phase of the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, which looked at the operation of the Horizon system, evidence emerged that in 2012, Singh made celebratory comments to colleagues in an email following the successful prosecution of former subpostmaster Seema Misra, who was sent to prison after being found guilty of theft due to unexplained accounting shortfalls in her branch, despite there being no evidence against her.
He also said the victory would deter other subpostmasters from jumping on the “Horizon bashing bandwagon”. At the time, Computer Weekly’s first investigation of the Horizon system had spread the word that multiple subpostmasters were experiencing difficulties balancing their accounts with the system.
John Scott, former head of security at the Post Office
John Scott was head of security at the Post Office and is best known for his instruction to staff to shred documents that undermined the Post Office’s insistence that its computer system was robust, amid claims that errors in the system caused unexplained accounting shortfalls.
One witness in phase four of the inquiry, David Pardoe, a former security executive, said he remembered “with some clarity” Scott assuring the security team that Horizon was reliable. He said former policeman Scott drilled home “persistent sentiment” that Horizon was “fit for purpose” and that he was never in discussions about halting prosecutions because “it was clear there was a fear that doing that would immediately cast doubt” on previous prosecutions.
Mandy Talbot, former Post Office lawyer
Described by Sam Stein KC as the “Post Office’s very own evil robot”, Mandy Talbot epitomised the institutional amnesia among the witnesses during this phase. In 2006, the former Post Office lawyer was at the centre of a legal battle designed to silence subpostmaster Lee Castleton when he raised questions about the robustness of Horizon.
She was repeatedly asked by barristers in an inquiry hearing to name people who had given direction on the strategy, but again and again, she said the direction had come from “Post Office Limited” and failed to remember a single individual involved in the strategy.
Talbot had also been involved in an earlier dispute, which saw another subpostmaster, at a branch in Cleveleys, Lancashire, challenge the reliability of Horizon. This case ended in an out-of-court settlement and the subpostmaster signing a confidentiality agreement. The Post Office denied the computer system was unfit for its purpose, but a report jointly commissioned by both parties in the run-up to the court hearing raised significant questions about the system.
In his report, expert witness Jason Coyne, then of Best Practice Group, said most calls made by the subpostmaster to the helpdesk were “without doubt” related to system failures, either hardware, software or interfaces, and only 13 of the calls he looked at “could or should” have been considered as the subpostmaster requesting help or guidance.
But during a phase four hearing, Talbot, a trained lawyer, said she did not think evidence about computer problems in Coyne’s report was relevant in Castleton’s case about alleged problems with Horizon, and the Post Office’s denial of them, claiming she thought Cleveleys was an “isolated case”.
Graham Ward, former Post Office investigator
Graham Ward, who currently works for the Metropolitan Police, was a senior investigator at the Post office. Phase four of the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry revealed that he suggested altering a Fujitsu engineer’s witness statement to prove computer errors were not to blame for subpostmasters’ shortfalls.
The inquiry was shown evidence that Ward suggested Fujitsu’s Gareth Jenkins, who was acting as an expert witness in a case against a subpostmaster, should change his witness statement to remove the reference to a “system failure”. This was in relation to the prosecution of subpostmaster Noel Thomas in 2006, at a time subpostmasters were challenging the system’s integrity. In the email to Fujitsu staff, Ward wrote: “Given the allegations made by the postmasters, I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s very much in ourselves and Fujitsu’s interest to challenge the allegations and provide evidence that the system is not to blame for the losses provided.”
Thomas was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison, where he spent his 60th birthday. His wrongful dismissal conviction was overturned in 2021. He was one of the first seven subpostmasters interviewed by Computer Weekly in its 2009 investigation.
Gary Thomas, former Post Office investigator
In 2015, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) began examining claims from former subpostmasters that they had been wrongfully prosecuted by the Post Office and convicted of financial crimes. Faced with CCRC investigation, Post Office executives requested documentation from those who had investigated the prosecuted subpostmasters.
That same month, following one such request, former Post Office investigator Gary Thomas told fellow investigator Graham Ward, who he referred to as his old Gunners mate, that he was “pleased” to say he had the electronic documents relating to two cases he had worked on.
When asked why he was pleased, he replied: “Because I want to prove that there is no FFFFiiinnn [sic] ‘Case for the Justice of Thieving Subpostmasters’ and that we were the best investigators they ever had and they were all crooks!!” The email included a derogatory reference to the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), a group of former subpostmaster campaigners who proved in the High Court in 2019 that the Horizon system was flawed.
Helen Rose, former Post Office auditor
Former Post Office auditor Helen Rose was involved in a legal battle with former subpostmaster Lee Castleton, who was made bankrupt after challenging the Post Office in court after it blamed him for unexplained accounting shortfalls. Rose produced a witness statement in court that differed from her original audit report.
During the latest hearing in the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, Rose was questioned about her reports. It emerged there was an audit of Castleton’s branch in 2004 for which Rose wrote a report, but when she produced a witness statement in 2006, it only used information that supported the Post Office’s case. The Post Office auditor omitted details that were in the audit report of Castleton’s branch, which supported his claims that shortfalls were caused by computer evidence and retained details that went against him.
In the 2004 audit report, Rose wrote that Castleton was “very pleased” to see the auditors and had told her he had been in regular contact with his Post Office area manager about his concerns. He believed issues stemmed from computer errors and that none of his staff had committed theft, she wrote. This detail would have supported Castleton’s case when in court, but Rose omitted it from her witness statement, which was written two years later, and also included details suggesting he had been drinking alcohol while the audit was being carried out, which was not in the original audit report.
Rob Wilson, former head of criminal law at Royal Mail
In 2010, Rob Wilson, former head of the criminal law team at Royal Mail, warned Post Office executives of the risks associated with a plan to launch an independent inquiry into the Horizon system, amid questions over its robustness.
They ended up carrying out a one-sided internal investigation and produced a whitewash report, which only reported Horizon’s advantages.
Wilson was responsible for subpostmaster prosecutions, many of which were based on evidence from the Horizon system. But he was originally left out of the email chain regarding setting up a Horizon investigation. On being included in the 2010 email chain, Wilson reacted to the planned investigation into Horizon by stating that if there were integrity issues, an investigation was not only needed, but imperative. But he then gave a long list of reasons why the Post Office shouldn’t do it.
During a phase four hearing, inquiry barrister Jason Beer KC put it to Wilson that while his first sentence supported an investigation, his response was actually a list of reasons not to do the proposed investigation: “The rest of [the email] is a but, isn’t it?”
Wilson admitted in the inquiry that his response should have only stated the need and importance of an investigation, but in fact the email described, at length, the risks to the Post Office of investigating the Horizon system.
In his email to Post Office executives, he warned that subpostmasters would use an investigation into the Horizon system to challenge the Post Office if there were shortages in their branches, writing: “The only way they are left to challenge our evidence when they have stolen the money is to blame Horizon.” Wilson justified this line because he was angry when he wrote it and went “over the top”.
Elaine Cottam, former retail line manager at the Post Office
Elaine Cottam, former retail line manager at the Post Office, told the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry that despite having signed a witness statement to be used in court, she has no recollection of writing it. The witness statement was to be used in court by the Post Office in a legal dispute with one of the 100-plus branches she oversaw in her role.
During Cottam’s evidence in phase four of the public inquiry, it emerged that her witness statement contained an attachment of call logs of requests for support made by the subpostmaster at the branch in question. But although the witness statement said attachments contained call logs from 10 January 2000 until 30 November 2000, the call logs attached were only from 9 February to 21 June. This meant logs of helpdesk calls, some of which were made by Cottam on the subpostmaster’s behalf, which had evidence that the subpostmaster was experiencing Horizon problems, were missing. Cottam said she didn’t remember any of the witness statement and would not understand the call logs.
When inquiry barrister Jason Beer KC asked Cottam if she thought somebody wrote the witness statement for her and she signed it, she said: “If it’s about contracts and things like that, they would have drafted it for me, definitely.”
During the hearing, Cottam denied any knowledge of the case at all and told the inquiry: “I didn’t know there was a civil court [case]. The first I knew that there’d been a court case was when I got this bundle of documents.”
It also emerged that, despite being responsible for supporting more than 100 Post Office branches, she had no experience of the Horizon system. She also said she didn’t understand why she was giving evidence at the inquiry.
David Posnett, former Post Office investigator
Former Post Office investigator David Posnett and colleagues were given bonuses based on a performance score, which was partly calculated based on how much money was recovered from subpostmasters in deficit.
Posnett told phase four of the inquiry that all financial investigators had bonuses that were linked to recovering money, as did those in the Post Office security department responsible for investigating subpostmasters who had unexplained shortfalls, which often led to prosecutions.
While the Post Office was prepared to pay staff bonuses to recover money and, according to Posnett, allow a department not seen as a profit generator to contribute to the company’s bottom line, it was reluctant, due to costs, to request underlying Horizon data during investigations of subpostmasters who claimed losses were caused by the system. This information, known as audit record query (ARQ) data, could have proved the subpostmasters were not to blame for the losses, but the Post Office was reluctant to use it because it had a limit on how many requests it could make for free before Fujitsu charged.
Posnett agreed that the Post Office was reluctant to request ARQ data because it would incur a cost and that the Post Office would limit the scope of requests to save money. “If the limit was reached, we would have to pay extra. We paid for services as part of the contract, and if we went over that we got charged extra,” he said.
Posnett could not remember the amount, but when asked by counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC whether it was seen as a sum of a level that acted as a “disincentive” to seek ARQ data beyond the limit, he said this was possible.
Alan Lusher, former Post Office auditor and contracts advisor
During phase four of the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, former Post Office auditor and contracts advisor Alan Lusher revealed the preconceived notion of auditors and investigators when they visited branches with shortfalls.
He said when problems arose in branches, the first presumption was that the subpostmasters accounts were in a mess, which could be caused by a subpostmaster stealing money. “We referred colloquially to office accounts sometimes being in a muddle and sometimes as a result of a fiddle,” he told the public inquiry.
This confirmed previous details that Post Office staff had preconceived and derogatory views of the people who ran Post Office branches. During an earlier phase of the public inquiry, Jeremy Folkes, former senior tech lead at the Post Office, said investigators were so convinced that subpostmasters were cooking the books that they failed to investigate alleged IT problems.
Lusher’s evidence also revealed that the Post Office was only concerned about its own business and not the businesses or welfare of its subpostmasters. During the inquiry hearing, it emerged that when shortfalls were found that could not be explained at branches, the Post Office was more likely to suspend subpostmasters in small branches than those at large branches with high revenue streams.
Susanne Helliwell, external solicitor acting for the Post Office
During questioning in phase four of the public inquiry, Susanne Helliwell, a solicitor acting for the Post Office in the earlier Cleveleys case, admitted that the Post Office was eager to prevent publicity of the dispute and not set a precedent that could see other subpostmasters challenge the system when they suffered losses.
An email from a Fujitsu worker to a colleague in June 2004 gave an account of a conversation he had with Mandy Talbot at the Post Office, with a trial date in the Cleveleys case set. “The Post Office are still taking advice as to how best to deal with this and [Mandy Talbot’s] view/belief was that the safest way to manage this is to throw money at it and to get a confidentiality agreement signed,” he wrote, adding that the Post Office was determined to keep evidence of Horizon problems secret. “[Mandy] is not happy with the ‘expert’s’ report as she considers it to be not well balanced and wants, if possible, to keep it out of the public domain. This is unlikely to happen if it goes to court.”
Helliwell was asked whether the suppression of Coyne’s report was a “cover-up”. She said: “It wasn’t a matter of covering up because [the subostmaster] could have told anybody about the findings of the report.” But the subpostmaster at the Cleveleys branch was made to sign a non-disclosure agreement when a settlement was agreed.
John Breedon, former Post Office contract manager
John Breedon, a former Post Office contract manager, told phase four of the public inquiry that the terms of the contract he was pushing on subpostmasters was not something he would “personally want to sign”.
He said the “obligations were all on the subpostmaster” and that it “put them on the hook for doing everything”.
Jason Beer KC, barrister to the public inquiry, asked Breeden why this view was not expressed in his 16-page written evidence. He said he didn’t know but admitted, when prompted, that it was “perhaps” because he wasn’t asked directly.
A key part of the Horizon scandal was that the contract contained a clause that stated: “The subpostmaster is responsible for all losses caused through his negligence, carelessness or error and also for all losses caused by his assistants. Deficiencies due to such losses must be made good without delay.”
Unless they could prove there was some other cause, such as a bug in the Horizon system, they would have to pay.
Chrisopher Knight, current member of the Post Office security team
Christopher Knight, who joined the government-owned organisation in 1983, remains part of the Post Office’s security team.
In his 40 years at the organisation, the one-time Post Office investigator has lived through Horizon’s complete life, but in his witness statement to the inquiry he claimed that during his time in the security team, he did not recall “a subpostmaster, subpostmaster assistant or Crown Office employee attributing a shortfall to problems with Horizon” before the group litigation order (GLO).
He said: “I do not recall being aware of any robust challenges to Horizon, other than the GLO.”
This stance was obliterated during his questioning, with the inquiry shown several documents that confirm Knight knew about subpostmaster challenges to Horizon when he was a Post Office investigator. He was shown a spreadsheet from 2011, which he had access to, that contained details of at least 20 cases where subpostmasters under investigation were raising issues with Horizon.
Knight was asked whether he accepted that at the time this email was sent he was aware that there were at least 20 cases where Horizon integrity had come into question. He said: “I would have to say yes, but I don’t know if at the time I comprehended that.”