Horizon (IT system)

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Horizon is the name for a computer system used by part of the United Kingdom's postal service, Post Office Ltd. It has come under criticism since at least 2013 for errors in the system which, according to press reports, may have caused the loss of dozens of jobs, unnecessary prison sentences, bankruptcies and one documented suicide, and maybe some more to come.[1] The system in 2013 was being used by at least 11,500 branches, and was processing some six million transactions every day.[2]

Purpose and design[edit]

The system cost £1 billion, and was designed by ICL/Fujitsu Services.[3][4] According to Post Office Ltd, the name Horizon encompasses:

  • the software, both bespoke and software packages[5]
  • the computer hardware and communications equipment installed in branch and the central data centres[5]
  • the software used to control and monitor the systems[5]
  • the testing and training systems[5]

The system was originally introduced in 1995, on a pilot basis in a small number of post offices, alongside a joint work programme between (i) the Department of Social Security's Benefits Agency and (ii) Post Office Counters Ltd. The objective of this programme (known as the BA/POCL Programme) was to provide an automated system for making benefits payments through post offices, and thereby, minimise associated fraud.

In October 1995 at the Conservative Party conference, the then social security minister Peter Lilley brandished a smartcard as the intended fraud-busting replacement for the benefit book, declaring that with the Benefits Agency and ICL, Post Office Counters Ltd would install smartcard reading terminals at every branch, through a private finance initiative (PFI) to be delivered under a commercial contract. Although smartcards were one of the technical options under consideration at that time for delivering the full system, a final choice of technologies had not yet been made.

Following a lengthy competitive procurement exercise which had begun in late 1994, the contract for further development and full implementation in all post offices was awarded in May 1996 to ICL's Pathway division, which had been created specifically for the purpose.[6] ICL later became part of Fujitsu.

In 1999, four years after the original pilot scheme began, and £700m of taxpayers' money later, the by now Labour government stopped the scheme in its tracks. The Department of Social Security withdrew from the deal, leaving ICL/Fujitsu to run the system. ICL has since criticised the PFI payment criteria: the Fujitsu-owned firm would have been paid partly on how many customers post offices attracted. "Looking back, I think it was over-ambitious," said Stuart Sweetman in 2001, as the then group managing director of customer and banking services for Consignia, the then-current name for Post Office Counters Ltd. "You can't export all the risk to a supplier."

Problems[edit]

Initial Post Office Ltd investigation[edit]

An initial investigation failed, at first, to find the cause of the problems. As a result, an independent investigative firm Second Sight were brought in to conduct a separate, independent inquiry.[2]

Second Sight report[edit]

In July 2013, Post Office Ltd admitted (after an interim review by Second Sight), that software defects with Horizon had indeed occurred, but that the system was effective.[2] The review discovered problems in 2011 and 2012, when Post Office Ltd discovered defects which had caused a shortfall of up to £9,000 at 76 Post Office branches.[2] However, more than 150 sub-postmasters continued to raise issues with the system, which they claimed had, by error, put them in debt by tens of thousands of pounds, and that in some cases they lost their contracts or went to prison.[2][7]

The report – which is confidential – was leaked to the BBC in September 2014, and described the Horizon system as, in some cases, "not fit for purpose".[7][8] The system had, according to the report, not been tracking money from lottery terminals, tax disc sales or cash machines – and the initial Post Office Ltd investigation had not looked for the cause of the errors, instead accusing the sub-postmasters of theft.[7] The BBC's article on the report also said that training on the system was not good enough, that "equipment was outdated", and that "power cuts and communication problems made things worse".[7] The lead investigator for Second Sight claimed that there were about 12,000 communication failures every year, with software defects at 76 branches and old and unreliable hardware.[3]

Post Office Ltd then went into mediation with the affected sub-postmasters.[7] By December, however, MPs had criticised Post Office Ltd for how it handled the sub-postmasters claims, and 140 of those affected had withdrawn their support for the Post Office-run mediation scheme.[9] 144 MPs had been contacted by sub-postmasters about the issue, and James Arbuthnot, the lead MP, accused the organisation of rejecting 90% of applications for mediation.[9] Post Office Ltd said that the claims by Mr Arbuthnot were "regrettable and surprising".[9] Arbuthnot further claimed that Post Office Ltd had been "duplicitous", and said that

"I do not want to build up hopes that the other methods are going to be more successful than the current ones, so I will not be specific – but it will involve legal and political campaigns,"[4]

In February 2015, Computer World UK, a UK trade magazine for IT managers, reported that Post Office Ltd were obstructing the investigation by refusing to hand over key files to Second Sight.[3] Post Office Ltd claimed in a Select committee hearing that they "have been working with Second Sight over the last few weeks on what we agreed at the outset. We have been providing the information.", but the lead investigator for Second Sight, when asked by Adrian Bailey if this were the case, said "No, it is not.", as he had not been given access to prosecution files, which he needed to back up his suspicions that Post Office Ltd had brought cases against sub-postmasters with "inadequate investigation and inadequate evidence".[3] He said that these files were still outstanding eighteen months after they had been requested.[4]

Investigation cancelled[edit]

In March 2015, Private Eye and other sources reported the news that Post Office Ltd had ordered Second Sight to end their investigation just one day before the report was due to be published, and to destroy all the paperwork which they had not handed over.[1][4] They then scrapped the independent committee set up to oversee the investigation, as well as the mediation scheme for sub-postmasters, and published a report which cleared themselves of any wrongdoing.[1]

Of the 136 cases, 56 had been closed, and Post Office Ltd would put the rest forward for "mediation" unless a court ruling prevented them from doing so.[4] After ending the inquiry, Post Office Ltd said that there were no widescale problems, and that

"This has been an exhaustive and informative process which has confirmed that there are no system-wide problems with our computer system and associated processes. We will now look to resolve the final outstanding cases as quickly as possible."[4][10]

Individual cases[edit]

  • According to the BBC, Jo Hamilton, from South Warnborough in Hampshire, claims she lost £36,000 as a result of the errors and pleaded guilty to false accounting after trying to hide the resulting incorrect deficit.[2] She was originally charged with theft, but was told that if she repaid the money and pled guilty to 14 counts of false accounting, she would be less likely to go to prison.[9] At the time, she was told that she was the only person who had had these problems.[9] She pleaded guilty, and, under the terms of her contract, she paid her wages for the next ten months to Post Office Ltd, and had to re-mortgage her house to pay the money.[9]
  • According to Ms Hamilton,a man who had worked for the Royal Mail for 40 years spent his 60th birthday in prison as a result of the errors.[2][7]
  • According to the BBC, Sarah Burgess Boyd from Newcastle upon Tyne, said she lost her life savings in repaying an incorrect shortfall.[7]
  • Rubina Nami was jailed for 12 months in 2010 for false accounting of £43,000.[11] She fell behind on mortgage payments and in February 2013 bailiffs seized their home and changed the locks.[11] They slept in their van for six weeks before being given a one-bed housing association flat by the local council.[11]
  • According to Private Eye, there has been one documented suicide.[1]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d "How to suppress a scandal, Pt 94". Private Eye. Retrieved 29 September 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Prodger, Matt (8 July 2013). "Bug found in Post Office row computer system". BBC News. Retrieved 29 March 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d Jee, Charlotte (3 February 2015). "Post Office obstructing Horizon probe, investigator claims". Computerworld UK. Computerworld UK. Retrieved 29 March 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Flinders, Karl (11 March 2015). "Post Office ends working group for IT system investigation day before potentially damaging report". Computer Weekly. Retrieved 29 March 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d "Post Office Limited Horizon System". WhatDoTheyKnow. 31 May 2011. Retrieved 29 March 2015.
  6. ^ "Pathway and the Post Office: the lessons learned". Computer Weekly. Retrieved 29 March 2015.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g "Post Office IT system criticised in report". BBC News. 9 September 2014. Retrieved 29 March 2015.
  8. ^ Nguyen, Anh (10 September 2014). "Some Post Office Horizon IT was 'unfit for purpose', investigators say". Computerworld UK. Computerworld UK. Retrieved 29 March 2015.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Prodger, Matt (9 December 2014). "MPs attack Post Office sub-postmaster mediation scheme". BBC News. Retrieved 29 September 2015.
  10. ^ "IT system working, says Post Office". Express & Star. 10 March 2015. Retrieved 29 March 2015.
  11. ^ a b c Plimmer, Gill; Bounds, Andrew (12 December 2015). "Dream turns to nightmare for post office couple in fraud ordeal". Financial Times. Retrieved 29 March 2015.

External links[edit]

  • Post Office Mediation, Parliament.co.uk
  • Second Sight, the investigators
  • Electronic Evidence, a book edited by Stephen Mason and Daniel Seng entitled Electronic Evidence now in the 4th edition and open source where chapter 6 illustrates in common law countries, computers as assumed to be reliable