The Metropolitan Police is investigating the Post Office for fraud related to money taken from wrongly prosecuted subpostmasters, nearly four years after the force began investigating possible crimes of perjury committed by former Fujitsu staff.
As revealed by Computer Weekly in April 2020, the Met Police began investigating whether tech executives at Fujitsu, which supplied the Post Office’s Horizon retail and accounting system, committed perjury during prosecutions of subpostmasters. In November that same year the Met opened a full investigation, which is ongoing. (see below for more details).
This second investigation into potential crimes is focused on the Post Office strategy of recovering phantom losses from prosecuted subpostmasters. Between 2000 and 2015 there were 736 prosecutions of subpostmasters by the Post Office over unexplained shortfalls, for crimes including theft and false accounting. The Post Office forced subpostmasters to pay for the shortfalls, despite there being no evidence of cash actually being stolen, only the shortfalls incorrectly recorded by the Horizon system.
The Metropolitan Police told The Times it is “investigating potential fraud offences arising out of these prosecutions” which included “monies recovered from subpostmasters as a result of prosecutions or civil actions.”
The Post Office rolled out the Horizon retail and accounting software from Fujitsu in 1999, to automate accounting in 14,000 Post Office branches. Subpostmasters, who until then used manual paper-based accounting methods, began to have problems balancing their accounts.
Their contract with the Post Office, which was later described as oppressive by a High Court judge, did not change in line with the new technology. It made them responsible for making all shortfalls good, unless they could prove it was not their fault. Many suspected the Horizon system was to blame, but each was told they were the only one having problems.
Hundreds were sent to prison and many received other criminal punishments, with thousands affected by the Horizon problems. Those convicted have lived with criminal records and all the difficulties that go with that. Nearly 100 of those prosecuted have so far had convictions overturned in what is often described as the widest miscarriage of justice in UK history.
While not all victims were prosecuted, thousands were made to pay back money after shortfalls appeared in their accounts on Horizon.
The Horizon system was proved to be error prone during a High Court legal battle that began in 2018. A group of 555 members of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, sued the Post Office to prove that errors in the Horizon system were causing unexplained accounting discrepancies. The judge in the High Court case, Peter Fraser, described the Post Office’s claims that the Horizon system was bug free as “the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat.”
Computer Weekly exposed the scandal in 2009 with an investigation into problems being experienced by seven subpostmasters including Alan Bates and Noel Thomas in North Wales, Lee Castleton in Bridlington and Jo Hamilton in Hampshire. All four featured in the recent ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office.
Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal