Post Office boss said subpostmasters had hands in till and blamed technology for missing cash

The Post Office’s managing director at the time Horizon system problems became public told a senior colleague that he suspected subpostmasters accused of theft were trying to blame the IT for their own actions.

Alan Cook, who was managing director of the Post Office when Computer Weekly exposed the scandal in 2009, was giving evidence today in the public inquiry.

An email shown to the inquiry revealed that, in response to the Computer Weekly article, Cook told the head of PR at then parent company Royal Mail, “My instincts tell that, during a recession, subbies with their hands in the till choose to blame technology when they are found to be short of cash.”

When that email was put to him by inquiry lawyers, Cook said: “That’s an expression I will regret for the rest of my life. It was an inappropriate thing to put in an email and not in line with my view of subpostmasters.”

During today’s hearing, Cook also claimed ignorance of the Post Office’s prosecution powers. He was repeatedly challenged over his knowledge of the organisation’s power to initiate and complete criminal prosecutions itself. He denied he knew this, claiming his interpretation was that other authorities such as the police or the Crown Prosecution Service would make final prosecution decisions.

Sam Stein, KC, representing scandal victims, accused Cook of lying about his knowledge of Post Office prosecution powers in his witness statement.

Edward Henry, KC, also representing former subpostmasters, asked Cook if he was responsible for the wrongful convictions of subpostmasters. Cook acknowledged he had accountability and that it had happened on his watch.

This is not the first time evidence has emerged of the low regard in which subpostmasters were held by Post Office executives and the lack of trust in them.

In a December 2023 hearing it was revealed that former Post Office investigator Gary Thomas referred to subpostmasters campaigning for justice as the “Justice of Thieving Subpostmasters” group and called them “crooks”.

In a hearing in October last year, the inquiry heard that auditors and investigators had preconceived notions of subpostmasters when they visited branches that reported shortfalls. Former Post Office auditor and contracts advisor Alan Lusher revealed that when problems arose in branches the first presumption was that the accounts were 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.

In May 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to the accounting software (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal below). The Horizon system was introduced in 1999/2000 to replace manual accounting practices. It was a large and complex system introduced to about 12,000 Post Office branches.

Almost immediately after Horizon’s introduction, subpostmasters began having difficulties balancing their accounts. The Post Office blamed them and when challenged by subpostmasters said the Horizon system had no errors and could not be to blame for unexplained losses. Subpostmasters were told they were the only person having such problems.

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal •

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story •


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