Post Office investigators saw subpostmasters as ‘enemies’ – and that’s what they became

Post Office employees investigating subpostmasters over unexplained account shortfalls didn’t look into claims that the computer system was to blame, said a 2013 report to the organisation’s general council.

During the latest hearing in the Post Office Horizon scandal statutory public inquiry, former Post Office interim general counsel Chris Aujard was questioned by barrister Flora Page, representing scandal victims, about his knowledge of the practices of the organisation’s internal investigators.

The security department, headed by John Scott at the time, contained the staff responsible for investigating subpostmasters when there were unexplained accounting shortfalls. They would then make recommendations on whether to prosecute subpostmasters.

Between 2000 and 2015, more than 700 subpostmasters were convicted of crimes such as fraud and theft, based on evidence from the Horizon retail and accounting system used in branches, which in 2019 was proved in the High Court to be prone to errors. Over 100 wrongful convictions have so far been overturned and the government has introduced legislation to overturn the remainder.

Aujard was referred to an email he received in January 2014 from Ron Warmington, an independent forensic accountant, containing a draft report that criticised the activities of the security department. Susan Crichton, who was Aujard’s immediate predecessor, had asked Warmington to do the report when she took responsibility for the department, to give her a better understanding of its activities.

Read about Susan Crichton’s evidence to the public inquiry

Read a brief history of the Post Office Horizon scandal public inquiry so far

In 2012, Second Sight, where Warmington is a director, had been taken on to carry out an investigation into allegations being made about the Horizon system by subpostmasters who had been blamed for unexplained account shortfalls. The report did not follow interviews with investigators, but was based on Warmington’s extensive knowledge of cases where subpostmasters had been prosecuted after shortfalls.

The report said Post Office investigators and investigations “were overwhelmingly focused on obtaining an admission of false accounting” from subpostmasters or employees. “Investigators often appeared to have paid scant attention to the interviewee’s assertion of innocence or his/her reference to transaction anomalies. They seem to have shown little or no willingness to establish the underlying root cause of any given shortfall.”

This attitude appeared, according to the report, “to be driven by the desire to ‘get the money back’ from the subpostmaster” in the knowledge that a false accounting conviction would provide a “relatively inexpensive pathway” to that goal for the Post Office.

The overwhelming impression from reviewing the transcripts of interviews is that the subpostmaster was viewed as an enemy of the business 2013 report by Ron Warmington, Second Sight

“In none of the cases examined so far did any investigator record anything that indicated that there might be any widespread systemic problem worthy of investigation, despite similar allegations being made by different, unconnected subpostmasters,” Warmington reported.

“The overwhelming impression from reviewing the transcripts of interviews is that the subpostmaster was viewed as an enemy of the business.”

The report added that the culture in the investigating team appeared to presume subpostmasters were guilty when conducting an investigation rather than the aim of seeking the truth.

“By failing to investigate those subpostmaster assertions or even to pay proper heed to them during interviews, the investigators alienated all of them. It is that group, the subpostmasters who evidently still believe themselves not only to be innocent but also to have been cheated by the Post Office, that really have become enemies of the business,” it continued.

The Post Office scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to accounting software (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal below).

• 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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