BARBARA DAVIES: Postmasters' lives ruined by false fraud claims

Hundreds of postmasters’ lives were ruined by false claims of fraud… thanks to court testimony from so-called IT ‘professionals’ – but did experts know the system was rotten all along, asks BARBARA DAVIES

Seema Misra was eight weeks pregnant when she was sentenced to 15 months in jail for stealing from the Post Office branch she ran.

Protesting her innocence throughout her nine-day trial at Guildford Crown Court in 2010, the sub-postmistress from Surrey said she couldn’t explain how £74,609 had gone ‘missing’ from her West Byfleet branch.

An expert from Fujitsu, the Japanese firm which runs the Post Office’s computer system — not to mention several other key government IT systems — poured scorn on her belief that the lost sum of cash was due to a computer glitch with the system, known as Horizon.

Seema Misra (pictured) was eight weeks pregnant when she was sentenced to 15 months in jail for stealing from the Post Office branch she ran

His argument was a crucial factor in the jury’s decision to find her guilty.

Mrs Misra was one of dozens of sub-postmasters wrongly convicted of stealing from their own branches between 2003 and 2015. 

Many were sacked, jailed and given criminal records they still have today. It wasn’t until December last year that a High Court ruling finally exposed Horizon’s failings.

As the fall-out from what has been dubbed the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history continues, the Post Office announced last month that it wouldn’t stand in the way of appeals launched by wrongfully convicted sub-postmasters. 

The hearing to overturn or uphold convictions will be held in March next year.

But last week the Metropolitan Police launched a criminal investigation into claims that Fujitsu knew about IT problems as far back as 21 years ago, yet its experts failed to disclose them at trials. 

Lee Castleton, (pictured) a postmaster from Bridlington in East Yorkshire, was made bankrupt after the Post Office pursued him through the civil courts over a £25,000 shortfall in his accounts

It comes after a judge raised the possibility that there ‘may have been offences of perjury’ committed by staff at the firm. 

High Court Judge Peter Fraser suggested that some staff had been protecting Fujitsu rather than giving correct information, and questioned whether the company had been accurate in its reporting to the Post Office.

Declaring that he would be writing to the Director of Public Prosecutions, he said: ‘I have grave concerns regarding the veracity of evidence given by Fujitsu employees to other courts in previous proceedings about the known existence of bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system.’

In a letter to the DPP, which was made public this week, Mr Justice Fraser said: ‘I consider important evidence given both to the Crown Court and the High Court on previous occasions, in other cases, was not true, and was known not to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, at the time it was given.

Grandmother Anne Chambers, 63, (pictured) is a system specialist who worked in the Horizon support centre 

‘The documents… clearly show that Fujitsu knew about the existence of bugs, errors and defects in Horizon from a very early stage in the life of the system… the earliest bugs occurred and were known about in 1999.’

Given that Fujitsu holds contracts worth billions with HMRC, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions, the investigation is alarming indeed. 

The names of the two now-retired Fujitsu staff at the heart of the investigation were made public this week — Gareth Jenkins, 68, and Anne Chambers, 63.

A more seemingly upstanding pair of professionals it would be hard to find.

The Mail can reveal that Cambridge maths graduate Mr Jenkins is a church treasurer and bowls player from Bracknell in Berkshire. 

Having started working for ICL, which later became Fujitsu, straight after university, the married father-of-two was given the honorific job title of ‘distinguished engineer’ by his Japanese bosses, and was involved in the Horizon project from the start.

Grandmother Anne Chambers, meanwhile, is a system specialist who worked in the Horizon support centre. 

The names of the two now-retired Fujitsu staff at the heart of the investigation were made public this week including Gareth Jenkins, 68 (pictured) 

She is a keen hiker and she and her husband, who met at university in Wales, sold their £550,000 17th-century Oxfordshire cottage in 2016 and moved to Pembrokeshire.

The IT specialists declined to speak to the Mail this week about their involvement in the Post Office scandal, although Mrs Chambers’ husband Ian said: ‘My wife hasn’t been interviewed by the police and I don’t expect her to be.’

Speaking after the criminal investigation was announced last week, Seema Misra, now 44, told the Mail: ‘It’s been a long time, but maybe now justice will be done.’

Her 2010 trial was just one of several at which Gareth Jenkins appeared as an expert witness on behalf of the prosecution.

Anne Chambers, meanwhile, appeared at the High Court during the case of Lee Castleton, a postmaster from Bridlington in East Yorkshire. 

He was made bankrupt after the Post Office pursued him through the civil courts over a £25,000 shortfall in his accounts.

His claim that the Horizon system had caused the discrepancies was brushed aside. ‘The truth still needs to come out,’ he told the Mail this week. 

‘So many people have suffered. So many lives have been ruined.’

The roots of Fujitsu’s relationship with the Post Office stretch all the way back to 1996 and the Pathway Project — one of the then Conservative government’s early ‘private finance initiatives’, involving the Post Office and UK computer company ICL, a subsidiary of Fujitsu.

The project was unveiled by the then Social Security minister, Peter Lilley, when he announced that an automated benefits payment system would replace giro cheques with electronic smart cards, wiping out £150 million in benefits fraud.

But after three years of delays, the project was abandoned. From the wreckage came Horizon, an electronic point-of-sale system for recording transactions and keeping accounts. 

Shortly after its 1999 roll-out, however, some sub-postmasters began to notice discrepancies in their automated accounts.

 Numerous Post Office workers made multiple calls to the Horizon helpline, but still found themselves accused of fraud and embezzlement (file image)

Numerous Post Office workers made multiple calls to the Horizon helpline, but still found themselves accused of fraud and embezzlement. 

Many, like Seema Misra, used their own savings and borrowed money to plunge back into the business and make up the inexplicable shortfalls. As a result, she and others were also accused of false accounting.

More than 1,000 cases were brought by the Post Office against its sub-postmasters between the introduction of Horizon and 2014. 

Many early cases were dealt with by private prosecutions. 

Lee Castleton, who bought his Bridlington branch in 2003, was taken to court despite the fact that he had called the Horizon helpline nearly every day for three months and had spent hours going over his accounts.

At first, he used his own money to cover a £1,000 loss, but he couldn’t afford to pay the next £4,000 deficit. 

He asked to be audited, hoping that he would be taken seriously but, when a £25,000 shortfall was found, he was immediately suspended.

At the High Court in 2006, Mr Castleton was forced to represent himself as he couldn’t afford legal representation.

He argued that the losses were not real, and had been caused by the Horizon system, but because civil claims are judged on the ‘balance of probabilities’, the onus was on him to prove that something was wrong with Horizon — which he, no IT expert, had no way of doing. 

As Judge Richard Havery put it: ‘The burden of proof lies on Mr Castleton to show that the account is wrong.’

Mr Castleton was not allowed to use evidence that other sub-postmasters were also experiencing problems with Horizon as, the judge said, it would result in ‘a trial within a trial’.

Anne Chambers testified that there was ‘no evidence whatsoever of any problem with the system’ and that she was ‘unable to identify any basis upon which the Horizon system could have caused the losses’.

Judge Havery concluded: ‘I found Mrs Chambers to be a clear, knowledgeable and reliable witness, and I accept her evidence.’

Mr Castleton’s fate was sealed. Aside from financial ruin, he says he also became a social pariah. ‘People in the community thought I was a thief,’ he says. 

‘It has been terrible for my family. We lost everything.’

Later, at Seema Misra’s trial, Gareth Jenkins — described as a ‘computer boffin’ in court — gave evidence for the prosecution. 

‘There is no evidence to say that the system is corrupt,’ he said.

When he was asked by the judge: ‘Is there any question of your evidence having been influenced by the fact that you are a Fujitsu man?’, Mr Jenkins replied: ‘No. It is part of our reputation that the system is sound.’ 

The judge said: ‘Mr Jenkins expresses the view that he has seen nothing to cause him to question in general terms the robustness and reliability of the Horizon system.’

Yet a computer expert brought in by Mrs Misra’s defence team complained that Fujitsu hadn’t given him enough access to information to let him verify this. 

‘I have had no opportunity to invest some of these things under test conditions, no opportunity to review the training or to examine logs of known problems with Horizon,’ he said. 

‘I am unable to exclude system failure of a kind that could impact the accounting systems. I cannot say I have found anything but I cannot exclude it.’

Mrs Misra’s fate was sealed, too.

For years, the Post Office continued to insist its software was ‘robust’. In 2012, it appointed independent investigators, Second Sight, to examine claims of IT problems, then sacked them before they concluded the second stage of their report.

Attempts at mediation failed, forcing the wronged sub-postmasters to take civil action in 2017. 

Two years of expensive litigation led to two bombshell judgments in 2019 revealing that shortfalls in Post Office accounts could indeed have been caused by computer glitches.

The Daily Mail has repeatedly highlighted the Horizon scandal and campaigned to save village post offices, through our Save Our Local Post Offices campaign.

In December last year, after a long-running civil case ended in victory for the sub-postmasters, the Post Office agreed to pay £58 million to more than 550 claimants to settle the case out of court. 

But in his damning ruling, High Court Judge Peter Fraser said the Horizon system was not ‘remotely robust’. 

And he said that Anne Chambers and Gareth Jenkins should have both told the court of the ‘widespread impact of (at the very least) the bugs, errors and defects in Horizon that they knew about at the time that they gave their evidence’.

He continued: ‘Both these individuals expressly knew about these bugs and Mr Jenkins had prepared a report for, and been at a meeting in September 2010 when the Receipts and Payments mismatch bug was discussed. 

This records the risk that if this was ‘widely known [it] could cause a loss of confidence in the Horizon system by branches’ and that there was a ‘potential impact upon ongoing legal cases where branches are disputing the integrity of Horizon data’.

‘Yet notwithstanding this knowledge that the existence and effect of this bug was directly relevant, the existence of this bug was kept secret from the court.’

When approached by the Mail, a spokesperson for Fujitsu said: ‘We are not in a position to comment as we understand this relates to an ongoing police investigation.’

This potentially puts the Government in a very awkward position: the Post Office partnership is just one of many lucrative government contracts which have been awarded to Fujitsu over the past two decades. 

The Japanese company, founded in Tokyo in 1935 as a maker of telephone equipment, was awarded another £1 billion technology contract with the Inland Revenue in 2003 to allow taxpayers to file returns for indirect taxes, such as VAT and duties on imports, over the internet.

It was awarded an £896 million Department of Health contract in 2004 to digitise patient records but, after disagreements the contract was terminated in 2008 — at a cost of at least £2.7 billion to the taxpayer, according to the National Audit Office.

In 2015, it signed two contracts to run Ministry of Defence telecoms — one valued at £550 million and the other at nearly £1 billion. 

In 2017, the Home Office extended its £600 million 18-year Fujitsu contract, despite guidelines that government IT contracts should run for no more than seven years.

Earlier this year, the Department for Work and Pensions signed a £29 million one-year contract extension with the tech firm.

In September, a consortium of firms led by Fujitsu won a £200 million contract to implement Brexit checks on goods in the Irish Sea.

And just last month, HMRC signed a £168.8 million five-year deal with Fujitsu without putting the contract out to tender, ostensibly to ensure the smooth running of critical applications amid Brexit pressures.

Given the comments made by Mr Justice Fraser, it seems likely now that further questions will be asked about the Japanese firm.

Paul Marshall, the barrister representing some of the Post Offices victims on a pro-bono basis, gave evidence to a Parliamentary committee in July. 

Accusing the Post Office of ‘institutional mendacity of a high order’, he said: ‘There will be many other cases in which evidence has been adduced that has been derived from a computer that has been admitted on the basis of the presumption that the computer in question was working reliably, when it was not.’

The human cost of the Post Office scandal goes on. There has been at least one suicide. Others have died before they could clear their name.

Lee Castleton adds: ‘Whoever is held to account, they won’t suffer in the way we have all suffered. The cuts are still so deep.’

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