Post Office system not a scandal, insists ex-union boss


By Tom EspinerBBC business reporter

Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry George ThomsonPost Office Horizon IT Inquiry

The Post Office’s Horizon system is “very robust” and the only scandal is that the company failed to properly defend it, according to a man tasked with representing sub-postmasters.

George Thomson, the former leader of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters (NFSP), told a long-running inquiry: “The Horizon system is not the scandal, the Post Office stupidity on steroids handling of the situation is the scandal.”

Between 1999 and 2015, more than 900 sub-postmasters were prosecuted for offences including theft on the strength of faulty data from the Horizon IT system.

Christopher Head, a former sub-postmaster, described Mr Thomson’s views as “nothing short of abhorrent”.

David Enright, a lawyer who has represented hundreds of people in connection with the Post Office, said Mr Thomson’s “flat earther defence of the horizon computer system defies credulity”.

Mr Thomson said that the number of sub-postmasters who had been prosecuted was a “tiny percentage” of the 100,000 people who have used Horizon over 25 years.

Horizon is a software system for tasks such as accounting and stocktaking which began to be installed across Post Office branches from 1999.

Sub-postmasters complained about bugs after it falsely reported shortfalls – often for many thousands of pounds – but their concerns were dismissed.

Mr Thomson said the Post Office’s “mishandling of the situation” has been “so catastrophic” for sub-postmasters, the brand and Royal Mail group.

It means that the Post Office has “not been able to defend a robust Horizon computer system”, Mr Thomson said.

He added that the NFSP was not told of bugs in the system by the Post Office.

During questioning at the inquiry on Friday, Mr Thomson’s responses were greeted by astonishment and anger by some sub-postmasters in the room.

When asked by Julian Blake, counsel for the inquiry, why the NFSP had not defended sub-postmasters, Mr Thomson insisted that the federation had argued on their behalf but had not had the funds for a legal defence.

The NFSP has received millions of pounds in payments from the Post Office.

Mr Thomson denied that the association became “too close” to the Post Office or was “flush with cash”.

Mr Head said: “I think his evidence so far shows him for the man that he is. He has shown no remorse, no sympathy, there is absolutely no sign of any apology for his or the NFSP’s part in the scandal and the damage done in this scandal.

“The testimony so far is nothing short of abhorrent.”

The NFSP was a trade union – set up in 1897 by a group of sub-postmasters to help their profession – which was changed into a trade association a decade ago after the Post Office did not recognise the group for collective bargaining purposes.

Mr Thomson was general secretary of the NFSP between 2007 and 2018.

He said: “We worked closely with the Post Office because we both needed to have a successful franchise – that’s the reality.”

‘Very angry’

The Horizon scandal was thrown back into the spotlight by an ITV drama broadcast at the beginning of the year: Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

It followed the story of Alan Bates, a former sub-postmaster and campaigner who took the Post Office to court, and a number of sub-postmasters who were wrongly accused of stealing money or falsifying records.

He has led a 20-year campaign for justice for sub-postmasters, and was knighted this month.

Mr Thomson criticised Sir Alan and the media for “painting Horizon as not fit for purpose”.

“This viewpoint is not only factually incorrect but has damaged the brand and post offices all over the UK,” he said.

“My support for Horizon has never wavered.”

He said although bugs had been found in the software, that did not mean Horizon was not systemically robust.

He added that he was “furious” with the Post Office for taking people to court when they knew “people could access your computer”, adding that was “bizarre”.

Former sub-postmaster Nitin Pandit said the Post Ofice and the NFSP had “just one standard response: that the system is robust.”

He said himself and former colleagues “are all very angry”.

“Even today we are sitting in the inquiry and so many of us are absolutely fuming,” he said.

“NFSP were not supposed to work hand in hand with the Post Office, they were supposed to protect us,” he added. “Where were they?”

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