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UK Post Office admits false accusations after computer system cockup

Bleak Horizon led to jail time for some

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The Post Office has admitted that it may have wrongly prosecuted sub–post office officials after its computer payment system overcharged some branches.

The Horizon system handles all payment processing with the Post Office's 11,500 contractors who run sub–post offices throughout the country. Over 100 have registered complaints after being accused of cooking the books by the errant payment system. Some have been jailed and others have lost their homes and businesses.

Former postmistress Jo Hamilton told the BBC that in her case the system started to malfunction in 2005 when it came up £2,000 short at the end of one week. After calling the help desk, she was told this sum had doubled.

"They then said I had to pay them the £4,000 because that's what my contract says – that I would make good any losses. Then while I was repaying that it jumped up to £9,000," she said.

By the time the phantom debt reached £36,000, she lied and said the books were balanced just so that she could continue to operate the business. She was found out, pleaded guilty to false accounting, and has been paying back the sum ever since.

"We want justice for what has been awful. Some people have gone to prison," she said. "One gentleman had worked for the Royal Mail for 40 years and he ends up spending his 60th birthday in prison – you don't suddenly turn into a criminal at that age."

Nothing to see here

Faced with the mounting numbers of complaints, the Post Office hired investigative company Second Sight to test the veracity of the issues raised by the contractors. It found bugs in the system that had led to overbilling of 76 contractors, but said there was no systemic problem with the Horizon payment system.

It also found that contractors had received little or no support from the Post Office in investigation claims of computer-system failure. The Post Office has now reimbursed some of its contractors.

Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells said, "We commissioned this independent review to address concerns that have been raised about the Horizon system and we welcome the broad thrust of the interim findings. The interim review makes clear that the Horizon computer system and its supporting processes function effectively across our network. The review underlines our cause for confidence in the overall system."

She said the organization would make "further improvements in this area and take better account of individual requirements and circumstances going forward". ®

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