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Government appoints investigators to analyse Post Office Capture software used before Horizon

The government is bringing in specialist investigators to examine whether a Post Office software application in use during the 1990s – before the controversial Horizon system was introduced – may have also caused subpostmasters to have been wrongly prosecuted.

The Capture system was a PC-based application developed by the Post Office and uploaded onto a personal computer by subpostmasters to carry out their accounts. The software – referred to by some users as a “glorified spreadsheet” – was a standalone system, unlike Horizon which is a complex, networked system connected to centralised services.

Computer Weekly reported in January that subpostmasters had come forward claiming they were prosecuted because of unexplained shortfalls when using Capture, following the broadcast of the ITV drama about the Horizon scandal, Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

For example, Steve Marston, a former subpostmaster in Bury, Lancashire, was convicted in 1996 of theft and false accounting following an unexplained shortfall of nearly £80,000. He said he had never had any problems using the paper-based accounting system, only when his branch, which he ran from 1973, began using Capture.

The Department for Business and Trade (DBT) has now commissioned Kroll, a forensic investigations firm, to assess if the design, implementation and use of the Post Office Capture system could have resulted in postmasters suffering any detriment and whether the Post Office properly investigated any issues associated with the system.

Carl Cresswell, director of business resilience at DBT, has written to subpostmasters who may have been affected by Capture, asking them to talk to Kroll as part of the investigation.

“We have spoken previously about our plan to appoint an independent investigator to look into the Capture software. I am therefore pleased to let you know that we have appointed Kroll as forensic investigators,” Cresswell wrote in the letter, seen by Computer Weekly.

“Kroll has extensive experience in this field of investigations, and we are confident they will deliver a detailed report on the basis of the information available… I know that the former postmasters with whom you are in contact will also be interested in the progress of the investigation. We will discuss a communications strategy for the investigation with Kroll and come back to you, letting you know how and when we’ll update you.”

Responding to news of the investigation, Marston told Computer Weekly: “I feel that this appointment can only be seen as a positive move. We know from our own exhaustive research that many bugs were present in Capture. The Post Office’s own internal paperwork and circulars that we are in possession of show that they were well aware of such issues and that this software was totally unfit for purpose.

“It is our hope and expectations that this will progress to the next level and give us Capture victims the justice that we are seeking in a timely manner.”

Potential victims of the Capture software have so far been excluded from the government’s response to the Horizon scandal, which last week saw legislation to quash the convictions of wrongly prosecuted subpostmasters passed by Parliament as part of the “wash up” of pending laws following the announcement of the UK general election on 4 July.

More than 1,000 subpostmasters could have used the Post Office’s Capture software. A Post Office Branch Focus newsletter – which gave weekly updates for subpostmasters – revealed in September 1995 that subpostmasters were experiencing problems with the application. The newsletter read: “We were aware that, as new software, there would inevitably be faults in the program.”

Computer Weekly reported in April that the government planned to appoint an IT expert to analyse Capture in more detail.

In an earlier statement about the use of Capture, the Post Office said: “We take very seriously any concerns raised about cases from before the Horizon system was first rolled out in 1999. Our current understanding is that Capture does not appear to have been ‘networked’, but the software was used by some subpostmasters, alongside manual processes, for simplifying accounts before they were manually submitted.

“We are particularly concerned about allegations of prosecutions, and we are looking into this along with all available facts about Capture, including whether shortfalls could have been caused by faults in this software, and the potential impacts if so.

“Given the passage of time, around 30 years ago, and changes to data storage systems since the split from Royal Mail, we do not yet have a complete picture of Capture but are looking into the issue given the concerns raised.”

The Post Office Horizon 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 below timeline of all Computer Weekly articles about the Horizon scandal, since 2009). 

• 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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