The Post Office Horizon helpdesk was a toxic, rudderless and resentful environment, where racism was a daily occurrence and subpostmasters were considered incompetent or corrupt, the public inquiry into the Post Office IT scandal has heard.
Speaking at the latest hearing in the ongoing Post Office Horizon inquiry, IT consultant Amandeep Singh, who worked at ICL on the Post Office’s Horizon helpdesk in Wakefield, Yorkshire, from 2000 to 2001, revealed details about life on the other end of the telephone line that subpostmasters turned to for help with the IT system they used in branches.
Horizon was introduced in 1999 to replace mainly manual accounting practices. Originally from ICL, before its acquisition by Fujitsu, the IT system was rolled out across the Post Office branch network, but its introduction led to a sudden increase in subpostmasters reporting unexplained shortfalls in their accounts, for which they were blamed.
Hundreds were prosecuted and thousands lost huge sums of money, with many going bankrupt. Over 80 former subpostmasters have so far had wrongful convictions for fraud and theft overturned.
In 2009, Computer Weekly published an investigation into the problems experienced by seven subpostmasters who were using Horizon. The Post Office told each of them that nobody else was experiencing problems and covered up the computer errors. It is a common complaint of subpostmasters that the helpdesk did not help them investigate unexplained accounting shortfalls.
Lack of trust and training
Singh, who was on a 12-month work placement with ICL as part of his computer science degree at Huddersfield University, worked on the ICL Epson support desk initially, but this was integrated with Fujitsu’s Horizon helpdesk support desk after the Japanese supplier acquired ICL.
Singh said the helpdesk operation he was part of – made up of about eight teams of 14 people, known as squads – was rudderless, resentful, racist and undertrained to help subpostmasters, who were themselves unprepared for the Horizon system. There was also a culture of not trusting the subpostmasters, he said.
“People were having genuine software problems,” Singh told the inquiry, but spoke of “a pre-built prejudice that you can’t trust the people and that they are incompetent”.
“We were much happier to push down on the subpostmasters and say ‘it’s your issue’ than to push it upwards and ask whether there is an issue or question why we are having so many calls about this” Amandeep Singh, former ICL engineer on Horizon IT helpdesk
Asked whether this prejudice contributed to the Horizon scandal, he said: “If you have already made a judgement call [that] the people you are supporting are incompetent or corrupt in some way, it would take a lot for people to think the software has a problem. We were much happier to push down on the subpostmasters and say ‘it’s your issue’ than to push it upwards and ask whether there is an issue or question why we are having so many calls about this.”
He said part of the problem was a lack of leadership, with the helpdesk teams left to sort everything out themselves and non-existent managerial support. There was a management team, but it did nothing, he said.
“They didn’t know anything, they never touched the software. You would only go to them to ask for holidays,” said Singh. “The managers were acutely aware that the helpdesk was struggling, so they picked out people in the teams that were most capable and made them like floor walkers, team leaders, or advocates, if you like, and you would go to them with a problem. It felt like a rudderless ship.”
Toxic workplace environment
He also spoke of a toxic environment in the helpdesk team after the merger, because more senior second-line support engineers were put in the same team as the first-line support. Singh said there was resentment among engineers who had been moved.
“On top of this, they were no longer supporting customers like graphic design and media agencies, but supporting an old lady in Wales who doesn’t even know what a personal computer is. A lot of [the team] felt the role was beneath them and that toxicity just grew and grew.”
He said although the environment was toxic, he knew he was only there for a year as a student and just wanted to see it out.
Singh witnessed racism on a daily basis, with subpostmasters from Asian backgrounds being singled out for discrimination. “Many of these people we were supporting were Asian subpostmasters. Sometimes they would ring up and say they have a £2,000 or £5,000 discrepancy, or even a wild figure like £100,000, and people in the team would say, ‘I’ve got another Patel’. You would hear it constantly.” He said although he has an Asian background, nobody ever questioned the language that was being used.
Frantic and stressful
Singh was a first-line engineer between October 2000 and September 2001, in the early days of the Horizon system. He told the inquiry the teams were inundated with calls in those early days: “It was a constant stream and it used to peak on Wednesdays when subpostmasters would do their reconciliation and balance their books. The helpdesk was open longer that day because you knew it was going to be a really, really heavy day. You could be on the phone for a few hours with a subpostmaster trying to help them reconcile.”
He described the huge challenge of moving from the Epson support desk, where the people he was supporting were tech-savvy, to the Post Office Horizon helpdesk, where he might be supporting an elderly subpostmaster with little or no IT knowledge: “This was 2000. A lot of subpostmasters had worked in their branches for decades and had not even been around a personal computer. Then you were asking them to use the [Horizon] software.”
Singh said he received no training in how to deal with people with different levels of computer literacy, and some of the people he had to help did not even know what a computer mouse was. “The lack of IT knowledge brought anxiety to the subpostmasters, and to us, because we had to sometimes explain a complex transaction, knowing the subpostmaster would struggle orientating themselves around [the system],” he said.
“You had to physically build yourself up for these calls because you knew that somebody would call with a discrepancy. The subpostmasters were always quite frantic, so stressed, asking, ‘How have I got this figure? How am I going to reconcile this account?’. We would work with them for hours, and if we couldn’t resolve it, we would go to team leaders. If we couldn’t [resolve it], it would have to be written off as a discrepancy. This almost became the norm.”
He said subpostmasters were constantly paying small amounts to cover unexplained shortfalls and only called the helpline when the figures were high.
According to Singh, in the early days of the helpdesk, people were calling in about how to do transactions, but this reduced as subpostmasters quickly got used to it. “Then, nearly everything was discrepancy, discrepancy, discrepancy. [That] was what all the calls were about – people just not being able to reconcile their accounts to zero.”
He said he only received a few days’ training to see the equipment, run some dummy transactions and learn about the software. He said, during training, they probably got to do a reconciliation once, and were mainly doing routine transactions.