Eleanor Shaikh on the evidence by John Roberts to the Post Office Inquiry

This article was written by Eleanor Shaikh who has campaigned tirelessly over the years on behalf of the victims of the Post Office scandal. Eleanor has been highly effective in unearthing documents that have revealed the extent of incompetence and malpractice at the Post Office and in its dealings with the government and Fujitsu.

Eleanor wanted to respond to the evidence provided to the Post Office Inquiry by John Roberts, Chief Executive of the Post Office Group, consisting of Royal Mail, Parcelforce and Post Office Counters from 1995 until 2002 when he retired. He was therefore closely involved in the Board decision to implement Horizon. Roberts provided a written witness statement and gave evidence to the Inquiry on October 20 2022.

Eleanor writes…

In evidence to the Inquiry former Post Office Chief Executive, John Roberts, fudged over facts in his account of the signing of the ICL Pathway Horizon contract in a way which was both inaccurate and misleading.

As in his witness statement, Roberts argued that in July 1999, the Post Office Board was not refusing to sign the Horizon contract. He maintained that it had already approved Her Majesty’s Government’s (HMG) deal with ICL of May 1999 and therefore had no need to re-approve a commitment to Horizon which it had effectively already made. But this is not consistent with PO Board minutes of 20 July 1999 which expressly stated:

“Implication on the Post Office of the 24 May 1999 Horizon Agreement…

(ii) The Board had to decide by 31 July 1999 whether it wanted to terminate or sign the revised contract with ICL for the automation of post offices…

(xii) Members were concerned that a number of technical issues remained unresolved and that the BA (Benefits Agency) contract position was still unclear. These were two critical issues and needed to be progressed before the Board would be content for the contract with ICL to be signed.”

Contrary to Roberts’ interpretation of events, at this critical juncture the Board was indeed refusing to sign the Horizon contract. Earlier in May it had merely approved preliminary Heads of Agreement with ICL, pending detailed codification into a formal contract which needed Board approval by 31 July 1999. This window allowed its members the opportunity to satisfy themselves that the reconfigured Horizon was fully fit for purpose, that it suited the Post Office’s business requirements and that contractual terms were acceptable both to the corporation and to HMG.

Board minutes of 20 July 1999 are unequivocal: collectively the Board recognised that the reconfigured Horizon had not achieved acceptance conditions due to a number of high and medium severity incidents.

Regarding these incidents, Roberts fudged around the facts arguing that there was no agreed definition of an ‘incident’ between the Post Office and ICL. But the thresholds for Acceptance of incidents were laid out clearly in the section of the July Board minutes where the “Implication on the Post Office of the 24 May 1999 Horizon Agreement” was discussed:

“(v) System roll-out was scheduled for 23 August 1999 with acceptance needed by 18 August. There were three categories of acceptance each with a threshold which would determine whether or not rollout could proceed: high, medium and low.

One incident within the high category, or more than twenty incidents within the medium category, would result in the system not being accepted. Currently there were 270 incidents of which 1 was high and 29 were medium.”

In software development and testing circles a high severity defect, or incident, means that the system is not working. Medium severity means that parts of the system are not working properly, but there is a workaround. On any professionally run project these classifications are carefully defined and acceptable thresholds are agreed so that senior management can take decisions about implementation without having to delve into the technical details of individual problems.

The Board had held awayday discussions only the previous day at which it had considered the Horizon contract in detail. If there were no precise and mutually agreed definitions of each category of incident in Horizon’s Acceptance Specifications the programme was not managed properly. The Board would have been in no position to grasp the implications of incidents for Acceptance, and should surely have realised they could not take any responsible decision about implementation.

In response to further questioning, Roberts argued, remarkably, that all visible problems with Horizon at this time were understood by the Post Office Board to be issues of training rather than of faults in the system itself (echoing the position of his witness statement in which he said that “Accounting integrity was seen as a training issue”).

This is not consistent with Board minutes and papers which make repeated reference to Horizon’s system instability and accounting integrity problems as distinct from training issues. Roberts’ own Chief Executive report to the Board of September 1999 differentiated such incidents stating:

“(v) Progress on training had gone well and the incident had now been downgraded to medium priority. However, system stability and accounting was still being analysed and rectification was not expected before December.”

Minutes of the 20 July Post Office Board meeting also recorded:

“(iv) Ministers were meeting on 21 July to discuss Horizon and it would be important to ensure that the Post Office’s Minister, Ian McCartney was fully aware of the Board’s concerns. This would be communicated through a letter from the Chief Executive.”

What were the concerns which the Board so urgently needed to communicate in this letter? Did Ministers ever receive it and if so, what was their response? The Postal Minister was also due to meet John Roberts on 21 July. This was the point of no return, the moment Ministers were committing £480m of government funds to Horizon. Were they aware that the PO Board collectively was now refusing to sign Horizon‘s contract on account of unresolved technical issues?

The Post Office’s Horizon was a recycled remnant of a deeply flawed parent project. Its provenance of failure was well-known to its Board, to Ministers, to the BIS Select Committee and to Fujitsu. This knowledge should have placed all parties on high alert for any indications of system instability after the reconfiguration of May 1999. Yet inconvenient truths continued to surface, by August 1999 the number of high level Acceptance incidents was rising not falling.

Between the convoluted lines of Roberts’ evidence to the Inquiry, the twisted, blameless, corporate mindset of the Post Office gradually emerged. By Roberts’ own admission at the Post Office Inquiry, the May 1999 Horizon deal was decided by the Secretary of State for Industry:

“We were faced with having to take a decision within 48 hours of an ultimatum set by ICL, Fujitsu’s chairman, that he had to have a decision by that time, were we going to agree to something which would create new heads of agreement or not? The proposal from the Secretary of State for Industry Stephen Byers was very clear and it said ‘We are prepared to do this, we’re not prepared to do anything else’. He didn’t use those words but that, effectively, was what it was…

If we had decided to say we weren’t going to do it… then I think two things would have happened. We’d have all been into legal situations. I’m sure that ICL would have been suing for the money that it believed it had lost. We were with government, talking about who paid. So that was quite a big issue. But the biggest one of all was getting something that we could work with to actually then try and continue to automate Counters.

…basically we were put at the end of a gun and it was a yes/no choice and, in the end, we said yes but I don’t think we said yes with a great deal of enthusiasm.

As a board, we were fair heavily hacked off about the way that this had been handled but it was a business decision…

The chairman of the Post Office had said he was very unhappy about the way this had been dealt with and he did want to have a meeting with the Secretary of State soon after to sort out how all that went…

This was a business issue. It was a government/business decision.”

Roberts fudged over the contractual signing debacle and the telling Acceptance incidents in an attempt to deflect from the unavoidable truth that PO was bound by determination of the Government, and by its own desperation for automation, to purchase Horizon regardless of whether its Board considered the system fully fit for purpose or not. The Post Office’s only choice thereafter was to construct its perverse parallel universe centred around Horizon’s mythical robustness.

Unsurprisingly, Roberts’ evidence betrayed a chilling lack of recognition for the devastating consequences for SPMs who became trapped in this punishing parallel world.