The Post Office’s IT helpdesk was instructing Fujitsu, the maker of faulty accounting software, to change sub-postmaster accounts more than a decade ago, according to leaked recordings.

Two secret audio recordings with Post Office officials, obtained by Sky News, demonstrate how much the government-owned company knew about flaws with the Horizon IT programme, used by sub-postmasters to record branch transactions.

Hundreds were prosecuted for theft and false accounting and many more borrowed large amounts, lost homes, and moved from their areas after incorrect shortfalls were generated by Horizon.

Forensic accountants Second Sight was examining issues with Horizon in 2013, two years before the Post Office stopped using the software data to prosecute sub-postmasters.

‘Fujitsu tells Post Office: We will change the balances’

Those forensic accountants uncovered emails from the Post Office to Fujitsu, they said in leaked calls in May 2013.

Ian Henderson of Second Sight said: “What we’re seeing from the emails is [Fujitsu] were getting instructions, in effect, directly from the helpdesk saying, ‘Look, we need this fixed. You know, can you work your magic?’ and the responses are going back, ‘Yeah, it will be done in the overnight run tonight. We will change the balances or whatever’.”

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On that call were the Post Office’s chief lawyer Susan Crichton and company secretary Alwen Lyons, as well as another Second Sight forensic accountant Ron Warmington.

Specific dates, times and places Fujitsu made ‘corrections’

At that time, Second Sight had already found specific dates, times, and branches where Fujitsu made “corrections” or “adjustments” to sub-postmaster accounts, Mr Henderson told a Post Office IT staff member on a separate tape.

“We have identified some very specific dates and times and, indeed, branches where this capability [to alter accounts] is alleged to have been used,” he said.

File pic: PA

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Concerns over an alleged Post Office testing facility at Fujitsu were raised by Post Office chief lawyer Susan Crichton in her recorded conversation with Second Sight. “Maybe, you know, it is the case that that exists,” she said.

Mr Henderson of Second Sight wanted the focus to remain on the Post Office.

“Well, remember it was [Post Office Limited] employees. They just happened to be located in a Fujitsu building. I don’t think we can sort of pass the blame on to Fujitsu,” he said.

A ‘difficult few years’ ahead

Fujitsu was being updated on Second Sight’s findings and was “getting nervous about the whole thing”, Mr Henderson said. “I am picking up some vibes along those lines.”

Ms Crichton said in response that this information should be included in an email from Second Sight to Post Office officials.

She was bracing for a tough time with Fujitsu. “We have got a difficult few years with them, I think.”

Post Office delays that slowed the investigation

Second Sight was already facing difficulties in its investigation due, in part, to delays at the Post Office.

Some Horizon data was “thin on the ground”, Second Sight forensic accountant Ron Warmington said, which meant it couldn’t complete inquiries into instances where sub-postmasters said Horizon didn’t work properly.

Mr Warmington said: “We have documented what the sub-postmaster says – asserts, and validated as best we can without looking at the Horizon data, and submitted it, but that we haven’t yet got a response from Post Office Limited and/or we haven’t got the underlying data yet to validate or refute the assertion.”

Replies from the Post Office sometimes took six weeks, Mr Henderson of Second Sight told Post Office chief lawyer Ms Crichton.

“Also, frankly, we could be a lot more aggressive in terms of bringing to your attention delays in the system when we’ve
bashed something out and it takes six weeks for a substantive reply to come back.”

“Yeah, you need to be shouting to me,” Ms Crichton said.

Second Sight’s contract was eventually terminated by the Post Office in 2015 before their work could be completed.

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Fresh questions for Post Office

New pressure on Paula Vennells

The tapes also show the extent of Paula Vennells, the Post Office’s former chief executive’s knowledge of Horizon’s failings, six years before the organisation acknowledged wrongdoing in 2019 and apologised as part of sub-postmaster victims’ successful High Court challenge.

Officials said on the tapes they were updating Ms Vennells. “The way that I’ve tried to brief Paula is as soon as I have evidence that, you know, there is a problem she knows about it the next minute”, company secretary Alwen Lyons said.

Post Office CEO Paula Vennells, in 2018
Paula Vennells in 2018. Pic: Rex

Two years on from the date of the tape calls, Ms Vennells told the MPs of the Business and Trade Committee that remote access to Horizon was not possible. Such denials were used in the court case against sub-postmasters.

Today that committee said all options are on the table, including holding Ms Vennells in contempt of parliament.

“We are deeply concerned by the latest revelations regarding the Post Office and will be exploring options for penalising the leadership that presided over the scandal,” Business and Trade Committee Liam Byrne said.

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In response to Sky News’s reporting, Ms Vennells said: “I continue to support and focus on co-operating with the inquiry and expect to be giving evidence in the coming months.

“I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the sub-postmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system.

“I now intend to continue to focus on assisting the inquiry and will not make any further public comment until it has concluded.”

A Post Office spokesperson said: “We remain fully focused on getting to the truth of what happened and supporting the statutory Public Inquiry, which is chaired by a judge with the power to question witnesses under oath, and is therefore best placed to achieve this.”

Fujitsu said it does not wish to comment.

Alwen Lyons and Susan Crichton did not respond to requests for comment.

Additional reporting by Emily Jennings, business producer.