Post Office IT boss has not raised concerns about false Horizon statements | Computerweekly

A former Post Office IT boss had the opportunity to avoid misleading the public about software bugs, but agreed to false public statements that conflicted with her professional opinion.

During the latest public investigative hearing into the Post Office Horizon scandal, former Post Office Chief Information Officer (CIO) Lesley Sewell revealed that she also felt she was being pushed out by management from late 2014, before joining 2015 left after a five-year period.

Although the Post Office had been aware of software errors since 2006, whenever there were doubts about the reliability of the Horizon system, it repeated a public statement that Horizon was free of errors.

The statement said: “Horizon is an extremely robust system that works across our entire post office network and successfully records millions of transactions every day. There is no evidence to suggest a flaw in the technology. We would always investigate and investigate any issues raised by sub-postmasters.

This was the organisation’s standard response until May 2013, in the run-up to the publication of an independent report by forensic accountants Second Sight, which allegedly revealed bugs in the Horizon software.

Sewell, who joined the Post Office in 2010 and served as CIO from 2012 to 2015, agreed with investigative attorney Emma Price that people within the organization knew about bugs as early as 2006, and that they learned of a bug on the post as early as 2011. height was. asked by Price: “How can it be that the Post Office’s public position until May 2013 was that there are no bugs in Horizon?”

Sewell responded: “I don’t know the answer to that because from my perspective as an IT professional I would never say that there are no bugs in any system, because you do have bugs in computer systems and how you deal with them is important. .”

Amended public statement

During the hearing, an email sent by Post Office secretary Alwen Lyons in May 2013 to senior managers including chief executive Paula Vennells, general counsel Susan Crichton and communications director Mark Davies, revealed that the Post Office had suddenly changed its public statement.

The email described the Post Office’s move from a statement saying, “There are no bugs in Horizon” to a statement saying, “There are known bugs in any computer system of this size and… they are being found and corrected , and no sub-postmaster shall be prejudiced thereby.”

Sewell said: “When I read this email, I couldn’t understand it.”

She said she also disagreed with the Post Office’s strategy of referring to software bugs as “exceptions” or “anomalies” in reports on the Horizon system, but that she went along with it because it was a direction.

“I just thought it was crazy,” Sewell said. “I really didn’t understand the concern about using the word ‘bug’ or ‘error’ because that’s what it was.”

Minimize bug severity

She agreed that it appears management wants to minimize the severity of the bugs through language. “They were bugs and I wouldn’t consider them anomalies, but it changed the way we had to communicate about bugs,” Sewell said.

The hearing heard that towards the end of her time there she felt left out of the organization and burst into tears when asked about a period she described as ‘very difficult’ for her.

Sewell cried several times during the hearing and said, “I feel so sorry for the subpostmasters.”

In her witness statement at the public inquiry, she wrote that she blocked Vennells after the former CEO contacted her several times in 2021 to request information. “Paula contacted me a total of four times,” Sewell says. “I remember blocking her number after the last phone call because I didn’t like her contacting me. I had no access to POL papers and relied solely on my memory.

Sewell joined the Post Office in April 2010 from Northern Rock, where she had been General Manager of IT since 2005. On her arrival, she said the Post Office IT team was very small and reliant on Royal Mail Group IT; there was no IT risk register; and there were concerns within the legal team about the Horizon contract with Fujitsu, which had not been tendered.

The Post Office Horizon scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven sub-postmasters and the problems they suffered as a result of accounting software (see below for the timeline of Computer Weekly articles on the scandal, since 2009).

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal •

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates versus the Post Office: The Real Story

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