As a project to replace the Post Office’s controversial core computer system by 2025 progresses, a statutory public inquiry has been told of a failed attempt to replace the software 10 years earlier.
A plan to replace the Horizon retail and accounting system, which is at the centre of a national scandal, with software from IBM was ditched due to concerns over cost and how long it would take to deliver.
The Post Office announced last year that it is currently working on a project to replace the Horizon retail and accounting system from Fujitsu with “simpler, faster and more intuitive” software.
This is not the first time the Post Office has tried to replace Horizon, which was proved in the High Court to be error prone.
In June 2015, speaking in Parliament, MP Andrew Bridgen revealed that the Post Office was looking to replace the Horizon system retail and accounting system, used in thousands of Post Office branches across the country, with technology from IBM.
Horizon was introduced in 1999 to replace mainly manual accounting practices. Originally from ICL, which was acquired by Fujitsu in 2002, it was rolled out across the Post Office branch network from 1999. But its introduction led to a sudden increase in subpostmasters reporting unexplained shortfalls in their accounts, for which they were blamed. The Post Office told each of them that nobody else was experiencing problems and covered up the computer errors.
This led to what is known as the Post Office Horizon scandal, which saw many lives destroyed and one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009).
Bridgen was one of a small group of MPs campaigning for affected subpostmasters, some of which were prosecuted for fraud and theft and sent to prison.
Details of the plan to replace Horizon was significant at the time, because the Post Office was denying the system had any problems. Speaking at an adjournment motion in the House of Commons in 2015, Bridgen said: “Despite the Post Office claiming the Horizon system is 100% reliable, I have an email in my possession proving that the Post Office is now urgently seeking a replacement software system from IBM. It would appear to me that it is sunset for the Horizon system indeed.”
At the time, the Post Office said this was nothing new as various contracts were coming to end.
But this week, eight years later, in the statutory public inquiry into the Horizon scandal, it was revealed that work with IBM had actually begun.
Gary Blackburn, former team lead at Post Office NBSC, was working on the project with IBM.
Asked by barrister Flora Page why the Post Office planned to replace Horizon, he said: “I think [Horizon was] just old technology, and it was time to move on to something that was quicker to develop, easier to develop, so that new products could be brought on more easily.”
Unaware of other suppliers
Blackburn told the public inquiry that he was unaware of any other suppliers being considered. “I wasn’t party to those sort of contractual discussions,” he said. “I don’t remember anybody talking to me about what the options were and whether there were other alternatives that we’d looked at.”
He said the project was cancelled over cost and project delivery concerns. “I did hear suggestions that there were concerns over cost and there were concerns over whether it would be deliverable to the timescales we needed it to be.”
Blackburn added: “I think this was not just a simple changeover, like Horizon Online, where we were introducing new software; it was hardware, datacentre and the front office as well, so it was considerable challenge.”
In April 2021, the Post Office announced that it was finally preparing for the end of the Horizon agreement with Fujitsu by 2025, when it added an extra year to support its transition to a new system.
The Post Office was not available for an update when contacted.