Controversial Post Office Capture software was completely rewritten in 1994

More details of problems with a pre-Horizon accounting system used by subpostmasters emerges, despite the Post Office’s failure to respond to demands for answers.

There have been question marks over the reliability of the software, known as Capture, and a letter from 1994 reveals the controversial software was “completely” rewritten two years after its launch, after feedback from users.

Since the airing of ITV’s drama about the long-running Post Office Horizon scandal, former subpostmasters have come forward who had suffered similar problems with Capture, which pre-dated the controversial Horizon system.

As with Horizon, the Post Office prosecuted and demanded money from some subpostmasters who had unexplained shortfalls on the Capture system, despite the subpostmasters not understanding what had gone wrong, being of good character, and having had no problems under the previous pen and paper accounting methods.

Capture was standalone software that subpostmasters would download to a PC to complete their accounts, unlike the highly complex networked Horizon system which automated accounting across the entire branch network and connected branches to a central system. Described as a “glorified spreadsheet”, it was potentially used in thousands of branches.

It was introduced in 1992, but was completely rewritten it in 1994 following a “significant investment”, according to an August 1994 letter, seen by Computer Weekly. In the letter, from a Tom Coleman, the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP) account manager at the Post Office Agency Development Centre at the time, a rewrite of the software was revealed – which suggests the system was seriously problematic – to NFSP assistant general secretary Kevin Davis.

Post Office Capture
Post Office-branded Capture software launch button

“Just to let you know that, after extensive research amongst subpostmasters, we are making a significant investment in a complete rewrite of the Capture software,” wrote Coleman. “The intention is to release the new software in the autumn (1994) and it will be provided free to all existing users.”

Computer Weekly asked the Post Office what the Post Office Counters Agency Development Centre was, what Tom Coleman’s role involved and why the software was rewritten. The Post Office had not responded by the time this article was published.

So far, the Post Office has failed to provide information about the software and the effects of its errors.

Kevan Jones MP, who has campaigned for well over a decade for those who suffered due to Horizon issue, is also supporting those that used Capture, wanting to seek the truth about what happened.

He said: “It’s remarkable that myself and others have been able to piece this story together while the Post Office just seem to be either denying things or saying they don’t have access to documents. It’s now time for them to put some effort in and produce everything they’ve got.”

The Post Office has denied knowledge of which organisation wrote the software, how many subpostmasters used it, how many of its users were prosecuted for unexplained shortfalls and how many paid shortfalls back.

Asked in a recent freedom of information (FOI) request whether it could “provide details of who supplied and made this software and how many Post Office branches used this software”, the Post Office said it was unable to. “We are currently unable to locate from our records the information you have requested, but please note that Post Office is undertaking an investigation into Capture, following serious concerns that have been raised,” it said.

Post Office CEO Nick Read also recently told MPs during a select committee hearing that the Post Office had spent five weeks investigating cases related to Capture. But Computer Weekly discovered that, at the time he said this, the Post Office had not even contacted the individuals involved in cases passed to it by MP Jones.

Computer Weekly also established that the Post Office had a copyright on the software, there were thousands of users of the software, and IT supplier Unisys was involved in its distribution to subpostmasters.

Now evidence has emerged that Unisys had a hand in the software’s development, with copyrights on numerous components in a 1995 copy of a Capture software update seen by Computer Weekly. Unisys told Computer Weekly last month that it was investigating its involvement in Capture’s development, but the IT supplier has not responded to Computer Weekly’s request for an update.

Steve Marston, a former subpostmaster in Bury, Lancashire, was prosecuted in 1996 for theft and false accounting following an unexplained shortfall of nearly £80,000. He said he had never had any problems using the paper-based accounting system until his branch, which ran from 1973, began using the Capture system.

Marston said he felt pressured into using the system at a time when many branches were being closed by the Post Office. “It was a choice of moving to this system or remaining with the manual system and risk closure,” he said. “I had no problems for 20 years using manual accounting processes, but within two years of using Capture, I ran up a debt of £79,000.”

He didn’t inform the Post Office because he thought he was making mistakes and that it would correct itself. He was not experienced with computers and believed they could not make mistakes. “Every time I had a loss, I thought it must be me – that I made a mistake even though I hadn’t for over 20 years.”

He covered the losses with his own money, but it kept getting worse. After an audit revealed a loss he couldn’t fully cover out of his own pocket, he was advised to plead guilty to theft and fraud to avoid jail. The judge took into account two bravery awards Marston had previously received for standing up to armed robbers, saving him a jail sentence. He received a 12-month suspended sentence, lost his home and business, and went bankrupt.

Last month, government said it does not yet have the “right body of evidence” to include users of the Post Office’s Capture software in Horizon compensation schemes and legislation to overturn convictions. It did not include Capture users in its bill to overturn wrongful subpostmaster prosecutions.

Computer Weekly first exposed the Post Office scandal in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered as a result of the Horizon system (see timeline of Computer weekly articles below below).

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

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story

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