The evidence of Stephen Parker – Fujitsu Head of Post Office Application Support

Thursday 11th April – Horizon Trial Day 12

The transcript for this trial as well as expert commentary on proceedings is available at http://www.postofficetrial.com.  Without the efforts of journalist Nick Wallis we would not have access to this information and he relies on money to survive unlike POL who seem to rely on Subpostmasters to survive.  So it would be very kind of you all to put a little something in his paypal jar in order that he can continue to provide us with the coverage we need.

Stephen Parker is now the head of Fujitsu Post Office Application Support.  As a witness called by Post Office Ltd hi job was to counter the allegations made by Richard Roll who was a witness for the claimants and worked at Fujitsu in the early 2000s when Mr Parker was his line manager.  Mr Parker was clearly impressed with Mr Roll’s work.  So much so that he went so far as to give him a personal reference despite the fact that this was against Fujitsu HR policy at the time.

The first part of the cross examination was to do with the several changes Mr Parker had made to his witness statement.  For some unknown reason a very diligent chap in the Fujitsu Support Centre, a Mr Simpkins, allegedly took it upon himself to look further into the PEAK log to see if he could find more instances of transactions being injected into the counter records of branches.  Well he found a few more and on the 20th of March, the day before Mr Parker was due to give evidence, Wombles informed the court of this and Mr Parker’s witness statement was duly updated.

A technical point here was revealed in that the additional search used to find the extra transactions included the following terms; “RiposteMessageFile, RiposteImport and RiposteMessage”.  Very specific terms which it appears were not originally used by this highly experienced team to locate the additional injected transactions.

The RiposteImport command in particular was quite an amazing omission from the original search criteria because it is one of the few methods available for injecting transactions into a counter.  Why it would be left out of the original search criteria is astonishing and worthy of further interpretation.

Mr Parker’s witness statement also revealed that over a period of 4 years, the Post Office Service Support Centre at Fujitsu received over 27,000 calls which would equate to more than 20 per day.    Quite a figure for a robust computer system.

Systemic Errors?

In an article for the Digital Evidence and Electronic Signature Law Review (http://journals.sas.ac.uk/deeslr) (http://journals.sas.ac.uk/deeslr/article/download/2303/2256) I wrote:

“The Post Office consistently claims that the system is used by thousands of operators each day to process millions of transactions and must therefore be considered to ‘be in order’ as the law puts it. This, they suggest, proves there are no ‘systemic’ bugs in the system.”

The Post Office has misused the term ‘systemic’ repeatedly over the years so it came as a surprising revelation in court when Mr Parker stated:

there were only rare circumstances where a coding issue had an estate wide impact and, in those instances, Mr Roll would have been involved in executing avoidance actions to mitigate impact to the estate

They may be rare in Mr Parker’s opinion but his evidence is that they do exist and occur.  There is however more to read into this statement.  These system wide errors were by definition in the system for some time before they were noticed and fixed.  There is no evidence to suggest – and as a former subbpostmaster I can attest to this – that the ‘estate’, the network of subpostmasters, were ever informed that these errors existed before they were fixed.

Mr Green goes on to question Mr Parker about how he set about trying to decide 15 years later how many actual software errors Mr Roll worked on while he was at Fujitsu.  Without access to the referenced spreadsheet it is impossible to comment but this line of questioning did however reveal something else.


Q   And at the bottom we can see that there is an agreement
at least with Mike Crowshaw’s explanation of the
imbalances in periods 10 and 11 which were due to
a stock transfer of  £12,000 which was not settled
correctly to the presence of a corrupt DLL file on the
PC involved.
A   That’s what the notes say, indeed.

In my opinion, and that of others I have spoken to, there appears to be an underlying and recurring theme of major errors occurring in the system when it comes to stock transfers.   These could be between stock units within the branch (the ‘Falkirk’ error) or between the cash centre and the branch (the ‘Dalmellington’ error –although that was slightly different in that it was between two branches).  However in both cases, transfers and remittances, the values involved can be significantly high and involve, initially, a one way transaction out until it is accepted at the receiving end.  The Falkirk error was investigated in court in the trial of Seema Misra (see transcript published at http://journals.sas.ac.uk/deeslr/article/view/2217) where Mr Gareth Jenkins of Fujitsu attempted to prove to the court that the same error had not occurred at Seema’s branch at West Byfleet by examining NT Logs for possible hardware failures.   In the example quoted above they are also looking at a hardware error as a possible cause of the problem, but in this case a corrupt DLL file (dynamic link library which contains many different modules of code that can be used by the calling program).   Without going into detail there is not a cat in hell’s chance of Fujitsu, or anyone else for that matter, being able to go back in their history files and determining for certain whether or not a corrupt DLL file was to blame or not.   I think this is one of the more revealing bits of evidence to date in the trial.

Fujitsu Support Centre is in a bit of a mess

With so few people dealing with so many problems you can perhaps begin to understand (if the consequences had not been so serious) why the administration of the department became a bit lax shall we say.  Perhaps the trial was not a good time to rely on the internal records of their performance to have a go at Richard Roll’s testimony.

Q   Okay.  He says:
“This Peak is the regression of the Peak PC0234448”;
yes?
A   Indeed he does, yes.
Q   And underneath he has put:
“Category 41 — product error diagnosed”?
A   He does indeed, yes.
Q   The reason he does that is because there has been
a regression to a problem that had previously happened
as a result of a subsequent software release not having
caught a fix?
A   That’s the note that the developer has made, yes.
Q   And if we look on page {F/1326/5} please, towards the
bottom of the first blue box, penultimate paragraph:
“Risks (of releasing and of not releasing proposed
fix):  Without this fix, there will be possibilities of
system errors at counter and while doing reversal
transaction”; yes?
A   That’s what it says indeed.

This is not a one off.  This is a service support centre making a balls up of a fix for an error they had already spotted and thought they had fixed.   It happens all the time in the industry and an excellent example comes from a relatively unknown little software company that provided the underlying operating system (NT) to the Horizon network called Microsoft.  In 2004 they withdrew support for the NT operating system but before they did they sent out one final update to correct errors that had been reported to them.   Within 6 months of what was supposed to be the final release of NT, Microsoft were forced to send out another ‘fix’ to solve the problems that the previous upgrade had caused.   Since 2004 to 2018 when the last counter using NT in the Post Office network was upgraded, worldwide users of NT had noted many more additional bugs including some very interesting ones with relation to the evidence that has been produced in court to date. (https://nt4ref.zcm.com.au/bugs.htm)

Whose fault is it?

Fujitsu supply the software but that is not the only component of the overall computer system known as Horizon.  It needs a computer to run on, a keyboard to enter data and a printer to produce the output as well as many other bits and pieces.  If software is not the problem though, Fujitsu wash their hands of it and somebody else has to sort it out even if the problems have created an inconvenient loss to the subpostmaster.  Mr Parker helps Mr Green with this conundrum ….

The system is still playing up in that the screen
is hanging in the middle of transactions — PM did
transaction … but left office for 1 hour — when he
came back the monitor had 141 first-class stamps on
screen totalling £38.07″, see that?
A   Yes.  I see that.
Q   You would accept that that is not how the system is
supposed to work.  Is that fair?
A   That’s fair.

Phantom Transactions

Let me assume that the lay reader understands the concept of a phantom transaction e.g. a faulty keyboard ‘accidentally’ enters a transaction into the computer overnight while the subpostmaster is not present.  Not an everyday occurrence mind you and not one that you would be expecting to look out for if you hadn’t been warned about it (which we never were).  In practice though this would give rise to a discrepancy in the branch accounts – might not be serious but a discrepancy all the same.  The real problem though is identifying the source of the error because if the phantom transaction occurred after close of business the effect would only be noticeable the following evening when stock was declared again and who would think of looking back to the previous days transactions?

Screen Calibration Problems

The Horizon user interface is predominantly touch screen.   When the calibration goes out it is possible to think you are pressing one icon when in fact the system thinks you are pressing another.

It takes someone who has read the transcripts of this trial to understand the significance of this statement by Mr Parker:

Q   And the PM says calibration is fine, not out of
alignment, because that was an issue that sometimes
happened, wasn’t it?
A   There were screen calibration issues, yes.

The expert witness in Seema’s trial made a point about potential problems with calibration of the screen but POL (the prosecution in Seema’s trial) attacked this premise and appeared to persuade the jury that this was not an issue to be concerned with.  This is certainly evidence that the CCRC should take note of.

Duplicate Pouches

In late 2015 I and others became aware of a software error in Horizon that generated substantial losses to the affected subpostmistress because the system had generated duplicate Remittance Pouch Receipts.  Some 5 years earlier this occurred …

Can we just briefly, please, look at {F/589/1}?  You
will see this is non-critical and closed with Solicited
Known Error.  Do you see that?
A   I do.
Q   That is a problem of duplicated pouches, as you see
underneath the two tram lines.
A   Yes.
Q   And the amount that was renned in twice was £25,000.
A   That’s what the notes says, yes.
Q   It’s pretty serious for the SubPostmaster?
A   I would think so, yes.
Q   But category priority is C, non-critical?
A   That’s correct.
Q   And at {F/589/3} if you look down the penultimate blue
box, 5 March 2010, 12.33:
“POL have been informed of the error. Hopefully
they’ll issue a TC to correct loss at the branch. The
underlying problem caused by using previous button
during or just after scanning pouch barcodes, is still
under investigation”.
It is closed as Solicited Known Error?

Apart from the fact that this error seems identical to the earlier Falkirk error and the later Dalmellington issue it raises the question of errors known to be in the system yet the network were never informed about them and what to look for.  Again, from the Misra trial transcript, POL as the prosecution, made the point that if her losses had been caused by an error in Horizon then she WOULD HAVE NOTICED IT.  This was a key point made to the jury and would certainly have had an influence on their final decision which was to find Seema guilty and ultimately to send her to prison.

Conclusion

The major part of this whole cross examination of Mr Parker was to cast doubts on his interpretation of the categorisation of errors and in doing so support Mr Roll’s evidence as being reliable.   As I point out above some major flaws in Horizon were revealed and these may or may not be commented on later by the expert witnesses so I will leave further analysis on these for another day.

However they all lead to the very safe conclusion in my opinion that the Horizon computer system was and remains unreliable and I use the word ‘unreliable’ deliberately because it lies at the heart this trial and how the law as it stands interprets the reliability of a computer system.  Whatever decision the judge reaches in this trial will set an example for years to come in the legal profession because it is such a debatable point.

The barrister Stephen Mason has spent some time investigating this issue – which the judges and lawyers have ignored – and a most notable reference on the reliability of computers in litigation can be found here and is well worth reading – in particular Chapter Six of Electronic Evidence, now it its fourth edition and available as a free download from http://humanities-digital-library.org/index.php/hdl/catalog/view/electronicevidence/16/93-1

The evidence so far in this trial also points undeniably to the fact that Seema Misra’s conviction is completely unsafe and should be returned to the Appeal Court by the CCRC without delay.

 

 

 

 

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Round and Round The Money Tree

So somebody (name withheld but you know who you are Jon Banks) on Twitter has asked my thoughts on why Post Office Ltd (POL) continue to pursue their defence of the legal action brought against them by the Justice for Subpostmaster Alliance (JFSA)

It is extremely difficult to answer that one given that their decision to do so must be reviewed fairly regularly – or so you would have thought given the revelations in court and now the judicial decisions mounting up against them.

As was revealed by Lord Grabiner in the recusal application, this is a board level decision the members of whom are now well and truly enmeshed in the outcome of these proceedings.  The first factor to take into account, in no particular order, then is the damage to the board member’s personal reputation which is at stake.  To lose now, from this point onwards, will be particularly damaging to them because this is no ordinary company whose reputation and very existence (not my words, their own) is at stake, this is THE Post Office.  The darling of the High St, the bastion of the community and the butt of all jokes to do with queues.   If this goes against the board’s decision to proceed then the media will have a frenzy and the blame will be laid firmly at the board’s door.   They have repeatedly stated in their annual accounts that the claim has no merit so it will be particularly interesting to hear what they have to say in this year’s accounts given that they have now lost the first two major decisions in the trial and will bear the majority of the costs of the claimants for these.

The second factor to consider is from the opening statement of the first trial where the Post Office legal team decided to inform the court that an unsatisfactory result will cause an existential risk to the company.  Leaving aside the fact that that statement is of absolutely no relevance to the ultimate decision of the court other than a fairly obvious attempt to bias the judge in their favour (which he rightly ignored) it is a significant factor in deciding whether or not to continue defending the claim.   POL however, have not expanded on the rationale behind that statement nor whether all or just part of the business is at risk.   Certainly the way they do business in the future, in particular the relationship between POL and their subpostmasters, must now change as a result of the first decision.  The fact that they haven’t yet started on this process may be down to a possible appeal but it remains to be seen whether the practicalities of implementing these changes form part of the existential risk i.e. the business model they currently use is not capable of supporting the new regime required.

Next the big question about the source of funding which has to be a consideration when continuing this defence.   The longer the trial goes on the costs mount up as does, in my opinion, the likelihood of them losing and paying out a multi million pound settlement.   Justice should never be able to be bought but POL appear to be playing the bottomless pit card against the claimants forcing them to consider first whether the prospect of ultimate victory is worth the cost of the action.  In playing this card though they need now to explain where this money is likely to come from.

POL appear to be playing with fire here, because the final quantum of the claims has yet to be determined.  I am sure they will have a figure in mind but with 500 claimants and at least one we know of from the transcript of the first trial claiming close to £1 million (richly deserved in my opinion and probably should be double) then we are talking 9 figures at least.  Now the government may own POL but because of state aid rules (Brexit does not come into it) they are restricted not only in how much support they can give but also what that financial support can be spent on.  Already we have seen that POL have taken liberties with grant funding from UKGI and have had to repay £3m they used to fund the litigation to date.  I will be keeping an eye out in their accounts to see where they are sourcing the funds and I can warn them now that using the BEIS Working Capital Loan is a complete no no – I got them the last time they misused that loan and I will do it again if they try the same thing.   So with government funding all but ruled out and a 9 figure sum in all likelihood required then their only source is debt.  That debt would be at least subtly guaranteed by the government if not fully guaranteed and it would not be hard to raise in the capital markets, however that adds to the strain on cashflow and if expected profits fail to materialise then they sink in to a debt spiral.

Right from the very inception of Horizon back in 2000 POL and the NFSP have always gone to great lengths to protect the image of the brand by refusing to acknowledge that the Horizon system was not as reliable as made out.   Evidence is everywhere supporting that fact and in hindsight they must now see that as a very naive mistake to have made because it potentially is leading to the brand disappearing altogether.   Protecting the image of the post office as a trustworthy brand is still probably the most important factor in their determination to see this legal process through to the bitter end. It is well and truly misplaced judgement on their part fuelled by indoctrination of the theme over the years – protect the brand at all costs.

Next there is the distinct possibility that POL will actually win some of the decisions to come with respect to Breach of Contract and Causation.    While these will, if they win any, be in the minority, it will reduce the overall claim and legal costs.  Hard to tell at the moment as I have no knowledge of all the claims but it is another factor the board must consider when taking the decision to fight on or give up.

Finally though there comes the time when defeat will be certain in their eyes.  Taking the claim all the way to the bitter end and through the appeal process is not only delaying the inevitable it is losing their last card to play with and that is negotiated settlement.  That will bring with it a substantial discount and when you are talking of hundreds of millions substantial could mean close to a hundred million.  That is also a factor for the government to keep an eye on as they must approve spending by POL over a certain amount and a settlement figure will certainly need their approval.  The government could even insist on settlement as more and more details emerge from the trial with associated publicity and the likelihood of embrassment looming.  Never forget the additional bonus of settlement is non disclosure either by contract or by the mere fact the legal process ends early.

(I keep forgetting to add the links to the journalists who continue to cover this fiasco)

Nick Wallis – without whose Tweeting we would be deaf – http://www.postofficetrial – drop a pound or two in his paypal jar please to keep him going.

Tony Collins – whose post this morning rings bells with the above – https://ukcampaign4change.com/2019/04/11/how-is-post-office-funding-increasing-costs-of-horizon-it-trial-mp-asks-questions/

Karl Flinders at Computer Weekly – also published this morning – https://www.computerweekly.com/news/2240089230/Bankruptcy-prosecution-and-disrupted-livelihoods-Postmasters-tell-their-story

Thoughts on the recusal hearing

I cannot, by any stretch of my rather vivid imagination, envisage the dilemma faced by Justice Fraser over whether or not he should recuse himself.  Whatever he decides he is clearly establishing a precedent for future Group Litigation Order trials where the claim is spread over several trials.  The most relevant point is that in this case there are to be 4 trials set out at the beginning of the process and agreed by both parties in a particular sequence so that the decisions from the preceding trials can be taken into account when determining the next.  That by definition requires a biased approach.

Major discussion points arising from yesterday include the fact that the decision to proceed with the recusal application was taken at board level by POL as well as the fact that POL will not ask for the Common Issues trial to be rerun but will ask for the Horizon trial to be started afresh under a new judge if one is appointed.

A common phrase running through the recusal application hearing yesterday was:

“Whether the fair-minded and informed observer, having considered the facts, would conclude ….”

I am merely an observer, I think I am fair minded but POL would certainly not agree with that.  Informed?  Well I have kept up to date with what has been presented in court thanks to the efforts of the redoubtable journalist Nick Wallis but I am no legal eagle and I think the adjective ‘informed’ has more to do with legal prowess than information gathering.

However, apply the same phrase to the board members of POL and consider the action they have taken.  Let us assume they are fair minded people, and that they can readily rely on being well informed by one of the most expensive QCs in the country, Lord Grabiner who surely attended the Board meeting to advise them of the facts that they should consider.

The POL board have come to a completely different conclusion than I have.

  1. Judge Fraser has not made any decision on the Horizon trial.
  2. The decision of the first trial stands (subject to appeal)
  3. Therefore there has been no opportunity for any alleged Bias to have any effect on what has transpired in court so far.
  4. Overwhelming evidence has been produced in the Horizon trial to indicate to ANY fair minded individual that Horizon has errors in it and that they have caused subpostmaster losses in the past.
  5. In any rerun of the trial the same evidence will be produced. A recusal has no effect.
  6. As a former subpostmaster, a campaigner for the claimants and someone who has seen at first hand the effect of Horizon errors and the way Post Office Ltd deal with them as well as apparently one of the very few people who have studied the transcript of the Misra trial in depth, I can say with some conviction that POL are going to lose not only the Horizon trial but the Breach and Causation trial that will follow. There can be NO DOUBT WHATSOEVER about the outcome REGARDLESS OF WHICH JUDGE HEARS THE TRIALS.  Bias can have no effect and it would be particulary unjust and unusual if ANY Judge in the land on contemplating the behaviour of POL as a company and of its witnesses would not come to the same conclusions that Justice Fraser may or may not have reached already.

 

 

The POL Board of course do not have the insight into these matters that I have because they have made no attempt to find out for themselves but relied on advice and information from the very people who got them into this mess in the first place and whose incompetence is on display every day the trial sits.

I could also say that about the POL Legal team as well.  I can’t imagine what is going on in the background there because they have the same problem in that they are reliant on the incompetence of POL to provide them with the evidence they need to win the case (they can look but they won’t find any)

So I have no idea why they chose to go down the recusal route although I have speculated about it.  Justice Fraser as an incredible decision to make but I think in the long run whatever he chooses to do will have no impact on the outcome at all.

What the POL board though will have to do now is to explain to the likes of me in Freedom of Information requests, the Government Minister in charge although she sounds as if she is totally out of her depth (a here today and gone tomorrow politician), the media, the interested select committees and sooner or later the National Audit Office and the Police where exactly all the money is coming from to pay for this extravagant and now totally unnecessary trial.   If they for one minute think interest in this is going to wane then think again.

When this is all over and the claimants have won, it is safe to say that the reputations of many if not all of the PO Board members who have elected to continue pursuing this lost cause using presumably public funds will be damaged beyond repair.  Idiots all.