The Post Office Horizon helpdesk is a toxic, rudderless and angry environment, where racism is a daily occurrence and subpostmasters are seen as incompetent or corrupt, the public inquiry into the Post Office scandal has heard.
Speaking at the latest hearing of the Post Office Horizon inquiry, IT consultant Amandeep Singh, who worked for ICL at the Horizon helpdesk at the Post Office in Wakefield, Yorkshire, from 2000 to 2001, revealed details of life at the other end of the phone line. that the subpostmasters turn to for help in the IT system they use in the branches.
Horizon was introduced in 1999 to replace the main manual accounting practices. Originally from ICL, before it was acquired by Fujitsu, it was rolled out across the entire Post Office branch network from 1999. But its introduction led to a sudden increase in subpostmasters who reported inexplicably lacks in their accounts, for which they are blamed.
Hundreds were sued and thousands lost large sums of money, with many going bankrupt. More than 80 former subpostmasters currently have wrongful convictions for fraud and theft overturned.
In 2009, Computer Weekly published the first investigation into problems experienced by seven subpostmasters using Horizon. The Post Office told each of them that no one else was experiencing problems and covered up computer errors. A frequent complaint of subpostmasters is that the helpdesk does not help them investigate unknown accounting deficiencies.
Singh, who is on a 12-month stint with ICL as part of his computer science degree at Huddersfield University, worked on the ICL Epson support desk initially, but it was merged with Fujitsu’s Horizon helpdesk support desk after the Japanese supplier acquired ICL.
Singh said that the helpdesk operation he participated in, made up of eight teams of 14 people, known as squads, was rudderless, angry, racist and undertrained to help the subpostmasters, who themselves were not prepared for the Horizon system. There is also a culture of mistrust of subpostmasters, he said.
“People have real problems with software,” Singh told the inquiry, but spoke of “a pre-built prejudice that you can’t trust people and that they are incompetent”.
Asked if this bias contributed to the Horizon scandal, he said: “When you’ve made a judgment call on people you support who are incompetent or corrupt in some way, a lot of people must think that the software has a problem.. We are more than happy to go down to the subpostmasters and say ‘this is your issue’ rather than push it up and ask if there is an issue or ask why we have so many calls about it.
He said part of the problem was a lack of leadership, with helpdesk teams left to sort everything out on their own and without managerial support.
There was a management team, but it was not done, he said. “They don’t know anything, they never touch the software. You just go to them to ask for a holiday.
“The managers know very well that the helpdesk is difficult so they choose the people in the teams who can do the most and make them walkers on the floor, team leaders or advocates, if you want, and you go to them which is in trouble. It’s like a ship without a rudder,” Singh said.
He added that there was also a toxic environment in the helpdesk team after the merger because more senior second-line support engineers were placed on the same team as first-line support. He said there was resentment among the engineers who had been transferred.
“On top of that, they’re no longer supporting customers like graphic design and media agencies, but supporting an old lady in Wales who doesn’t even know what a personal computer is. Many of the [the team] felt that the role was below them and that the toxicity grew and grew.
He said even though he is toxic, he knows that he only has one year as a student and he just wants to see it.
Singh witnessed racism every day, with subpostmasters from Asian backgrounds singled out for discrimination. “Many of these people we support are Asian subpostmasters. Sometimes they call and say they have a £2,000 or £5,000 difference, or even a wild number like £100,000, and people in the team say, ‘I’ve got another Patel’. You hear it all the time.” He said that even though he had an Asian background, no one questioned the language used.
Singh was a first-line engineer based in Wakefield, between October 2000 and September 2001, in the early days of the Horizon system.
He told the inquiry at first that the teams were flooded with calls: “It is a constant stream and it always increases on Wednesdays when the subpostmasters do their reconciliation and balance their books. The helpdesk is more open late that day because you know it’s going to be a busy day. You could be on the phone for hours with a subpostmaster trying to help them get home.”
He described the huge challenge of moving from the Epson support desk, where the people he supported were tech-savvy, to the Post Office Horizon helpdesk where you could be an old subpostmaster with little or no IT knowledge.
“This is 2000. Many subpostmasters have been working in their branches for decades and don’t even have a personal computer. Then you ask them to use the [Horizon] software.” He said that some of the people he had to help didn’t even know what a computer mouse was.
“The lack of IT knowledge brings anxiety to the subpostmasters, and to us because we sometimes have to explain a complex transaction, knowing that the subpostmaster will find it difficult to orient themselves in the environment. [the system].”
He said that he did not receive any training on how to deal with people with different levels of computer literacy.
“You have to physically brace yourself for these calls because you know someone is going to call with a difference. Subpostmasters are always confused, stressed, asking, ‘How did I get this number? ? How do I reconcile this account?’. We work with them for hours and if we can’t resolve it we go to the group leaders. If we can’t [resolve it], it should be written as a difference. It almost became the norm.”
He said subpostmasters often pay a small amount to cover unknown deficiencies and call the helpline only when the number is high.
According to Singh, in the early days of the helpdesk, people used to call about how to do the transactions, but this has reduced as the subpostmasters quickly got used to it. “Then, almost everything is difference, difference, difference. [That] is about all calls – people will not be able to restore their accounts to zero.
He said he only received a few days of training to see the equipment, run some dummy transactions and learn about the software. He said, during the training, they might do a reconciliation once, and mainly do routine transactions.