The Horizon software at the centre of the current Post Office scandal was originally designed to save money and reduce fraud in connection with benefits and pension payments. Even though the Benefits Agency dropped the software, there are disturbing parallels between the way sub-postmasters were, and claimants still are, treated.
£700 million lost
Horizon was a joint venture between the Post Office, the Benefits Agency (as the DWP was then called) and ICL, a subsidiary of Fujitsu.
The intention was to create a swipe card system for benefits and pensions to be paid out at Post Offices, replacing paper payment books.
The project began in 1996, but by 1999 the Benefits agency had lost all faith in the system ever working and pulled out, leaving the taxpayer with a massive £700 million bill with nothing to show at the end of it.
In desperation, the project was repurposed to allow electronic bookkeeping to replace paper accounts in post offices.
And the result of that is now playing out in the media, the courts and a public inquiry.
Misuse of powers
That the Benefits Agency pulled out of the Horizon system it so its credit.
But there are many alarming parallels between the current DWP and the Post Office.
Both have the power to conduct their own criminal investigations and both routinely misuse these powers.
The Post Office threatened sub-postmasters with prosecution for theft unless they admitted wrongdoing and agreed to pay back all the money they allegedly owed.
The reality was that the Post Office very often had no evidence that any theft had taken place and would not have been able to bring such a charge. But sub-postmasters were never given the opportunity to examine the alleged evidence.
Similarly, claimants interviewed under caution by the DWP are often told that if they end their claim and agree terms to pay back any alleged overpayment, they will escape prosecution for theft.
Many claimants agree, without understanding that the DWP have failed to show them any evidence of the alleged overpayment.
If such cases go to tribunal, rather than a criminal court, they are very often thrown out – or the alleged overpayment dramatically reduced - because of a lack of evidence. The DWP has such poor systems that they often cannot actually show whether payments took place or how much they were for.
In other cases, the claimant will insist that they informed the DWP of a change of circumstances but the DWP will be unable to supply a copy of the document they received from the claimant, even though there is evidence it existed.
No legal representation
Both sub-postmasters and claimants are routinely interviewed under caution without any legal representation being offered or provided. This would not happen if prosecutions were being carried out via the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
The lack of legal representation allows the prosecuting body to mislead the people they are pursuing without any fear of consequences.
Both the DWP and the Post Office are obsessively secretive.
The Post Office’s often successful attempts to hide information from the courts and the current public inquiry are a scandal in themselves.
In the same way, anyone who has attempted to obtain information from the DWP via the Freedom of Information Act will know the huge and very expensive lengths that the department will go to in order to keep evidence about their practices and procedures secret, even when it involves the death of claimants.
And there are many examples of the DWP keeping evidence from inquiries, government committees and even coroners’ courts.
Bonuses for wrongly recovering money
Post Office investigators, it has now been revealed, were on a bonus system for any money they recovered by threatening and misleading sub-postmasters into repaying money they never owed.
We don’t know if DWP investigators are also on a bonus system for recovering money from claimants. But we do know that in the past the DWP has paid bonuses to teams for pushing claimants off benefits, including by way of sanctions. So there is every possibility that fraud teams are incentivized in this way.
Benefits and Work has made a Freedom of Information request for any documents which deal with bonuses in relation to detecting fraud or recovering money from claimants.
We don’t expect to get a genuine response anytime soon.
Fears for the future
The DWP have very recently been given powers to allow the mass surveillance of claimants’ bank accounts.
But, as we revealed last November, the DWP want to go much further than this.
They are hoping to get the power to arrest claimants, search their homes and seize evidence.
After what we have seen of the Post Office scandal, such a possibility is truly terrifying. The opportunity for the department to disappear documents, including copies kept by the claimant which would establish their own innocence, do not bear thinking about.
In the wake of the Post Office scandal, there is now a very strong argument for stripping the DWP of its power to prosecute claimants. And there is an absolutely overwhelming argument for preventing them gaining any additional powers.
But is there anyone who will effectively make that argument?
You can read more about the connection between the Post Office Horizon system and the Benefits Agency in Alan Bates and Others vs the Post Office Technical Appendix to