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.

Obsessive secrecy
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

Judgment (No.6) “Horizon Issues”  and in the Private Eye special report Justice Lost in the Post

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  • Thank you for your comment. Comments are moderated before being published.
    Mighty Mouse · 4 months ago
    ''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."

    I totally agree with all of the above, and should be brought to the attention of ALL MP's in no uncertain terms. 
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    Whiskers · 5 months ago
    A horrendous experience for all those sub postmasters and post mistresses, some of whom committed suicide because of it. Fujitsu should be forced to pay compensation as well as the Post Office. 
    A full judicial enquiry should be held and those having prior knowledge that the system was faulty should be prosecuted and jailed as a minimum for the distress caused and even manslaughter for those that caused the suicides. 
    I am afraid it does not instill me with any confidence in the DWP, the Post Office, the Civil Service or the Government. Nor does it look like Fujitsu were being honest.
    It certainly looks like they are working on the Guilty till proven innocent basis.    
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    CaroA · 5 months ago
    Thank you B&W for this important article.  In the last couple of weeks I have been thinking the same that there are so many parallels of injustice.  What is so difficult is that there is no centralised place for us to take action.  We are left thinking we are alone individually just like the subpost masters. There should be a union for people who have to be on disability benefits something we could all join to have it speak for us and fight for us both collectively and individually.  With somebody like Alan Bates heading it. I found myself writing down phrases I heard during interviews about the post office scandal such as "incentivised to get a conviction rather than justice". It is so difficult when you're not well to fight these things individually or collectively I wish this organization could be set up.  I'm grateful for everyone's feedback on this forum and for the brilliant work that benefits and work do. In the meanwhile  I've decided to lessen my intake of news and current affairs because the stress and anger affects my health condition so badly.  Thanks to everyone for their contributions well done for keeping on keeping on!
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    Chris Owen · 5 months ago
    I have proof that the DWP investigators have been in receipt of "bonuses" in the past and quite substantial ones at that.
    I had two women come to my house one evening to go through my files, which I told them they were welcome to. That was about 10 years ago. I don't know why they thought I was somehow cheating the system, I only claimed a couple of times in a year  when I had no work. I had a letter that came from their manager apologizing for their rude behaviour, after I complained.
    It also had a copy of a letter that I don't think was intended for me. It was addressed to the lead investigator advising her that she would not be getting the bonus that had been promised to her when she found the evidence of my wrong doing.  Apparently, the bonuses would have been paid on a percentage of the amount that could be recouped from the monies found.  I am sure I still have that letter/s. 
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    borkwen · 5 months ago
    I'm afraid it  is as bad as claimants report: DWP incompetence would in some ways be understandable but the lying, bullying and vindictiveness is inexcusable. When I first had to claim unemployment benefit in 2000, I asked the adviser (Working Links) if she or her employer got any bonus for getting people into a job or off benefits - she lied and said no. I realised from that point on I would have to fight them constantly for my right to benefit - and spent an exhausting and stressful 20
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    Jen · 5 months ago
    They ( the establishment) really hate us don't they . Feeling tired and deflated but will never yield.
    People power .Together stronger 
    Corporate Greed and corruption . Sycophants . 
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    Allan · 5 months ago
    Yeah this secretive action should be in the hands of the Crown.
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    Mave · 5 months ago
    the culture and rhetoric  that the government are pushing at every turn that people who are claiming benefits and disability are the source of everyones' economic problems is nothing new they have always demonised those who are unable to work. what is more scary is the levels of venom and open disgust they display in the media. having just read a news article where the bosses of Avanti are doing power point presentations on the "free money" they are raking in from the government in bonuses - yet it is the vulnerable and disabled that are the thieves and scroungers - the new powers they are giving to the DWP to allegedly catch fraudsters is really scary we know it will not be long before they abuse thier powers as seen in the posted comments on here. at every turn we are treated like criminals and the lowest of the low, yet repeatedly we see on the news the way MPs abuse the system themselves and steal, lie and cheat with impunity - I am struggling to find any party worth voting for but I think my decision will be swayed by voting to ensure this government does not get back into power. ever since thatcher this country has just taken a nose dive to the depths of profit and greed and as always it is the ordinary people that are targeted never those who are wealthy and privileged, as demonstrated by how quick this government moved to remove the cap on the bankers bonuses. I have only managed to navigate the dreadful system we are trapped into because of the invaluable information and advice given on this website, but how much longer before the whole system implodes because it can not go on as it is now. For people like us having to suffer under a biased and dictatorial system the future is bleak 
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      Mighty Mouse · 4 months ago
      @Asbo I hear Clegg, has done very nicely for himself, has a very high executive position at Facebook.
    • Thank you for your comment. Comments are moderated before being published.
      Mighty Mouse · 4 months ago
      @Mave Yes, they have run out of ideas, not that they had any effective ending in a positive result; for the majority of the unemployed or disabled in the first place. But, with all this latest shenanigans they have stooped to a new low of all time. Most people can see that the UK economy is not built on high wage and secure work, but the opposite. Half the country is working and claiming benefits, and that  alone, should ring alarm bells. Labour also have no answers.Just watch the status quo resume should they get in.
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      Asbo · 5 months ago
      @Ani @Ani yes Labour did vote against the WRB. Check MPs voting records, whatever on it. Yes, Labour started veering to the right during their third time and also started coming out with all the usual blah about 'tough on welfare' and 'hardworking familied' and the rest of it. If they don't do this they will be demonised as the party of welfare by the baying mob and the Daily Bile etc. Yes the Greens have always believed in UBI which I do too but they're never going to get in I. FPTP electoral system. As for the Fib Dems, I voted them in 2010 thinking they were more progressive than the Labour Party of the time and I also had to vote tactically in my constituency. Then they got into bed with the Tories and didn't oppose the pernicious WRB. I've been wary of them ever since. They have tried to distance themselves since but we're still feeling the damage they did just because Nick Clegg got dazzled by a bit of power
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      LittleCli · 5 months ago
      @Ani I honestly believe it needs to be Lib Dem/Greens Coalition in order to break the cycle from Tory Labour chokehold this country has suffered under for far too long. It’s the shake up that’s needed and two parties that while not perfect care far more about people and planet than lining their own pockets above all else!
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      Ani · 5 months ago
      @Asbo Did they?I thought Labour approved the bill. Keep in mind they have said they will be as tough on "welfare fraud" as the current administration and will not increase taxes on the 1%, so guess who's going to be squeezed when they need money? Only Green party are fair -minded. Perhaps if they can create a coalition with Labour they can keep the most meanspirited policies at bay.

      Yes, I know... "Dream on!"
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    DianaW · 5 months ago
    I was puzzled by the assertion in the main article that "both sub-postmasters and claimants are routinely interviewed under caution without any legal representation being offered or provided". Interviewed, yes - but "interviewed under caution"??? I've never experienced or heard of that being done to claimants before. Can B&W clarify when that can and does happen, please?
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      Mighty Mouse · 4 months ago
      @DianaW Well, that's being done by TV License collection goons. Unbelievable. Yet they have the legal powers of a Pizza Delivery boy.
    • Thank you for your comment. Comments are moderated before being published.
      Asbo · 5 months ago
      @DianaW DianaW I've heard it's not uncommon  - maybe if they suspect fraud or someone has reported them?
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    Helene Du mauri · 5 months ago
    18 months ago I was told I wasn't entitled to PIP because I couldn't have severe depression if I could walk around my small block of houses. I felt ashamed and like a fraud.
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    the ferret · 5 months ago
    I worked for ICL/Fujitsu on the Horizon project which was intended to cut out benefit fraud. The early trials in Stroud and Newcastle upon Tyne showed the majority of fraud was being committed by Housing Officers in conjunction with imaginary and false claims/claimants. When this became apparent the benefits agency dropped it like a hot potato and no-one dared to mention it again.
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    DianaW · 5 months ago
    The Post Office has and had no special power to prosecute the sub-postmasters. What the PO did was to abuse the ordinary power to bring a private prosecution.  Anyone in England & Wales can do that if the police and CPS won't act BUT the DPP can intervene in and take over/terminate any private prosecution. (Perhaps the one tactic that the sub-postmasters' group didn't know about or attempt was asking the DPP to intervene in the English/Welsh Post Office prosecutions while those were ongoing.)
    What's now being discussed as a result of the ITV drama are stronger and more effective rules governing how a private prosecution in E&W is conducted, to ensure that any private prosecutor has to be as meticulous as the CPS, so that no-one - government agency or otherwise - can play fast and loose by prosecuting victims as and how they like.

    It sounds as if HMRC is also treating alleged tax evaders in a way alarmingly similar to how the PO treated sub-postmasters, judging by the wretched experience of someone being treated as a fraud by them for having acceded to an employer's insistence that they be paid and taxed via a private company (on Radio Four's 'You and Yours' this lunchtime: the 'loan charge' system). 
    Wasn't HMRC also meant originally to use Horizon, like the Benefits Agency?

    The search powers of enforcement agents ("bailiffs", as most people think of them) in relation to the recovery of criminal fines and civil judgment debts are already constantly abused. One can only hope that an overhaul of private prosecutions etc might be extended to include improvements on how those supposedly limited statutory powers are used in practice.
  • Thank you for your comment. Comments are moderated before being published.
    Jac · 5 months ago
    I can assure you what you have said re assessors paid bonuses for getting people moved off from benefits or placed into work groups etc  is correct. They had three different target levels being paid at different bonus levels for each claim they moved. I know this because a firm I worked for at the time had contracts with the post office (at the time of the Horizon scandal) made bids for the contracts. 
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    IV · 5 months ago
    I'm sure I heard that there was a pay incentive to assessors to find people fit for work 
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    Eliza · 5 months ago
    I got the feeling it was DWP style practice when watching the programme. Chilling to have fears confirmed tho any success with Horizon might benefit us. Might 
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    Rose · 5 months ago
    We need an Alan Bates to look at the obvious discrimination facing housing benefit/disability benefit claimants trying to rent privately. I've been trying for nearly a year to move, and every estate agent will fob me off and I can't even view a property, even though I can pass the affordability checks, have been renting for years with no issues, can provide a guarantor etc. Shelter has already fought this in the courts, but in real terms there's no way out of this, council and citizens advice can't help. 
    • Thank you for your comment. Comments are moderated before being published.
      Lymie · 5 months ago
      @Rose Look up the Renters Reform Bill which is in 4th Parliament reading stage. When that comes in it will be illegal to discriminate against benefits claimants. Bidd your time and stay hopeful because that (and the right to keep pets) is a positive we can look forward to.
  • Thank you for your comment. Comments are moderated before being published.
    Iskra Jackal · 5 months ago
    It's hardly surprising that the DWP's forerunner (the Benefits Agency) paid for a system to screw over claimants, commissioned it badly and rejected it as unfit for purpose, only to have the taxpayer pay penalties for abandoning the project, and the useless computers shoved onto the Post Office.

    You see, DWP has form in this regard: In the 1970s/early 1980s they commissioned a system for the whole DHSS. That meant all benefits except Unemployment Benefit. It could not cope. They tried just running the biggest, Supplementary Benefit but it couldn't cope. They then tried all the small schemes, same result, solely National Insurance...guess what? Yes it kept crashing. Finally it was used for Unemployment Benefit and it just about coped although it often crashed.

    If MPs salaries were paid on au unfit for purpose pile of junk with delayed payments, shortfalls, and criminal accusations against the MPs how soon would it get replaced and massive compensation paid out? Certainly not many years later after years of Private Eye articles and a hard-hitting tv drama!
  • Thank you for your comment. Comments are moderated before being published.
    Ani · 5 months ago
    The greater the push to computerize benefit claims, the lower the accountability when government messes things up, as there's no "paper trail". 

    I have my own concerns about applying for council housing, for example, since everything's online, the person isn't allowed to view, download or print out their completed application. The computer system is entirely under the council's control. 

    My completed housing application mysteriously "vanished" the first time I tried to send it. I had to spend weeks doing it over. Is U.C. the same?
    • Thank you for your comment. Comments are moderated before being published.
      Mighty Mouse · 4 months ago
      @Ani Take screen shots of every page. And convert image files to PDF format. Plenty of free web based utilities to do this online for people who may not know how.
    • Thank you for your comment. Comments are moderated before being published.
      Ani · 5 months ago
      @Lymie Lymie:
      Thanks,
      I've never heard of screen-record. Re: the ref. no., that's just it, I didn't receive one so there was nothing that could be done. Not a single person at the council had any idea how the software worked. 

    • Thank you for your comment. Comments are moderated before being published.
      Lymie · 5 months ago
      @Ani You can screenshot anything on a computer, even screen record as you fill out the form, hit Submit and receive confirmation with a reference number. 
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    Kieron Bevan · 5 months ago
    I find the whe system a depressing shambles run by lunatics. Unfortunately I am a physical wreck and I feel vulnerable these days but one thing is for sure. I'm not voting for anyone as they all seem to be as bent as a ten bob note
    • Thank you for your comment. Comments are moderated before being published.
      AJG · 5 months ago
      @Kieron Bevan I was told a few years ago that if you don’t vote then the vote will go to the party in government the now
  • Thank you for your comment. Comments are moderated before being published.
    deannatrois · 5 months ago
    I agree.  I was accused once of misleading the benefits office.  I hadn't.  I couldn't cope with the very aggressive interview style (definitely guilty with no evidence that I was and no legal representation, I was so obviously unable to cope with the interview.  I was given no option but to sign off income support and inspite of telling them I was splitting from my abusive ex, I was forced to tie my income to his self employment which was due to start in a couple of weeks.  This tied me to him even further. Of course, he didn't submit the paperwork he needed to so we had weeks with no money at all.   Then followed a few months of not even having money for food.  Thank good we did split up, and I was able to place a seperate claim for myself and my family.  But having seen how these 'investigations' work, how they shout at you and behave very aggressively, assuming on the vaguest evidence you are guilty and ignore what you say.., very similar to what happened with PO subpost masters.  I have never been accused of anything since, didn't do anything wrong that time.  But it didn't matter.  They wouldn't listen.

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