Controversial Post Office Capture system was developed in-house

The Post Office’s second controversial accounting system, known as Capture, was developed in-house in the early 1990s.

Following the explosion of public interest in the Post Office Horizon scandal, concerns over a system that predated the software have emerged. As with Horizon, the Post Office prosecuted and punished subpostmasters who had unexplained shortfalls in its Capture system.

A source told Computer Weekly last week that the Capture software was likely developed at a Post Office centre known as iTFarnborough.

While the Post Office said it was unable to reveal the supplier of the software, which contained errors that caused unexplained losses, a press release from 1992 reveals it was developed by the Post Office centre. Computer Weekly has also located a copy of the software, which is branded with the Post Office logo.

A press release in 1992 from PC maker Compaq confirmed that the software was developed by the Post Office. It stated that the new Capture system from Compaq “includes Windows-based software specially designed by iT, the Post Office’s information technology business”.

Image of Post Office Capture installation disk
Post Office-branded Capture installation disk

In the press release, published over 30 years ago, the Post Office said: “It was important for us to choose a standard PC architecture, rather than a proprietary Electronic Point of Sale system, so that new software applications could be added to the systems in the future. And because most sub-postmasters also run private businesses, we wanted a machine that would run standard business software.”

At the time, the Post Office said more than 1,000 subpostmasters had asked to be placed on the priority registration list for the Capture system.

Following the recent ITV drama about the Post Office Horizon scandal, a growing number of former subpostmasters and former Post Office employees have come forward with stories of problems they had with the Capture software, which pre-dated Horizon

Described by users as a “glorified spreadsheet”, Capture was a standalone software used to computerise accounting in branches.

Subpostmasters were blamed for unexplained shortfalls that occurred when using the Capture software, which the Post Office knew was flawed. It still blamed and even prosecuted subpostmasters when auditors found unexplained accounting shortfalls.

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.

“We were pushed into using it by the Post Office in 1996,” he said, describing it as a standalone system that required subpostmasters to buy their own computers to run the software. Marston added that he felt pressured into using the system at a time when many branches were being closed by the Post Office.

“As the developer and distributor of this faulty software, the Post Office has a responsibility to provide answers and must be held accountable for the devastating impact it appeared to have on so many subpostmasters”
Kevan Jones, Labour MP

Labour MP Kevan Jones, a campaigner for justice for wronged Horizon users, is also supporting former subpostmasters who had unexplained losses when using the Capture system.

“Confirmation that the Post Office’s own in-house IT team developed the Capture software just raises even more questions than answers,” he said. “Why can the Post Office not answer basic questions about how many people received and operated this software? Why were known faults in the software not taken into account when subpostmasters experienced shortfalls and unexplained anomolies?”

He added: “As the developer and distributor of this faulty software, the Post Office has a responsibility to provide answers and must be held accountable for the devastating impact it appeared to have on so many subpostmasters.”

Following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, the Post Office said it does not yet know details of who supplied software known as Capture to Post Office branches in the 1990s, to computerise accounts.

Image of multiple floppy disks containing Post Office Capture software releases
Floppy disks containing Post Office Capture software releases

Ask in the 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.

The Post Office added: “Given the passage of time, around 30 years ago, and changes to data storage systems since Post Office separated from Royal Mail Group, we do not yet have a complete picture of Capture but are progressing our investigations as quickly as possible. We will be continuing to update our website with findings.”

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

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

Computer Weekly first exposed the 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). 

By 111 Tech

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