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    Former Post Office chair accused of being briefed about Horizon flaws yet not acting on it

    (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

    The former chair of the Post Office Alice Perkins has been accused of being briefed about flaws in Horizon in 2011, and yet failing to challenge or correct it, it emerged in the recent hearing which also saw her accusing senior executives of “misleading” its board over problems with the Horizon computer system that led to the largest miscarriage of justice in British history.

    During her appearance at the ongoing Post Office Horizon inquiry on Wednesday (5), Perkins was asked why she failed to act on early warnings about problems with Horizon’s evidence, and why she appeared to try to delay the publication of an interim report by independent consultants appointed by the Post Office after pressure from MPs.

    Perkins was chair of the Post Office from 2011 to 2015, when the problems around Horizon were emerging. She stated that the board was not kept properly informed despite the evidence was shown that she was received briefings on the issues soon after starting the job in 2011.

    One example was a meeting with Angus Grant, an auditor from Ernst & Young (E&Y), soon after she started her role. Perkins’ notes, written immediately after the meeting and revealed in the hearing, show that Grant raised his and E&Y’s concerns about Horizon.

    Recording what Grant told her she wrote, “With Fujitsu the Post Office drove a very hard bargain on price but they took back on quality/assurance.” Perkins said she understood this to mean the Post Office had negotiated a lower price, but in return Fujitsu had reduced the assurance they could give Horizon.

    During the hearing, inquiry barrister Jason Beer KC suggested this was a “very important message to have received” and Perkins agreed.

    Beer asked, “You would agree that if the computer system – which 11,900 Post Office branches use on a daily basis to process millions of transactions worth billions of pounds a year – is a real risk to the independent professional auditors, then it’s a real risk to the Post Office too, isn’t it?”

    Perkins said that she didn’t think she disclosed this to Paula Vennells, the Post Office chief executive at the time, or the board, and said she could not remember telling anyone at the organisation about it.

    The former chairman told the inquiry that she did not “draw a link” between this “risk” and criminal prosecutions of sub-postmasters, adding, “I’m a human being and I didn’t see it.”

    During the hearing, Beer also raised that in 2012, Perkins wanted to convince MPs, including peer James Arbuthnot, previously MP for North-East Hampshire, that the system was not at fault for subpostmasters’ difficulties.

    Perkins denied the claim, saying that she did not know what was in her mind at the time but it was clear that it was always her intention that they “should take a proper look at this”.

    During the time Perkins chaired the board, the Post Office Horizon scandal entered a critical phase and saw increasing pressure from campaigners, MPs and journalists and an independent investigation into the Horizon system.

    In her recent hearing, she blamed former general counsel Susan Crichton for her ignorance of legal advice, saying she and her fellow board members were given an “incomplete picture” of Horizon’s integrity and that advice was not passed on by Crichton.

    “I look back at these omissions and I feel very badly let down by them,” Perkins wrote in her witness statement.

    More than 900 sub-postmasters were wrongfully prosecuted between 1999 and 2015 as a result of the Horizon scandal because of faulty software recording non-existent shortfalls in their branch accounts.

    Perkins’ evidence is due to continue today (6).

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