Former UK subpostmaster Alan Bates and his workers made 507 calls to a support line before Post Office Limited (POL) terminated his contract because he had become “unmanageable”, testimony has revealed as the UK’s Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry begins its fifth phase.

Initially seeking to raise concerns about issues with the new Horizon system – which was introduced shortly after Bates opened his post office at Craig-y-Don, Llandudno, Wales in March 1998 – Bates testified that support calls often dragged on for hours and that helpline staff “were unable to assist in any meaningful way…. They stated the bleeding obvious, and it was all things that I had tried.”

Although he “regarded the introduction of Horizon at first as a positive innovation,” Bates said, its lack of effective reporting tools left Bates struggling to audit his branch’s accounts as shortfalls began accumulating shortly after its introduction.

“There was very little flexibility in Horizon,” he explained. “There was a set [of reports] that were already built into the system, but they were quite restrictive – and that did seem to cause problems” as he attempted to understand what soon became a more than $11,000 (£6,000) shortfall.

Fully 85 of the 507 support calls related specifically to the Horizon system and balancing problems – including an hour-long call a fortnight before Christmas 2000, when Bates dedicated two retail terminals to printing out metres of old Horizon reports while staff used the branch’s third terminal to serve a customer queue that was snaking out the door.

Bates ultimately traced around £5,000 of the alleged shortfall to Giro items that had been wrongly duplicated by Horizon – which was built and maintained by the UK arm of Japanese firm Fujitsu; the remainder, Bates said, were likely due to the same issue but “in the absence of proper reporting functions on Horizon… I was unable to ascertain the root cause of the apparent shortfall at all.”

For three years Bates used suspense accounts to roll over the bad payments, adding to the alleged shortfalls even as he continued trying to get meaningful assistance from a helpline that, he said, was so ineffective that eventually “we never bothered ringing.”

In April 2003 that Post Office wrote him, citing a contractual requirement that subpostmasters repay losses “caused through [their] own negligence, carelessness or error” and demanding that he repay the shortfalls from his own pockets – as many other subpostmasters did to their own detriment.

“I will gladly make good any losses caused in this manner,” Bates wrote back, but “if I’m unable to access the data to check items, it is totally unreasonable to expect me to accept liability from uncheckable data…. I see nothing in this clause that states that I’m also liable for data that I’m unable to check.”

Four months later, Bates received a “partly expected” letter advising that his contract would be terminated in November – with no reason provided.

Since he disputed the legitimacy of the shortfalls, Bates continued operating the shop after the deadline, as he said stopping operations would have legitimately violated his contract.

It was only later, in a presentation by then POL managing director of branch accounting Dave Smith, that Bates’s dismissal was described as being because Bates “became unmanageable [and] clearly struggled with accounting, and despite copious support did not follow instructions.”

Bates – whose role as the focal point of the recent documentary Mr Bates vs The Post Office shocked the UK government into action – has spent the past 21 years investigating and pursuing the issue, forming lobbying group Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) as he worked 30 to 40 hour weeks rallying hundreds of other subpostmasters to the cause.

Bates vs the Post Office

Whereas the inquiry’s fourth phase focused heavily on the complicity of developer Fujitsu with Post Office investigators relying on often fudged evidence, Bates’s testimony has set the stage for fifth phase appearances by disgraced former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells and other key players in the scandal.

Vennells’ integrity was already being questioned on the second day of hearings, as former MP for North East Hampshire Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom – currently on the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board – recalled reaching out to the government and, ultimately, to Vennells after hearing similar concerns from two subpostmasters among his constituency.

Arbuthnot became “frustrated and annoyed” as responsible ministers and executives brushed off his enquiries, citing the government’s arm’s length relationship with POL as the reason why Horizon issues were “operational and contractual matters for the Post Office and not for government.”

“There was something at the back of my mind which continued to trouble me,” Arbuthnot testified, “which was the number of people who were being told that ‘you are the only person this is happening to’.”

“That struck me as being profoundly wrong because it was obviously disprovable that they were not the only people it was happening to.”

Even Vennells – who as a public official he “would expect… to tell the truth” – responded to his enquiries with a “brush off” by writing that while she was aware of the JFSA’s claims, “there’s been no evidence to support any of the allegations, and we have no reason to doubt the integrity of the system, which we remain confident is robust and fit for purpose.”

That word – ‘robust’ – came up repeatedly and Arbuthnot said that describing it that way “was clearly the line to take” as POL executives progressively closed ranks around inquiries.

“There were lots and lots of people who were told to use this word,” he said, “which implied a series of group thinking seminars which led to the use of language… And that’s what they chose: ‘robust’.”

This, he said, despite the fact that “there was something inherently implausible about a new computer system being completely fault free.”

Phase 5 of the inquiry will continue through the end of July, with hearings streaming and archived on YouTube.