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back to article UK Post Office admits false accusations after computer system cockup

The Post Office has admitted that it may have wrongly prosecuted sub–post office officials after its computer payment system overcharged some branches. The Horizon system handles all payment processing with the Post Office's 11,500 contractors who run sub–post offices throughout the country. Over 100 have registered complaints …

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No systemic problem?

" It found bugs in the system that had led to overbilling of 76 contractors, but said there was no systemic problem with the Horizon payment system."

Seventy six people being overbilled seems pretty high to me. People ending up going to jail for this? If the people who have gone to jail over this have been indeed overbilled, the PO and the software company are a bunch of incompetent, arse-covering, inept idiots. You don't wait until a hundred people's lives are ruined before you get your finger out and do something about it. We are not talking about people being overbilled £10 by the electricity company (which is bad enough in itself) - we are talking about people's houses being repossessed and their lives ruined.

And he is talking about just "refunding" those people? Jeez - if the allegations are indeed true, I hope PO do go bust as they deserve it. Talk about complete lack of comprehension of the severity of their negligence.

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Re: No systemic problem?

Is it possible to have a non-systemic SW problem? There are reasons problems may be intermittant, caused by uninitialised data, race conditions etc but at the end of the day they are caused by flaws in the SW system.

In the interests of justice they need to discols ethe nature of the problems they have identified. I am very suspicous that the problems were widespread and frequent. A very occasional problem would never have go to this stage.

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Megaphone

New Weasel Words

"No systemic problem" aka we dont admit anything was wrong. Stupid tack to take.

One sublety to be aware of - the people went to prison - not because the system was wrong - but because their response to it was considered criminal. ie they panicked and cooked the books to eliminate the issue and got done for false accounting.

Not saying their jailing was correct (it obviously isnt) but there a lot of areas where the law punishes people who break one law as a result of trying to avoid the consequences of something else.

Another less extreme example would be speeding tickets or running red lights taking your wife to hospital as she;s in labour.

Both are situations where the Prosecution/Judge needs to be in full receipt of the facts - in this case it sounds like they were not.

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Re: New Weasel Words

Well said. Yes the prosecution was for fraud but under the circumstances etc..

The response from the PO defies belief. The correct response is a humble and sincere apology, assisting not only in making whole those affected but ensuring they get free legal assistance to attempt to clear their names and significant compensation and support. This is not a time to listen to your in house ambulance chasers. You haven't just cost people a bit of money, you have in some cases created a situation that was impossible to deal with and that wrecked their lives. The very least you can do is sort that out and pay for it out of your huge pension fund \ bonus pot. The chief exec of royal fail has (ms greene) had nearly a million in bonuses alone over the past two years on top of a salary of nearly half a million a year, can we say clawback? There is no way this should be paid for by staff or consumers.

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Trollface

Trust The Computer

From TOAST:

The Party by definition cannot be wrong. But the party, in all its glorious wisdom announced in 1997 that the supervisor program used by all their Class D computers was Correct. (That was not long after the Mathematicians Purge.) Bugs do not exist in a Correct system; therefore anyone who discovers one is an enemy of the party and must be remotivated. So nothing can be wrong with the Computer, even if those of us who know such things are aware that in about three months from now half the novel writers and voice typers in Oceania will start churning out nonsense.

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Re: No systemic problem?

For anyone who has lost a house, business, or their good name, a substantial damages claim is in order here. A refund doesn't even come close to being an adequate response. I should expect claims to be in the order of half a million each.

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Re: No systemic problem?

Quashing of any criminal proceedings is high on the list as well. There are people with undeserved criminal records - arguably as bad as the financial implications.

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Re: No systemic problem?

Another bunch of incompetents, or rather, complicit and lazy bottom-feeders, are the gutless lawyers who vigorously misrepresented these innocent victims into jail -- a further indictment of the pandemic but very well-paid corruption in the legal system.

Let's hope at least a few can be criminally prosecuted or sued into professional oblivion for malpractise ... pour encourager les autres!

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This is just getting ....

.... ludicrous. With all of the failures of big IT over the past 10-15 years these systems are still seen as infallible. No matter the physical proof provided the organisations responsible still insist what is on the computer is correct.

It never is though, after 20 years I have finally had a NI issue sorted where someone was claiming under my number for benefits. Benefits agency for years has called me a liar when I have tried to have it resolved, simply because the details on their system showed the other person was claiming under the number and I wasn't. Despite the fact I had physical proof, the card itself. When the claimant died, I received a tax form addressed to the executor of my estate, yep I was legally dead, at that point I snapped, went apeshit with the tax office and used the MP/Solicitor threat until they carried out an investigation which finally resolved the fault. I'm just waiting for my next yearly statement to see if they finally have.

Rule 1 of big IT should be never assume the system is correct over a human, always investigate. I can't imagine the payouts that will happen when the cases of the accused reach court, lifetime loss of earnings for that many people will cost a fair amount.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: This is just getting ....

The basic fundamental point of any bureaucracy, is that customers never get anywhere sorting anything out, unless they threaten to hurt the people in charge.

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Re: This is just getting ....

NI Cards say on them that they are not proof of anything. It's a cheap plastic card with punched numbers, I could knock one up from bog-standard office/conference card kits in about 3 minutes with any details you liked.

However, I would have just brought in the lawyers in year 1 and got it sorted rather than let someone freeload at my expense for 20 years and then only complain when you're marked as dead.

I have sympathy for your situation occurring. I don't have much sympathy for you letting it linger for 20 years, because by then it's pretty much impossible to work out what is what because the records just don't go back that far. 20 years ago, the system probably wasn't even mainly IT-based (though there might have been an IT frontend of some kind for various things).

That said, IT projects always turn to junk. I'd put the blame squarely on the fact that most of the people involved in designing the system have zero knowledge of IT. That's fine for the USERS, not for the implementers and not for the project managers. And invariably it will end up late, over-budget, not fit for purpose but the contracts won't have anything that holds anyone accountable for that. Then next decade we run the gauntlet again with another new system rather than fixing the old one.

I would have infinitely more confidence in a government IT project if, when I walked in the door, they were using desktop PCs with precisely ONE ICON to interface with a 1980's teletype system that has been running forever and looks as ugly as hell. I would then have a subconscious expectation that it would actually do what it is supposed to.

I blame general purpose operating systems. Back when you had a screen where the only way to progress WAS to type 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, the systems were designed well, under control, not subject to user whims about their data entry, and pretty much stopped intrusion and abuse at the front door because you could only do what you were told to and only through the provided interfaces.

I'd love to hear why any IT project for something like this needs a general purpose operating system as the front-end, except as a carrier for some limited, secured, cross-platform interface.

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Re: This is just getting ....

I didn't let it linger for years, there were many separate incidents over the years that each time they occurred I was told they were resolved. And also after the first year the tax office office would have laughed at MP/Solicitor, they only started the investigation because of the death report. That coupled in with the previous events would have caused them a significant headache had it gone through legal channels.

Have you ever been a lone voice that has tried fighting an organisation that is never wrong? Never mind 2 at the same time? I suggest you try. I am quite sure George Carlin meant the benefits agency when he said 'Never argue with an idiot. They will only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience'

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Re: This is just getting ....

Rule 1 of big IT should be never assume the system is correct over a human

The problem is that if you're a very stupid person, then even the most unreliable computer system seems infallible to you.

Also, fobbing people off is the way of life in the public sector. My wife has been trying to sort out a NI problem for the past two years. She never gets to speak to the same person twice, and every person she speaks to comes up with a different excuse - all of them invalid. Bureaucrats know they can keep this up until you die.

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Re: This is just getting ....

Follow the procedure at https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-work-pensions/about/complaints-procedure or http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/complaints-appeals/how-to-complain/index.htm in writing. Keep escalating along that procedure, keep to the timescales.

The squeakiest wheel gets the grease

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Re: This is just getting ....

A friend had money stopped from his wages to pay child support, for his kid that he lived with. He was still married and living with his wife and his daughter. God only know where they got the idea he needed to pay child support. Not that the Mrs ever saw any of the payments either. You think when everyones address matched it might have caused an alarm to go off. When they were finally believed they were told no refund was possible. Last time I dared ask it was in the hands of a solicitor.

The problem with large systems, especially ones are that genuinely abused, is that people just assume they cannot make a mistake. When they do make a mistake it's a monsterous ball ache to ever be believed and forget restitution or compensation, especially with the guberment.

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Terminator

Re: This is just getting ....

But threatening to hurt people gets you locked up.

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Anonymous Coward

Of course, if there were actually to be justice here, those who used the flaky evidence (based on a computer program FFS) to fine and jail these people should be fined and jailed.

But of course, this doesn't happen in this country. What will happen is a payout, paid for by the Post Office's customers and those who are actually to blame for ruining these people's lives will get away with it.

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It seems likely that the Post Office engaged in false accounting, and I hope the police start investigating. They should also look into whether those who testified to these losses perjured themselves.

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Perjury + Prosecutions

Excellent point re. Perjury, which includes testifying under oath that a fact is true when not, from own personal experience, KNOWING that to be the case.

Also, it's not necessary for the victims to wait for the police to prosecute (in this case, there'll be a cold day in hell) as anyone with knowledge of the offence can, as a 'common informer', commence criminal proceedings by 'laying an information' (prima facie evidence) before their local judge, asking for the issue of a summons to compel the accused to answer the charge.

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The lest that should be happening is that every one of these shortfall claims should be passed to independent Auditors for checking against the raw data. The fact that the software was checked and some bugs were found is not the real problem and is not the way to cure it. People were put in prinson for 'stealing', not for software errors.

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The problem I see here is that they have found 76 problems, across 11,500 post offices (note they released the 68,000 user figure to make it seem like an even smaller percentage). Do you think for one second they have gone through and matched the accounts to the actual paperwork for every post office? I think not. So how many DID they sample? 100, 200, 500? That 76 is starting to look like a lot higher percentage. Did they just find a single bug and find every place it might have occured, have they fixed it, are there other bugs, how was this not even found? It's a shame the Post Office is privatised as we could just Freedom of Information Request the report.

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You can

You can FOI the Post Office - it's a public corporation. See http://www.postoffice.co.uk/our-publication-scheme and https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/body/post_office

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So, to follow up the previous, the system has 25,000 users (1) and the investigation looked at 10 accounts (2).

So, we now know that the Post Office don't know how many errors there are, just that of 10 cases enough were wrong to assume 76 accounts were wrong, which I believe to be all the ones they'd received complaints about. Now, here's the next question, how many more are there? One may assume there are people who've not come forward for 3 reasons: fear of losing the contract, acceptance of the system neing right, lack of understanding of the system. (I've seperated the last two, because whilst one may understand it, they may feel themselves to blame whereas one who didn't understand it may just accept willingly.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18535354

(1) "Over the past 10 years, many millions of branch reconciliations have been carried out with transactions and balances accurately recorded by more than 25,000 different sub-postmasters. [...]"

(2) The Post Office has instructed a firm of forensic accountants, 2nd Sight Limited, to conduct an independent review of 10 existing cases raised by a number of MPs and the law firm Shoosmiths.

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Anonymous Coward

Keeping the beaurocracy alive...

The Post Office, proving its irrelevance to modern life, day by day. now found to be inept and criminally negligent too.

Who needs a Post Office these days? I only ever need a place to drop off parcels - TNT, DHL and many others do a reasonable job there. If I could get away with it, I'd seal up my letterbox and banish junk mail, leaflets and all the other tripe that comes via the post for ever. However there are still troglodyte members of our society that insist you can only have things on a form of papyrus.

Time to close it down and move on.

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Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive...

So what you're saying is that because misplace trust in an entirely electronic accounting system resulted in false criminal convictions it follows that keeping information on paper is irrelevant and obsolete?

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Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive... @AC 8:13

If you can live without a mail service, then I suspect that for you the Post Office is irrelevant.

But I also suspect that when you need your next car tax disk (assuming you drive), you may find one of the Post Office and Royal Mail services useful, either to collect in person or to deliver the disk. And if you don't drive then you are not typical, and your comment is irrelevant.

Or you want your next bank card to be securely delivered, or that job application that the employer wants documentary evidence for and you want to be tracked, or any number of things for which a physical delivery is required.

What you may not realise is that people like TNT and DHL (I think) and others actually use the Royal Mail for last-hop delivery, because they can't be bothered to raise the money to put a national delivery mechanism in place for themselves. If there was no Royal Mail to do this, these alternative services would become much more expensive.

And for may people, particularly in rural areas, Post Offices fulfil the function of Bank, basic shop and news agent, and social hub, when no other shop would remain open.

Royal Mail and the Post Office are not perfect organisations (especially in light of this report), and their role is definitely diminishing, but if they were to disappear overnight, you, along with everybody else, would notice at some point.

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Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive... @Me

Damn. Bloody Americanisms. Of course I meant disc.

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Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive... @AC 8:13

The first thing to note is that since April 2012 the Post Office and Royal Mail have been separate entities. and the Post Office just has a ten year contract to issue stamps and handle letters and parcels for Royal Mail. The Post Office is effectively now just a commercial business; probably why you have to put up with all those video ads when you're queuing.

What ever it's faults the big plus with Royal Mail is that it is a universal service. I will cost me the same to send a letter to my next door neighbour as it does to send a letter to eccentric Uncle Hamish on his remote Hebridian island. If the Royal Mail is privatised I wonder how long that will last? I can't see DHL, UPS et al clamouring to provide a rural service.

I know RM is making profits (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22605734) but think how much bigger board bonus would be if they didn't have to send a van out into the snow covered dales with one Christmas card for a remote farm.

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Unhappy

Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive...

"So what you're saying is that because misplace trust in an entirely electronic accounting system resulted in false criminal convictions it follows that keeping information on paper is irrelevant and obsolete?"

If that were all then you (Gerard) would have a point. But when you put this together with the customer service disaster of moving to a new, complex and user unfriendly pricing of letters by size, shape, weight (colour isn't chargeable, yet), and then repeating the same for parcels, then you start to see a pattern of an organisation that doesn't give a **** about its customers (because it has a monopoly), and doesn't evidently give a **** about its sub contractors (because it has some public sector sense of infallibility). Add in straightforward price rises of exorbitant proportions, an assortment of other computer system failures, and a total failure to move with the times (eg evening or weekend deliveries as routine services, counters open normal shopping hours, cost effective mail order returns, locker deliveres all available at not-exorbitant costs), and the Post Office is one huge brown paper parcel full of ****.

Why do you think services like Yodel and other subcontracted delivery operations can find business to keep them going? Why has Collect+ sprung up as an alternative for returns and delivereis? With the rise of Amazon and internet shopping, the Post Office should have become a mainstay of the internet economy, with bulging accounts and satisfied customers. Instead they deliver intermittently and when it suits them, they charge exorbitant prices according to intangible pricing rules. The network subsidy payment has gone up, the organisation has disappeared up its own @rse flogging financial services and lottery tickets. The useless ****ers paid their staff a 4.3% pay increase last year, which is a lot better than most people got. And their chief exec gets paid well over a million quid a year for this useless service(plus the usual board of City rent-a-nonexecs, and friends of politicians).

Of course, as the Post Office are regulated by OFCOM we shouldn't be surprised at poor performance being handsomely rewarded.

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Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive... @AC 8:13

" I can't see DHL, UPS et al clamouring to provide a rural service."

You're right, I remember our old office postman saying exactly that. Royal Mail were obliged to carry letters for other mail companies at a set cost. So DHL Mail take your money and deliver it themselves if it's in a city, or use the Royal Mail if it's rural so that Royal Mail take the loss and not them.

As much as Royal Mail wind me up, they're between a rock and hard place when it comes to competition. What they do for 33p is still pretty impressive - Jack Dee (Live at the Apollo) did a great piece on it (which I can't find online, otherwise I'd post a link).

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Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive... @AC 8:13

It is 50p for a second class stamp now.

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Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive... @Me

Tax discs are another anachronism that we could well do without.

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Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive... @AC 8:13

Businesses, ie those likely to use non-RM delivery services for letters, pay less.

so its 33p from a franking machine at a company premises for Second class letter.

Of interest is the RM response to underpostage from franking machines. It used to be that you could look up the cost from the table (or remember it) and type in the cost and print the franked label with that value on.

If you had mistyped and postage was short, the delivery office would deliver it but then send you a card to put the shortfall (plus handling fee on)

Now you're obliged to use a weighing platform and/or the pre-programmed keys on the franking machine so that you get it right the first time.

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Headmaster

Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive...

I assume "beaurocracy" is the rule of swankily-dressed men from the Regency era.

Or could it possibly have something to do with bureaucrats?

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Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive... @Me

Well, maybe, if they abolished road tax altogether. Until that point, my gran will need to go to a physical location to pay her road tax, her not having a computer, much less internet or the wherewithal to engage in online shopping.

I suppose as long as it's in the system, yes you could dispense with the physical disc, but a physical outlet is still necessary. And for the time bring, beat bobbies can still inspect discs at a glance rather than calling it in for an office worker to query on the system.

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Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive... @AC 8:13

Any postal service can securely deliver your bank card or your next tax disc or evidence for your job application.

You are quite wrong to disregard people's comment if they have no day-to-day need for the Post Office or Royal Mail, as both are government-owned organisations. And people do understand the concept of the last mile system operated by Royal Mail. Royal Mail -- quite rightly -- deliberately takes advantage of its infrastructure to avoid replication of this delivery stage. It profits from this; it's not that others can't be bothered.

But the services you've described are provided by Royal Mail, not by the Post Office. Even with the Post Office acting as a customer's physical entry point to Royal Mail's services (as opposed to online), they do not make the Post Office essential. You know fully well that, in theory, Royal Mail could contract directly with any high street presence to be its customer interface, thereby dispensing with the Post Office altogether. We would lament the loss of the brand, the editor of the Daily Mail would receive some angry letters (I wonder how they'd be delivered) but we would have the same services you've listed and life goes on.

This article is about the Post Office, not about Royal Mail. And if the Post Office were wound up tomorrow as a result of Horizon failures then we would still have the same universal postal system we've always had.

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Headmaster

Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive... @AC 8:13

There is no such thing as a Tax disk, do you mean a VED Disk?

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"There is no such thing as a Tax disk" @David Cherry

You might like to tell the DVLA and the gov.uk websites that.

https://www.gov.uk/browse/driving

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Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive... @beck13

I was the one who brought up Tax discs, and I did refer to the Post Office being used to obtain Tax discs, although I did not sufficiently discriminate between the Post Office and Royal Mail. My mistake.

My other points about the Post Office in rural areas still stand IMHO.

If it were profitably for TNT et. al. to put a last mile delivery service in, they would. They don't, so it can be assumed that they have judged that it is not worth it. IIRC, Royal Mail originally said that they would at best break even doing the last mile (although that is really not descriptive of what is done), and would more likely end up doing it at a loss. Unfortunately, they were forced to do this in order to allow other companies to break the total monopoly that Royal Mail had for many years.

It is probable that residents of most medium sized or larger towns could live without a local Post Office day-to-day. It is similarly likely that rural areas need Post Offices more. But I would bet that many of the people who say that they can live without it probably do not know what they could use it for. They are for far more than just buying stamps.

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Re: Keeping the beaurocracy alive... @Me

VED is "Car tax" not "Road tax" - see http://ipayroadtax.com/ for the gory details.

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Some have been jailed and others have lost their homes and businesses

If it can be shown that those bugs are directly responsible for sending innocent people to jail, I think the Post Office are going to have a very very big legal bill on their hands.

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Well known issue

Private Eye had been recording all this for months. A long stream of ordinary hard working post office people being accused of dishonesty; bankrupted and sometimes jailed. And even if some were both crooked and stupid enough to embezzle large amounts of cash it was always rather incredible to think that there could be many.

Yet because the computer said there was, they were automatically judged guilty - with apparently no defence.

During most of this period the Post Office seems to have just said repeatedly that it couldn't possibly be their computer system. Now they are saying their system isn't infallible after all.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Well known issue

Private has been on the subject for years.

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just wishing

Any chance of the muppets that signed off on the defective system getting some jail time?

Why didn't their defence solicitors point to the known failures in the system and create a reasonable doubt?

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Flame

Re: just wishing

Not so much the people who signed off on the system, but those who did not fully investigate every instance of 'false accounting' properly, as they are the ones that caused the harm, every computer system will have flaws, as do human systems, the difference is they blindly follow computers...

I get very very angry when I hear of things like this...

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Re: just wishing

What's the punishment for providing false evidence?

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Re: just wishing @Disco Dance Donkey

"What's the punishment for providing false evidence?"

Providing false evidence, if found to be culpable, is known as "perverting the course of justice". It is a common law offence, and carries up to life imprisonment ... I don't know of any cases where the maximum has been applied, but the clear fabrication of lies by Huhne and Pryce only got them eight months with two months served inside.

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Anonymous Coward

Sent to prison!

I hope they are not making them sew mail bags.

</troll>

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