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Post Office bosses tried to water down language around Horizon ‘bugs’, inquiry hears

Former Post Office chief Paula Vennells did not want to use the word “bugs” when referencing the faulty Horizon system in an “Orwellian” move to sound “non-emotive”, an inquiry has heard today.

It has been revealed that in 2013, then Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells asked her “computer literate” husband for a “non-emotive word” to describe a computer bug.

An email exchange shown to the inquiry showed Ms Vennells saying her husband had suggested “exception” or “anomaly” as alternatives to “bug” to describe issues with Horizon.

The email, from Ms Vennells to former Post Office communications director Mark R Davies, said: “My engineer/computer literate husband sent the following reply to the question: ‘What is a non-emotive word for computer bugs, glitches, defects that happen as a matter of course?’

“Answer: ‘Exception or anomaly. You can also say conditional exception/anomaly which only manifests itself under unforeseen circumstances.”

Susan Crichton, the Post Office’s general counsel before resigning in 2013, told the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry on Tuesday that she did not recall discussions among Post Office bosses over changing the language around the so-called “bugs”.

But when pressed and presented with evidence by inquiry counsel Julian Blake, Ms Crichton conceded that while she does not remember being part of a group responsible for drafting a briefing note on Horizon’s issues, “obviously I was”.

The briefing note – for a meeting with Lord Arbuthnot and included in a July 2013 email from Martin Edwards, the former chief of staff to the chief executive and group strategy director at Post Office – includes a paragraph referencing “two system exceptions (anomalies)” under the Horizon IT system.

Pointing out that “everything’s now being called an ‘exception’ rather than a ‘bug’”, Mr Blake described the change of wording as “absolutely Orwellian.”

Ms Crichton was the Post Office’s general counsel until the autumn of 2013, by which point forensic investigators Second Sight had begun uncovering a range of issues with the IT software that started to raise concerns around the conduct of prosecutions.

She told the inquiry that she would use the word “defects” as the term “bugs” is “a bit slang” and imprecise, and that she must have a “mistaken” recollection of her involvement in crafting the briefing for Lord Arbuthnot that featured the changing language.

Asked by Mr Blake if the wording being used showed an element of “smoke and mirrors” about the situation, Ms Crichton said it “certainly seems that way.”

Another email from Mr Edwards shown to the inquiry stressed the need for the Post Office to be careful in its communications, adding: “Just to be clear, anomalies – these were not undiscovered issues. We brought them to Second Sight’s attention for completeness.”

The inquiry continues.

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