Post Office described IT bugs as 'exceptions' to make them sound 'non-emotive', inquiry told

Senior figures at the Post Office began describing computer bugs as "exceptions" as they grappled with mounting complaints from sub-postmasters about its faulty Horizon IT system, it has emerged.

The then Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells made the suggestion to colleagues after she asked her husband for advice on a "non-emotive" way of referring to computer problems, the inquiry into the Post Office scandal heard.

It came amid concern within the company about bad publicity over the prosecution of sub-postmasters accused of stealing from branches.

Between 1999 and 2015, more than 700 Post Office managers were prosecuted after the faulty accounting software, provided by Fujitsu, made it seem like money was missing. At the time, the company insisted its systems were robust.

On Tuesday the inquiry heard evidence from the Post Office's former lead in-house lawyer Susan Crichton, who was quizzed about a series of emails sent between senior figures.

This included a message from Ms Vennells, written in July 2013, which 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 xx'"

The Post Office's director of communications at the time, Mark Davies, replied: "I like exception v much. Very helpful".

Following the exchange, Post Office emails and documents began referring to computer problems as "exceptions" and "anomalies", including in a briefing document written by Ms Crichton. The wording was also then used in a briefing note to MPs.

Julian Blake, counsel to the inquiry, asked the retired lawyer: "The wording here that's being used, is there an element of smoke and mirrors about the whole thing now?"

She replied: "It certainly reads that way".

Mr Blake said the use of "exception" instead of "bug" was "absolutely Orwellian".

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The inquiry was also shown correspondence between senior figures about whether to launch a review into alleged cases of theft. An email from Ms Crichton showed she was against a full independent investigation into sub-postmasters who had already been convicted.

She wrote in June 2012: "I do not think that we want to be seen as re-opening cases but rather position this as a review of the existing evidence to enable an understanding of the outstanding concerns and the facts... For those who have not been prosecuted we can offer a full independent investigation".

Ms Crichton agreed with Mr Blake that her stance had been a "mistake on her part", and added: "I was too short-sighted maybe".

She told the inquiry that she "tried to stop prosecutions reliant on Horizon evidence" but left her role as the company's general counsel in late 2013 as former Post Office chair Alice Perkins had lost confidence in her.

Earlier, Ms Crichton began her evidence with an apology to those affected by the scandal.

"l am truly sorry for the suffering caused to you and your families. I wish that things had been resolved more quickly and again, I'm very sorry that they haven't been," she said.

The inquiry continues.