The supplier at the centre of the Post Office Horizon scandal has so far escaped the ramifications of its role in the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history
Emea Content Editor, Computer Weekly
Published: 12 May 2021 14:25
Fujitsu has been awarded £3.1bn worth of contracts with the UK public sector since 2013, while subpostmasters suffered unimaginable hardship triggered by IT faults the supplier hid from them.
The contracts include two with the Post Office, worth a total of £440m.
Fujitsu has so far avoided any adverse ramifications resulting from its role in the Post Office Horizon scandal, but a full statutory judge-led inquiry could change that.
The huge amount of taxpayers’ money spent with Fujitsu adds weight to calls for a such an inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal, which saw subpostmasters blamed and punished for unexplained losses caused by errors in the supplier’s Horizon retail and accounting system.
“This is a public outrage and it needs a public answer,” said Conservative peer James Arbuthnot, who has campaigned for subpostmasters for over a decade.
Because Fujitsu is a trusted supplier of IT services to major government departments, critical to the livelihoods and safety of the entire population, its business and management are the concern of the UK public.
According to figures from Tussell, which analyses government spending data, in the past five years, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) awarded contracts worth £673m to Fujitsu, while the Home Office and Ministry of Defence awarded contracts valued at £456m and £572m respectively.
Fujitsu kept quiet about Horizon flaws
Many subpostmaster victims of the scandal were bankrupted by having to use their life savings and sell assets to plug shortfalls in their accounts which only existed on Horizon and were caused by software errors.
A total of 736 subpostmasters were prosecuted for financial crimes with some sent to prison. Many suffered ill health caused by stress and there is at least one suicide linked to the scandal. It is described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history and 45 subpostmasters have already had criminal convictions quashed with many time more expected to follow.
All along, the Post Office denied that the Fujitsu Horizon system could cause unexplained shortfalls, and Fujitsu, which knew this was not the case, remained silent
All along, the Post Office denied that the Fujitsu Horizon system could cause unexplained shortfalls, and Fujitsu, which knew this was not the case, remained silent.
Between 2000 and 2015, Fujitsu stood by while the Post Office prosecuted subpostmasters based on evidence from the Horizon system, which Fujitsu staff knew was flawed.
Campaigners for justice demand a full statutory public inquiry into the Horizon scandal, with the power to call witnesses, including past and present Fujitsu staff. The government’s current inquiry, led by former judge Wyn Williams, does not have the power to compel people to give evidence under oath or demand the documentation it needs. Fujitsu is taking part in this inquiry, but it is being described as a “whitewash” by campaigners.
For two decades, subpostmasters suspected that the unexplained losses were caused by the Horizon system. In 2009, Computer Weekly told the stories of seven subpostmasters affected by the losses (see timeline below for Computer Weekly coverage of the scandal).
The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) was formed soon after and began its campaign for justice. This culminated in a High Court group litigation, which ended in December 2019.
After years of Post Office denials over errors in the Horizon system, supported by silence from Fujitsu, the judge in the High Court found the Horizon system was not remotely robust and contained many errors that could cause unexplained shortfalls.
During the group litigation, where 555 subpostmasters were suing the Post Office, the judge, Peter Fraser, described the Post Office’s denials of computer errors as the “21st century equivalent of maintaining the earth is flat”.
Fujitsu’s reliability was also called into question after the court case. It emerged that expert IT witnesses from Fujitsu, used by the Post Office in court trials of subpostmasters charged with financial crimes including theft and false accounting, did not tell the whole truth.
The Metropolitan Police is currently investigating Fujitsu staff for potentially committing perjury during court trials of subpostmasters.
One senior corporate lawyer, specialising in IT outsourcing, questioned why Fujitsu staff might provide misleading evidence, saying: “For a staff member at an IT supplier to mislead a court could be that it was protecting the customer, but more likely itself.”
Computer Weekly has been demanding answers from Fujitsu, but the company has so far failed to answer.
Huge personal and financial harm
Arbuthnot said it was not good enough for Fujitsu to plead secrecy when the Horizon system has had huge consequences for the country. “[Fujitsu] has played a major part in destroying the reputation of the Post Office, which was once a much-loved organisation, central to the village and town communities throughout the land,” he said.
“[Fujitsu] has played a major part in destroying the reputation of the Post Office, which was once a much-loved organisation, central to the village and town communities throughout the land”
“But much more importantly, Horizon has also caused thousands of respected people to be humiliated within those communities, many going bankrupt or losing their life savings, some seeing their families destroyed, some going to prison and even some suicides.”
Not only have the IT failures of the Horizon system caused subpostmasters immeasurable harm, but public funds have been, and continue to be, thrown at the problem.
The taxpayer-funded Post Office has already wasted an estimated £100m in legal costs fighting subpostmasters in court and paid a £57.75m settlement with them after it admitted defeat, all but £11m of which went on subpostmaster legal costs.
Following the court judgment, the Post Office was forced to set up a compensation scheme, which 2,400 former subpostmasters have joined. Due to the huge amount of damages expected, the government has had to agree to foot the bill.
But the huge costs and suffering could have been avoided had Fujitsu been open about the problems.
Software testers identified thousands of bugs
In 2015, Computer Weekly reported an anonymous source who came forward after following coverage of Horizon problems.
He said when Horizon was being acquired in the late 1990s, experts identified the “cash writing program” as a possible cause of serious problems. He said teams identified a risk of data corruption on the bespoke asynchronous communication system which sent messages between branches and the central Horizon setup.
Speaking to Computer Weekly in 2015, the source said: “The asynchronous system does not communicate in real time, but does so using a series of messages that are stored, and forwarded when the network connection is available. This means that messages to and from the centre may trip over each other. It is perfectly possible that, if not treated properly, messages from the centre may overwrite data held locally.”
Earlier this year, a former Fujitsu developer told Computer Weekly that he made his superiors at Fujitsu aware of the extent of problems with Horizon, telling them explicitly that the cash account needed to be scrapped.
“Everybody in the building by the time I got there knew it was a bag of s**t”, he said. “It had gone through the test labs God knows how many times, and the testers were raising bugs by the thousand.”
Computer Weekly asked Fujitsu why it did not tell the truth about errors in the system when subpostmasters were being prosecuted, even being sent to prison? Fujitsu was also asked if it accepts it was at fault allowing the Post Office to claim that Horizon errors could not cause unexplained losses when, in fact, both organisations knew this to be the case?
Fujitsu said it would not answer these questions, but sent a statement: “As a long-term partner to UK public and private sector organisations, we are dedicated to supporting our customers, our employees and the people they serve in the UK. We provided detailed responses to all questions raised by the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee, which can be read here, and are continuing to cooperate with the ongoing Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry.”
Passing the buck
In her answers to the MP’s questions, Vennells blamed Fujitsu for not giving her and the Post Office management a true picture of the problems with Horizon.
“The message that the board and I were consistently given by Fujitsu, from the highest levels of the company, was that while, like any IT system, Horizon was not perfect and had a limited lifespan, it was fundamentally sound,” she wrote.
“I believed that it was reasonable for the board to rely on these assurances: Fujitsu was a respected global IT company, it had many other governmental and high-profile customers, and from my experience of working with Fujitsu, it appeared to be well-led and professional.”
Vennells said the board asked Fujitsu questions to help it understand the issues with Horizon, but “it now appears that the answers that came back to these questions were only partially correct”.
Rob Putland, senior vice-president at Fujitsu, was asked for a response to the judge’s view that the court case offered “a very one-sided picture” of Horizon, which omitted any reference to documents that criticised or demonstrated deficiencies with the system.
Putland blamed the Post Office. “Fujitsu was not a party to the litigation. All decisions relating to the prosecution of subpostmasters and the conduct of the [High Court group litigation] were made by the Post Office,” he said.
“While Fujitsu employees gave evidence, it was the Post Office which determined all aspects of its case, including the choice of witnesses, the nature of their evidence and the associated documents.”
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