Maxim_Kazmin - Fotolia

Lack of openness on Horizon errors remains as Fujitsu refuses to explain latest outage

Subpostmasters are being kept in the dark about errors in the branch computer system they use, despite the Post Office and Fujitsu being slammed in court over their lack of openness

Fujitsu is refusing to explain what caused a national system outage in Post Office branches last week, despite the Post Office confirming the issue was the fault of the supplier.

The lack of openness does not reassure subpostmasters in the light of the Post Office IT scandal, which saw many suffer financial ruin and some lose their liberty after being blamed for accounting shortfalls caused by errors in Fujitsu’s Horizon accounting system.

A national Horizon outage on 5 November meant subpostmasters lost business, with some reporting losing transactions that were in progress when the system crashed and their accounts being short when it rebooted.

But subpostmasters have not been informed what caused the problem, and while the Post Office blamed Fujitsu, the Japanese supplier refused to comment on what caused the problem when asked by Computer Weekly.

Subpostmasters are still being kept in the dark about the cause, despite the Post Office and Fujitsu being criticised by a High Court judge over their lack of openness about computer errors. The organisations’ failures were highlighted in a multimillion-pound trial, which examined how errors in the Post Office Horizon retail and accounting system led to subpostmasters suffering, with some being wrongly sent to prison.

Since the trial, in which subpostmasters proved that the Horizon system was causing unexplained accounting shortfalls, the suffering of subpostmasters has become a national scandal involving the government.

A Computer Weekly investigation in 2009 revealed that subpostmasters, who run Post Office branches, were being blamed for unexplained financial losses, which they claimed were caused by errors made by the Horizon system. The Post Office denied this, and many subpostmasters were subsequently prosecuted for theft and false accounting, with prison sentences, community service, criminal records and heavy fines among the injustices they suffered as a result. It has become one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history (see timeline below).

The silent treatment

When IT problems occur, users need to be informed quickly and assured that the issue is under control.

But when asked about the cause of the recent outage, Fujitsu hid behind customer confidentiality and a spokesman said: “We are not in a position to comment on anything.”

Last week, the Post Office blamed Fujitsu and said it would write to subpostmasters giving them details about the cause of the problem once it had completed its investigation into the incident.

But subpostmasters are demanding more openness. During the High Court Horizon trial, it was revealed that Fujitsu and the Post Office had a log of known Horizon errors, which contained thousands of entries. The existence of the Known Errors Log had been denied for years.

Subpostmaster Mark Baker, branch secretary for postmasters at the Communications Workers Union, said there was still a lack of openness from the Post Office regarding the Horizon system.

“If these problems were experienced by a bank, you would have a full-blown press release explaining what went wrong and how it was fixed. If it is not explained what went wrong, users will have no confidence that it is fixed and won’t happen again,” he said.

Baker also criticised the Post Office for simply claiming it was Fujitsu’s fault. “You cannot just blame the supplier and say, ‘It is nothing to do with us’.”

Chris Dubery, a subpostmaster in Dulverton, Somerset, said the only update he had received from the Post Office was that it was still looking into the cause of the problem.

“We have had these problems before. We don’t know how it happened and how long it will last. We can’t get through to the helpline and the not knowing is a real problem for us,” he said.

Conservative peer James Arbuthnot said while outages are not unexpected, fast and clear communication of problems is vital, particularly in in Horizon’s case. “In a matter as sensitive as Horizon, where there is just beginning a Government inquiry into its failures and where people have lost their jobs, their businesses, their houses, their savings and in some cases their lives, would it not be wise for those responsible for Horizon – which means the Post Office, Fujitsu and the Government – to set out what happened and to say what steps they are taking to put it right?"

 “It was their lack of openness which made the issue so toxic.  And the Post Office keeps talking about ‘problems of the past’.  This incident demonstrates precisely why these problems are still with us – and until the Post Office, Fujitsu and the Government are open and honest (and willing to compensate those they have wronged so horribly) these problems will be problems of the future as well.” Arbuthnot became a supporter of the subpostmasters when, as MP for Hampshire North East, he was contacted by constituent Jo Hamilton. She was a subpostmaster who was being threatened with jail for accounting irregularities that could not be explained.

Fujitsu has been heavily criticised for its part in the Horizon scandal. In January, the director of public prosecutions (DPP) referred the concerns of a High Court judge about the accuracy of evidence given by Fujitsu staff in criminal trials to the Metropolitan Police. This followed concerns being raised with the DPP by High Court judge Peter Fraser, who managed the Horizon group litigation.

The supplier has long been a major IT provider to the UK government, including in its previous incarnation as ICL. The company provided IT systems to collect taxes and pay benefits for many years, and today it still works with a number of government departments. In 2012, Fujitsu was one of two IT companies labelled as high risk by the UK government to alert all departments when a supplier has performed poorly.

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009

Read more on IT for retail and logistics

Data Center
Data Management