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Fujitsu to finally face blame for its part in Post Office Horizon scandal

Fujitsu’s part in causing the extreme suffering of subpostmasters will be made clear as the IT supplier begins giving evidence at a statutory inquiry

Fujitsu is due to face questions in the statutory public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal and will no longer be able to avoid the spotlight.

The Japanese IT supplier’s Horizon retail and accounting system and the errors it contained are central to the scandal. Although it was people’s decisions that bankrupted subpostmasters and put innocent people in prison, rather than the technology itself, Fujitsu’s role in covering up how system errors were causing accounting shortfalls for Post Office branches, and not subpostmaster dishonesty or mistakes, will be exposed.

In opening statements to the statutory public inquiry, Richard Whittam KC representing law firm Morrison & Foerster, making a statement on behalf of Fujitsu, reiterated the IT supplier’s apology “for its role in the subpostmasters’ suffering”.

It has so far avoided interrogation about its part in the scandal. Computer Weekly has contacted Fujitsu on countless occasions since 2009, when it broke the stories of subpostmasters suffering at the hands of Horizon errors, but Fujitsu consistently refused to comment on often very specific allegations. It hid behind the Post Office, citing customer confidentiality.

While a former Fujitsu senior IT executive provided evidence for the Post Office during a High Court group litigation order (GLO) that saw subpostmasters successfully sue the Post Office, it was the Post Office in court, with Fujitsu escaping a public grilling.

But Fujitsu did not escape criticism. Before handing down his judgment in the GLO, judge Peter Fraser announced his concerns over the accuracy of evidence given in court by Fujitsu in previous trials of subpostmasters blamed for unexplained losses.

Fujitsu’s part in the scandal will now be examined in detail and in public. The Fujitsu spokesman at the inquiry said the supplier had “committed significant resources to responding to the inquiry’s [request for disclosures] as fully and comprehensively as possible”.

“Warehouses have been searched, databases have been processed, and electronic documents from approximately 120 Fujitsu individuals have been collected,” he said. “This amounts to more than 30 million records, electronic and hard copy, going back 25 years.”

Fujitsu has also, so far, escaped financial penalties, whereas the government has been forced to set aside £1bn to cover the costs of compensating victims of the scandal. Meanwhile, Fujitsu is continuing to win significant IT projects with the UK government.

Speaking to Computer Weekly in November 2021, James Hartley, partner at solicitors Freeths, which managed the GLO, said the supplier had been “very lucky” to escape financial penalties. He said the behaviour of Post Office senior management during the Horizon scandal had been so egregious that the supplier of the faulty software that triggered it had escaped a large financial penalty.

Members of the House of Lords rounded on the Japanese IT giant in January 2022. Peer James Arbuthnot said Fujitsu should pay the price for standing by while a “scandalous tragedy unfolded” in front of its eyes.

At today’s hearing, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, UK Government Investments and the Post Office also gave their opening statements to the inquiry.

During the hearing, Kate Gallafent KC, representing the Post Office, gave an update on the organisation’s plan to replace the Horizon system by 2025.

“The design and testing for the new system is being done in conjunction with a focus group of 240 postmasters to ensure that their views and needs are fully taken into account,” she said. “The first small-scale pilots of the system started this month and they will be carefully evaluated over the next few months before being expanded to further branches.”

By phase seven of the inquiry, she said the Post Office would be able to demonstrate what the new system looks like in real life.

Computer Weekly first reported the problems with Horizon in 2009, when it made public the stories of a group of subpostmasters who were experiencing unexplained losses. Soon after this, as more subpostmasters came forward, Alan Bates formed the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and began campaigning. Bates had first contacted Computer Weekly in 2004 and had first alerted the Post Office to the problems in 2000.

After years of campaigning, Bates and others forced a group litigation against the Post Office and, in 2019, after the second trial of four that were planned, claimed victory when the Post Office settled with claimants. This led to the unravelling of what is known today as the Post Office Horizon scandal.

Read all Computer weekly’s articles about the scandal since 2009

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