Former Post Office CEO and Fujitsu play the blame game in Horizon IT scandal

A former Post Office CEO has blamed supplier Fujitsu, which in turn blamed the Post Office, for many of the failures to stop IT errors that caused one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in history.

Meanwhile, the government has reiterated that it has no intention to have a judge-led public inquiry into the scandal that saw innocent subpostmasters’ lives ruined after being wrongly blamed for branch account shortfalls.

Earlier in June, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) select committee chair, Darren Jones MP, sent letters to executives past and present at the Post Office and its IT supplier Fujitsu, asking for detail about their role in the scandal. He also wrote to BEIS minister Paul Scully demanding answers from government, which owns the Post Office.

The select committee had planned to question individuals, including former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells, face to face, but due to the Covid-19 coronavirus, it conducted interviews via correspondence.

In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for losses that they claimed were caused by computer errors. The Post Office always denied this and prosecuted subpostmasters, with many forced to pay back the losses and some receiving prison sentences, with suicides linked to the scandal (see timeline below).

In a High Court judgment in December 2019, subpostmasters were vindicated after 20 years after a judge ruled that, contrary to what the Post Office had said over the years, faults in the Horizon IT system had caused the unexplained accounting shortfalls that many were blamed for. The Post Office ended the litigation with a £57.75m settlement with subpostmasters.

Following receipt of the answers to his questions, BEIS select committee chair Jones said: “The letters we have received from the Post Office, Fujitsu, and former CEO, Paula Vennells, will likely be seen by many as attempts to shift the blame to the others for the dismal failings which saw sub-postmasters and postal staff suffer so grievously and, in some cases, face prosecution.”

He also said he has “little confidence” that the review into the scandal announced by government, “will be able to deliver justice for those who have waited for so long”.

Campaigners are calling for nothing short of a judge-led inquiry with powers to call witnesses under oath.

“It’s important, as a bare minimum, that the review is put on a statutory basis so it can summon witnesses and compel the disclosure of documentary evidence. If the government is really committed to taking action that delivers for the victims of this scandal, it should bring forward a judge-led public inquiry.”

But Scully’s response to demands for a judge-led inquiry, on behalf of BEIS, confirm the government has no intention to put the review on a statutory basis.

In his letter to Jones, Scully wrote: “While the terms of reference for the review chime with that of a statutory inquiry, a review – in other words, a non-statutory inquiry – will allow progress to be achieved in an accelerated timeframe due to the cooperation committed to by the Post Office.”

Despite Scully’s claims, the terms of reference of the inquiry do not suggest it will have judge-like powers.

There could be hundreds more wrongful prosecutions of subpostmasters as a result of Horizon errors. Since the court ruling, the Post Office has identified around 900 cases of subpostmasters who were prosecuted based on Horizon data.

Paula Vennells was CEO at the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, during a period when hundreds of subpostmasters suffered at the hands of errors in the Horizon IT system. She left the Post Office after earning millions of pounds, and she received a CBE for her services, while hundreds of subpostmasters are still counting the cost of bankruptcy, ill health and criminal records.

In her answers to Jones’ 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 life-span, 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.”

She said the board asked Fujitsu questions to help it understand the issues with Horizon. “It now appears that the answers that came back to these questions were only partially correct,” she said.

Jones also wrote to Rob Putland, senior vice-president at Fujitsu. He asked for his response to High Court Judge Peter Fraser’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 Horizon. 

In his response to Jones’ questions, Putland blamed the Post Office for this. “Fujitsu was not a party to the litigation. All decisions relating to the prosecution of subpostmasters and the conduct of the Bates litigation were made by the Post Office,” he said.

“While Fujitsu employees gave evidence, it was the Post Office who determined all aspects of its case including the choice of witnesses, the nature of their evidence and the associated documents.

“Nonetheless, we take Justice Fraser’s criticisms extremely seriously and we have now stopped the provision of any new witness evidence to the Post Office,” added Putland.

Fujitsu witnesses in the trial are being assesed by the Metropolitan Police for potential perjury.

Jones also asked why it took a multimillion-pound litigation to establish the facts about Horizon problems.

Putland again put blame on the Post Office. “This is a matter for the Post Office; they determined the litigation strategy and their conduct towards the subpostmasters,” he said.

Campaigners want the government’s role in the scandal put under scrutiny. To this end, they have set up a crowdfunding initiative to raise money to build a case to take to the Parliamentary ombudsman. At the time of writing, it had received pledges from the public worth more than £55,000 towards its £98,000 target.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman has the right to summon people and papers, with powers analogous to those of a High Court judge. “So the names will be named and those who took decisions will have to defend what they did, or in many cases probably didn’t do,” said former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who has spearheaded the fight for justice for more than a decade.

Although it is free to apply to the ombudsman, there are costs associated with building a case. To support the subpostmasters taking on the government to redress their grievances, you can pledge here. The money will only be paid once the target is met.

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