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‘Moral obligation’ to contribute to Horizon scandal redress, says Fujitsu boss

‘Moral obligation’ to contribute to Horizon scandal redress, says Fujitsu boss

The boss of Fujitsu has apologised to subpostmasters and said there is a “moral obligation” for the technology giant to contribute to the compensation.

Fujitsu Europe director Paul Patterson faced a grilling by MPs on Tuesday alongside Post Office boss Nick Read, as public and political anger continues over the Horizon scandal.

The role played by the Japanese firm has come under the spotlight, with Mr Patterson opening the hearing by offering an apology for the “appalling miscarriage of justice” suffered by postmasters.

“We were involved from the very start. We did have bugs and errors in the system. And we did help the Post Office in their prosecutions of subpostmasters. For that we are truly sorry,” he told the Business and Trade Committee.

The global boss of Fujitsu, Takahito Tokita, told the BBC in Davos that his firm “apologised for the impact on the postmasters’ lives and their families”, but declined to confirm it would return any of the money it earned from the flawed Horizon system.

Days after an ITV drama on the scandal prompted outcry, Rishi Sunak announced that the wrongly prosecuted in England and Wales could have their names cleared by the end of the year under fast-tracked legislation after growing pressure to take more serious action.

Those whose convictions are quashed are eligible for a £600,000 compensation payment, while Mr Sunak offered £75,000 to subpostmasters involved in group legal action against the Post Office.

Lawyers have said that hundreds more victims could now come forward after being caught up in the scandal.

But campaigners, including former subpostmaster Alan Bates who was at the centre of the ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, on Tuesday hit out at the “madness” of delays at processing compensation claims.

Mr Patterson, who has has been in his current role since 2019 but has worked at the firm for more than a decade, told MPs that there was a “moral obligation for the company to contribute” to compensation.

“It’s also important that the inquiry deals with these very complex matters,” he said.

“In that context, absolutely we have a part to play and to contribute to the redress, I think is the words that Mr Bates used, the redress fund for the subpostmasters.”

In response, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said “we agree that those who are found to be responsible must be held accountable, whether that’s legally or financially”, but declined to “prejudge the work of the inquiry”.

Nick Read, chief executive of the Post Office, giving evidence to the Business and Trade Committee at the Houses of Parliament, London
Nick Read, chief executive of the Post Office, giving evidence to the Business and Trade Committee at the Houses of Parliament, London (House of Commons/PA)

Mr Read, who took charge of the Post Office in September 2019, insisted the organisation has now drastically changed.

He blamed a “culture of denial” for the company dragging its feet on compensation, as he also appeared to concede the Post Office could ultimately face liabilities from the scandal of close to £1 billion.

Appearing before the same committee as former boss Paula Vennells did in 2015, he also told MPs he had not “seen any evidence” that executives misled ministers, the courts or Parliament at any stage.

The scandal has seen calls for the Post Office to be stripped of its private prosecution powers.

But Mr Read has said he does not think that the organisation will perform any more private prosecutions in the future.

“I’ve been very clear on my watch they won’t and I see no reason why they should continue to do so,” he told MPs.

But MPs criticised the two bosses for failing to offer sufficient clarity to the committee.

Business and Trade Committee chairman Liam Byrne said he had been “fairly shocked” by the evidence.

“You’ve not been able to supply the committee with key events in the timeline, such as when the Post Office first knew that remote access was possible.

“You’ve told us that you haven’t kept evidence safe about what money was paid to you inappropriately and, therefore, is owed back.

“And you can’t estimate the scale of compensation,” Mr Byrne told the executives.

Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake, who took questions from MPs as the evidence session drew to a close, welcomed the compensation commitment from Fujitsu.

He said that any money from the firm should be used to reimburse the taxpayer over the cost of compensation, which he said was likely to run “north of a billion pounds”.

Earlier Mr Bates told MPs that compensation was “bogged down” and the pace of processing claims was “madness”.

He said his own compensation process was beset with delays.

“I think it was 53 days before they asked three very simple questions. It’s madness, the whole thing is madness. And there’s no transparency behind it, which is even more frustrating. We do not know what’s happening to these cases once they disappear in there.”

Mr Bates appeared before MPs alongside wrongfully convicted former subpostmistress Jo Hamilton, who also described frustrations with the pace of compensation payouts.

Solicitor Neil Hudgell echoed those concerns during his stint in front of MPs, telling the committee only three of his former subpostmaster clients who had been criminally convicted had received compensation.

Dr Neil Hudgell
Solicitor Neil Hudgell said more resources were needed to process the compensation claims (House of Commons/PA)

Lord Arbuthnot, a member of the Horizon compensation advisory board and a long-time campaigner on the issue, said he wanted the redress process finalised by the end of the year.

The Horizon scandal saw more than 700 subpostmasters and subpostmistresses handed criminal convictions after Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon software made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

The Government has been scrambling to exonerate them and pay out compensation to those affected.

But the Lady Chief Justice, the most senior judge in England and Wales, said suggestions the judiciary had given proposed Government legislation to allow blanket exoneration for Horizon victims the green light were “simply not true”.