Fujitsu bosses knew Horizon was flawed and chose to stay quiet, insider claims

Fujitsu and the Post Office claimed the Horizon system, designed to record transactions carried out in branches, was 'robust'
Fujitsu and the Post Office claimed the Horizon system, designed to record transactions carried out in branches, was 'robust' - UNPIXS

Fujitsu bosses were involved in a “conspiracy” of silence to cover up “shortcomings” with its defective Horizon IT system at the heart of the Post Office scandal, a whistleblower has claimed.

The Fujitsu insider said it was “hubris” that saw the IT company finally exposed for its part in the wrongful convictions and prosecutions of hundreds of sub-postmasters, whose lives were wrecked.

In an interview with Allison Pearson for her Planet Normal podcast, the whistleblower discussed their experience of the company and said the culture there made it difficult to flag up concerns.

They suggested a failure in connecting Post Office terminals to the internet via modems had resulted in discrepancies in accounting that led to sub-postmasters being falsely accused of theft and fraud.

When connections went offline, deposits may have vanished, subsequently ending up as Post Office profit.

The insider - given the name Robin to protect their identity - worked at Fujitsu in the early to mid-2000s after the Horizon system had been rolled out, but at a time when they claimed the company was already considering a replacement.

They described the Horizon system as “obsolete” even then and added: “The approaches they were using were well known in the industry at the time as being very flawed.”

Robin also said that the demands of the government-owned Post Office were for a “champagne” system - that would conduct billions of financial transactions - but was trying to emulate the banking IT sector albeit spending only “beer” money.

Robin’s testimony follows the reigniting of the scandal following the broadcast of the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office which has led to a public outcry and forced the Government to finally introduce a fast-tracked scheme to quash convictions and pay compensation.

Asked why they believed Fujitsu had not raised the flag publicly and admitted Horizon contained bugs much earlier, Robin said: “You touched upon the conspiracy question... And I do think that that is the case that they knew that the system had its shortcomings and they chose to stay quiet.”

Robin added: “I’m sorry this is going on for 25 years. I do think there’s been a conspiracy to suppress the truth on both sides of the equation” in a reference to cover-ups at the Post Office.

The first published reports of a problem, which appeared in 2009 in the IT sector’s “bible” Computer Weekly, should have sparked a more open response from Fujitsu.

But instead, said Robin: “It was almost like a case of, well, they would say that… My view is, I do think that there is a group of people in Fujitsu on that account that have been there a long time that know about this stuff.”

The whistleblower told Planet Normal that the “full weight of the law” now needed to be brought “to bear on these people” in support of an ongoing Metropolitan Police investigation into alleged fraud, as well as perjury and perverting the course of justice.

They said: “You bring the full weight of the law to bear on these people. And there’s a very, very simple reason for that is that if you’re going to be accountable for… running something so important, there are consequences when you don’t do it right.

“People have died and mission-critical systems are [just] that because there’s a risk to life… a risk to substantial financial loss.”

The whistleblower likened the culture at the Japanese IT company to that among the senior managers at Chernobyl, the Soviet-era nuclear power plant that went into meltdown in 1986 - but was initially covered up by the Communist party leadership.

“The feelings that I’ve carried with me for 20 years was, it was just absolute hubris… These guys were working to an arcane set of practices, working on arcane technology, and they were perfectly happy with that,” said Robin, claiming Fujitsu knew about software bugs and flaws in the Horizon IT system but tried to keep them under wraps.

They went on: “It was very difficult to raise issues to leadership to say, ‘I’m not happy about this’. I found this in the existing system.”

Lee Castleton who was driven to bankruptcy after Post Office bosses secured a court order against him, forcing him to pay them £321,000 in legal costs
Lee Castleton who was driven to bankruptcy after Post Office bosses secured a court order against him, forcing him to pay them £321,000 in legal costs - Gabriel Szabo/Guzelian

A total of 736 sub-postmasters in charge of local branches were prosecuted by the Post Office itself, as well as by public prosecutors in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Those prosecutions relied on data generated by Horizon which the Post Office said showed accounting shortfalls of tens of thousands of pounds.

Allegations that sub-postmasters were told they could disconnect from Horizon without losing vital records of transactions made at their Post Office branches shed fresh light on how the scandal became so widespread.

Robin told Planet Normal of an internal conversation within Fujitsu showing how Post Office attitudes had spread back into its IT contractor.

Fujitsu bosses were telling their staff that almost all fraud at the Post Office - in 96 per cent of cases, according to Robin - was carried out by sub-postmasters.

“What struck me was, you know, 96 per cent? First of all, who’s the other 4 per cent? More worryingly, how can they be so sure?” they said.

Robin decided to speak out after watching the ITV drama which included a sequence in which sub-postmaster Lee Castleton was shown phoning a Post Office helpline in desperation, querying thousands of pounds in accounting shortfalls generated by Horizon.

“This is what fired my interest,” said Robin, adding that “there were no grounds” for either Fujitsu or the Post Office to claim that Horizon was “robust” enough to be used in court without challenge. Post Office bosses secured a court order against Mr Castleton forcing him to pay them £321,000 in legal costs, driving him to bankruptcy.

Robin added: “They [Fujitsu management] had their head in the sand and it was very difficult to raise issues to leadership.”

Describing how hard it was to get Fujitsu managers to take concerns about Horizon seriously, the IT industry veteran said: “There were a group of people there, and there was, I’d say, a good 12 or 16 of them… And they were very difficult to get around or go over.

“They used to notice we were trying to go around them, and then they’d intervene and stop us.”

They added: “I was absolutely struck by [how] it was an obsolete setup. It was arcane. It was almost Victorian in terms of its approaches. Everything was written down into 100-page documents. And, you know, people are busy. They don’t have time to read a 100-page document.”

A spokesperson for Fujitsu said: “The current Post Office Horizon IT statutory inquiry is examining complex events stretching back over 20 years to understand who knew what, when, and what they did with that knowledge.

“The inquiry has reinforced the devastating impact on postmasters’ lives and that of their families, and Fujitsu has apologised for its role in their suffering.

“Fujitsu is fully committed to supporting the inquiry in order to understand what happened and to learn from it.

“Out of respect for the inquiry process, it would be inappropriate for Fujitsu to comment further at this time.”

Listen to the interview with ‘Robin’ on Planet Normal, a weekly Telegraph podcast featuring news and views from beyond the bubble, using the audio player in this article or on Apple PodcastsSpotify or your preferred podcast app.

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