Six unanswered questions after Post Office and Fujitsu bosses grilled by MPs

Post Office CEO Nick Read and Fujitsu boss Paul Patterson faced tough questions from a panel of MPs - but some major concerns remain unanswered.

Nick Read, chief executive of the Post Office, giving evidence to the Business and Trade Committee at the Houses of Parliament, London, on what more can be done to deliver compensation for victims of what has been labelled one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history. Picture date: Tuesday January 16, 2024.
Post Office chief executive Nick Read was grilled by the Business and Trade Committee. (Alamy)

Bosses from the Post Office and Fujitsu faced a barrage of tough questions on Tuesday as they appeared before MPs to explain their companies' roles in the Horizon scandal.

More than 700 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were wrongly convicted for offences such as theft, fraud and false accounting between 1999 to 2015. This was due to a fault with Horizon, an IT accounting system developed by Fujitsu, which produced false discrepancies in Post Office branch accounts.

The Post Office dug its heels in and persistently defended its use of Horizon and went on to prosecute hundreds of postmasters. Speaking to the Business and Trade Committee Fujitsu's Europe director Paul Patterson apologised to the victims, while Post Office chief executive Nick Read said the service is "very keen to get to the bottom of this".

However, committee member Ian Lavery was unimpressed by the bosses' answers, telling them: “If we’re bringing people in front of the committee, we would expect them at least to have a knowledge of the history of what’s happened, something as big as this. I’m not frustrated I’m absolutely appalled at the answers which I’ve received."

Here, Yahoo News explains some of the major questions that have still been left unanswered following today's committee hearing.

Why didn't Fujitsu take action, despite knowing about glitches in its system?

The committee heard how Fujitsu was aware of glitches in the Horizon system fairly early on after it was installed in 1999.

However, when Patterson was asked why the company did not take action, he said: “I don’t know. I really don’t know. On a personal level I wish I did know. Following my appointment in 2019, I’ve looked back at those situations for the company and the evidence I’ve seen, and I just don’t know.

"What I do know is the inquiry is looking at this very point of who knew what and when, and the action they did or did not take to draw attention to the concerns. I just don’t know.”

Paul Patterson, director of Fujitsu Services Ltd, giving evidence to the Business and Trade Committee at the Houses of Parliament, London, on what more can be done to deliver compensation for victims of what has been labelled one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history. Picture date: Tuesday January 16, 2024. (Photo by House of Commons/PA Images via Getty Images)
Paul Patterson, Fujitsu's European director, apologised on behalf of the Japanese multinational. (Getty Images)

What happened to the money the sub-postmasters were made to pay back?

Former sub-postmistress Jo Hamilton, who appeared before the committee alongside fellow campaigner Alan Bates, claimed the National Federation of SubPostmasters offered her little help.

Describing a phone call with the federation to ask for advice, she said: "You just go find yourself a good criminal lawyer.’ And that was the only help I got from them. There was no question of, where’s the money gone?"

The Post Office made staff pay money back in a bid to cover these fictional shortfalls, but Nick Read told MPs today that the service has still "not got to the bottom of" what happened to the money, despite being investigated by auditors two or three times. Asked if there was a possibility the money could have gone towards "hefty numeration packages for executives", he said: "It's possible, absolutely it's possible."

Asked how she would feel if some top Post Office executives potentially received some of her money in form of bonuses, she told MPs: “It’s sickening really, to be honest.

How many victims are there?

Read said the Post Office has seen more sub-postmasters impacted by the Horizon scandal come forwarded directly to it since the ITV drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, was broadcast at the start of the year.

“What has happened as a consequence of the drama is that some 200 postmasters have come forward,” he said. "We have had 31 who have come directly to us as a consequence of the drama." However, Read added that "many postmasters told us not to contact them", claiming that that for some victims, the "enormous amount of publicity" in recent days has been "extremely stressful and traumatising".

Hamilton revealed that one potential victim had contacted her while she was on the way to the hearing.

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When was the first Horizon error passed to the Post Office?

Fujitsu's Paul Patterson told the committee that any large IT project such as Horizon will inevitably have "some bugs and errors".

However, details on when a bug that could cause accounting errors was discovered, and when the Post Office was alerted, were unclear.

He said Fujitsu shared the relevant information with its client, adding: "How the Post Office then chose to use that information in their prosecutions is entirely on the Post Office’s side.” When asked when the first error was passed on to the Post Office, the committee was surprised when Patterson replied: “I can’t tell you the month or year.”

Asked if he or Fujitsu were aware that glitches could cause an accounting discrepancy, he said: “I don’t have evidence in front of me that connects a bug, which was present, to a shortfall, could it cause shortfalls? Yes, it could.”

London, England, UK. 16th Jan, 2024. JO HAMILTON, former sub-postmistress, arrives at parliament ahead of Business and Trade Committee Post Office and Horizon Compensation Oral Evidence session. (Credit Image: © Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire) EDITORIAL USAGE ONLY! Not for Commercial USAGE!
Former sub-postmistress Jo Hamilton raised the possibility of criminal action against Post Office bosses at the hearing. (ZUMA Press Wire)

Will Fujitsu contribute to the compensation for sub-postmasters?

Fujitsu's European boss accepted at today's hearing that the company has a "moral obligation" to contribute to the compensation of Post Office Horizon victims.

Patterson said: “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 sub-postmasters. For that we are truly sorry."

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”. However, he declined to say if the firm would repay victims, adding: "Please understand, there's an ongoing public inquiry."

When asked how much Fujitsu could pay Patterson took a similar line, telling MPs: “I have not got any estimate at all. I do not presume to calculate that. I think it’s right and proper that we allow the inquiry to discover where the responsibility lies.”

Will there be any criminal prosecutions against those at fault?

Pointing to the statutory public inquiry into the scandal, Hamilton raised the possibility of criminal action being taken against some of those who allowed it to unfold under their watch.

She retired judge Sir Wyn Williams, the inquiry's chairman, will "find out who's culpable". Hamilton added: "He needs to get to the bottom of who knew what when, and then if anything criminal has taken place, they should face prosecution".

The prospect of this happening is still a long way off, but a number of Horizon scandal victims have been calling for criminal charges to be made. Sarah Osolinski, who was wrongly accused of stealing while running a Post Office branch in Cheltenham, told Sky News: "If what we did was a crime, then what they did is 100 times worse because they were the ones that punished us for trying to keep our heads above water."

The Prime Minister’s spokesman told reporters today: “Those who are found to be responsible must be held accountable, whether that’s legally or financially. We can’t prejudge the work of the inquiry. Part of that is establishing what went wrong and things like culpability, but obviously, we will act accordingly based on the findings of that independent inquiry.”