Japanese tech giant Fujitsu is answering questions over its role in the Horizon scandal that saw hundreds of Post Office branch managers given criminal convictions for stealing money that turned out to be missing because of faulty software.
Horizon, a system developed by Fujitsu, was installed across the Post Office network, at the time a public sector organisation, in 1999 to handle transactions, accounting, and stocktaking. Postmasters reported bugs from day one, some of which were showing significant shortfalls.
Between 2000 and 2014 a total of 736 managers were prosecuted based on information on shortfalls shared with the Post Office through Horizon. A number of these postmasters and postmistresses were sent to prison for false accounting and theft.
It took a 20-year legal battle from campaigners to prove that the theft and false accounting was the result of bugs in the Horizon software, rather than any action from the humans involved and many of those people have since had their convictions overturned.
The Post Office had to settle with 555 claimants in December 2019, marking the end of a series of civil cases, accepting it “got things wrong in dealings with a number of postmasters” and had to pay £58m in damages.
A High Court judgement on the same issue found that the Horizon system was not “remotely robust” for its first decade of operation and still had problems after that point as it contained “bugs, errors and defects” posing a “material risk” of shortfalls in branch accounts.
Post Office scandal: technical faults, criminal convictions and an inquiry
These shortfalls were confirmed as being linked to the system, leading to a number of criminal convictions being overturned already and more to come. There are likely to be further civil cases against the Post Office for compensation.
An inquiry was established to set out a “clear account of the failings of the Horizon IT computer system and assess whether lessons have been learnt at the Post Office” and given the ability to investigate and call witnesses to give evidence under oath.
Until now Fujitsu has been in the background of the investigation into the cause of the faults but is now facing scrutiny for its part in the scandal, with Mark Jarosz, lead domain architect at Fujitsu one of the first to face questions.
Human decisions led to the miscarriage of justice that also bankrupted many of those falsely accused of theft and fraud, but it was errors in the software that led to the shortfalls. Richard Whittam KC, legal representative for Fujitsu at the public inquiry apologised for “its role in the sub-postmasters suffering” during opening remarks at a hearing today.
Fujitsu scrutinising millions of Post Office records
Fujitsu says it has committed significant resources to responding to questions from the inquiry, including searching warehouses, databases and electronic documents from 120 current and former employees amounting to 30 million records generated over 25 years.
So far it has avoided any financial penalties as a result of the faulty software, with the burden falling on the government and the Post Office, but in January this year members of the House of Lords said Fujitsu should dig into its pockets for doing nothing while the scandal unfolded in front of its eyes.
The inquiry is investigating how much Fujitsu was aware of the problems with its software, the risk of false reporting and what could be done to prevent the tragedy.
In his appearance today Jarosz was quizzed on written comments he previously made, as well as emails and interactions between himself, the Post Office and other partners when bugs were being reported by post office managers.
Jarosz was shown error reports suggesting issues around cash on hand and evidence of calls to report the issue to support teams, with long delays in getting a response. One example given was of a postmaster who waited so long for a response to a problem with Horizon they were forced to bypass the system and trade manually. He also faced questions about chain of command, responsibility for different issues within the software supply chain, connection problems and dealing with bug reports.
A lack of proper documentation in Horizon system transition
A highlighted issue was a lack of proper documentation between the Riposte database that formed part of the legacy Horizon system, developed by the Escher Group, and the Fujitsu team running the Horizon software and managing support for the Post Office branches.
Discussions went back and forth on levels of error checking in API calls, the need for design documentation and access to source code from third-party developers such as the Escher Group to better reproduce and investigate errors.
A key point raised was whether there was appropriate communication and liaison between teams at Fujitsu responsible for network problems and for the software and whether this impacted the ability to pick up on missing transactions being a result of software faults.
Jarosz told the inquiry he had no recollection of any liaison but that he would not have been personally involved had there been such a discussion.
The inquiry continues and will speak to more people involved in the scandal, including from Fujitsu and others as it discovered what went wrong and how to prevent it happening in future.
The Post Office is working on a new system that has been developed in consultation with postmasters to ensure their views are considered. It is being slowly rolled out this year.