The Post Office Horizon scandal has been called the biggest miscarriage of justice in British history, and for good reason: between 2000 and 2014, 736 people were prosecuted by the Post Office for theft, fraud and false accounting. Some were jailed; many more lost livelihoods. Four people are reported to have died by suicide.
This week, following a settlement from a civil court case in December 2019, the long process of holding the Post Office to account will begin, as the retired High Court judge Wyn Williams starts his independent inquiry into the scandal. He’ll hear from 39 sub-postmasters, who will deliver evidence over the course of the next two weeks. Among those will be former Falmouth postmaster Gordon Martin, who was forced to declare bankruptcy, and Tracy Felstead, who was wrongly jailed and tried to take her own life twice. While the settlement was worth £57.8m, the group involved were left with less than £20,000 each after most of this went on lawyers’ fees.
But what of the company that made the software responsible for the errors? As the scandal raged through the years, Fujitsu, the Japanese tech giant that manufactured the tills and developed the faulty accounting software, has been conspicuous by its absence: a secondary character in a plot it set into motion with its own ineptitude.
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Computer Weekly, a trade magazine for the tech sector, has done some of the best reporting on this omission: this time last year it interviewed a senior developer from the company, who said the software that caused the problems should “never have seen the light of day” (it was a “bag of shit”, he added, neatly summing up the whole situation).
Fujitsu is enormous: its product range spans from air conditioning units to cloud computing services. Its revenues last year were Y3.6trn (£23bn) – and that was in the middle of a global chip shortage.
And yet, while victims faced bankruptcy in order to pay lawyers’ fees just to clear their names, Fujitsu hasn’t paid a penny. What makes this fact particularly galling is that British taxpayers have been asked to help. Karl Flinders, a journalist who works at Computer Weekly, first reported in January that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has provided the Post Office with £1bn in “grants” in order to defend itself and compensate victims. As Nick Wallis, who has written a book about the scandal, pointed out, it will likely need even more: “that’s before you go down the route of providing proper compensation to the 555 civil litigation claimants.”
This is not the first time, nor will it be the last time, that taxpayers have footed the bill after failings in the private sector (bank bailouts during the financial crisis spring to mind, as does Deloitte’s £1m-a-day role in track and trace). But, as the Conservative peer James Arbuthnot pointed out last month, Fujitsu stood by while a “scandalous tragedy unfolded”. Indeed, it played an active role in creating the scandal: two of its workers (now under investigation for perjury) gave evidence in the trials of some of the sub-postmasters. But since 2013, the government has awarded Fujitsu £3.1bn of contracts. This public exoneration cannot be allowed to continue. It must be made to pay for what it did.
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