On ITV this week, there has been a dramatisation of the Post Office Horizon scandal – “Mr Bates versus the Post Office”. It has got very good reviews but in all honesty was hard to watch. Toby Jones was brilliant as usual but it was tough even as a veiwer as innocent sub-postmasters were sent to prison with their lives ruined because of the evil (and I don’t use that word lightly) behaviour of senior staff at the Post Office and Fujitsu. There is also a documentary in ITV which I haven’t watched yet but will.
I wrote about this almost three years ago – the article is below. It all still applies. But what has become more obvious as the investigation into Horizon continues is that the guilty people in those two organisations were motivated by in a sense relatively minor considerations. It wasn’t exactly life and death for them.
They wanted to protect their bonuses, they didn’t want to make their own jobs a little more difficult, or admit that they might have made some errors. More junior staff just didn’t want to make a fuss, I suspect. Frankly, if they had come clean and said “look, the Fujitsu system is flawed, so maybe it is not the sub-postmasters fault”, then it would not really have been that big a deal. But out of greed, laziness and apathy, they were happy to see other lives destroyed.
They should be ashamed of themselves and I am still expecting that at some point, Fujitsu as well as the Post Office is going to be on the hook for a lot of money. The firm certainly should be held to account for their role in this. Anyway, here is my original article.
Many of the Bad Buying stories featured here or in my book have an element of levity to them. Some are decidedly humorous even. But sometimes there is a case where it is impossible to feel anything other than horror, anger and amazement at the behaviour of the parties involved.
The case of the Post Office, their postmasters and the Fujitsu Horizon IT system is a case in point. Last month, 39 people had their criminal convictions quashed in the High Court, the latest in a series of legal cases which have finally ended up clearing these individuals and exposing the appalling actions of Fujitsu and the Post Office.
Without going through all the details, the Horizon system appeared to show discrepancies in the finances of Post Office branches. That was blamed on the people running those branches – they were accused of stealing money or at best mismanaging post office funds. Many of those accused dipped into their own pockets to make up the supposed shortfalls. Eventually, the Post Office prosecuted hundreds of post office managers for theft – many went to prison. Some were ostracised by friends and neighbours; at least one committed suicide.
And all the way through this the Post Office and Fujitsu insisted that the Horizon system could not be wrong. But eventually, after investigations and court actions, it became clear that the system was flawed and could well make the errors that led to the numbers not adding up. Even then the Post Office keep fighting for years, putting the postmasters through more pain.
There is a chapter in my book which is all about “believing the supplier”, and how Bad Buying can result from exactly that. That seems to have been one problem here. The Post Office initially at least believed Fujitsu when the supplier said the system was foolproof. No doubt there were careers and sales bonuses on the line for senior Fujitsu staff. Then when the integrity of the technology was called into doubt, we saw greed, fear, arrogance and stupidity from Post Office management, who refused to admit they might have been wrong. Instead, they continued to harass and prosecute innocent people, failing to take responsibility until the very end.
So Bad Buying on the Post Office side, a poor product from Fujitsu and morally bankrupt behaviour from many of those involved on both sides of the supplier/buyer relationship. Fujitsu witnesses were also made to look stupid in court as they defended their system. Indeed, as Computer Weekly reported, after a 2019 hearing, “The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has referred information to the police relating to a High Court Judge’s concerns about the accuracy of evidence given by Fujitsu staff in criminal trials”.
The least the firm – along with the Post Office itself – can do now is offer a large sum of money to compensate those affected. (Fujitsu has continued to win huge government contracts, by the way). There may be charges of “malicious prosecutions” to be brought against Post Office executives too.
Well done to Alan Bates, the postmaster who initially took on the Post Office, Computer Weekly and Tony Collins, the first to pursue the technology aspect of the story, and to Private Eye magazine which regularly investigated and reported on the whole affair over the years. It’s a lot more than simply bad buying and the story of another dodgy IT system of course – and it all adds up to one of the most distressing stories about corporate behaviour that I’ve heard in a long time.