Coming back to the Post Office Horizon scandal, last week at the long-running enquiry into the events, Fujitsu finally apologised and owned up to their contribution to the terrible events. The firm has now promised to make substantial contributions to the payments which should go to the affected sub-postmasters shortly, we hope.
As the BBC reported, “The boss of Fujitsu’s European arm says it has “clearly let society down, and the sub-postmasters down” for its role in the Post Office scandal.
Paul Patterson admitted there were “bugs, errors and defects” with the Horizon software “right from the very start”. Mr Patterson also reiterated the firm’s apology for its part in the scandal.
Some of the Post Office staff involved in prosecuting the sub-postmasters came over at the enquiry as being both stupid and vindictive, enjoying their role as the “bad guys”. Clearly, the Post Office saw a role for nasty, vicious people in this case.
Then, in the Sunday Times today, Robert Colvile has written an excellent article about the history of the Horizon software. I was also surprised and pleased to find that he quoted from my book, Bad Buying, within his article. He reviewed the book (pretty positively) when it came out in 2020. My quote is nothing to do with Horizon though – Colvile uses another story of mine to demonstrate general issues with contract management in the public sector.
But he makes a connection that I had missed (and I should have spotted). Horizon started with an ICL project, “Pathway”, working with the then Department of Social Security back in the 1990s to automate benefits payment. I was actually Procurement Director at the DSS for part of the time this pretty lousy programme was running! But I had not realised it morphed into Horizon, and along the way the failing ICL got acquired by Fujitsu.
When I joined the DSS, in 1995, I was not exactly welcomed by the people running that programme. I was struggling to get any traction with the programme leadership. So I asked my boss whether I should push harder to get involved. “Do you have plenty of other things to do”, he asked me. Yes, I replied, loads of stuff. “In that case, I think I would leave that programme alone”, he advised. He knew it was a dog and was saving me from failure by association.
That was when the Minister Peter Lilley stood up at the Tory Party conference and showed off the “benefits payment card”. It wasn’t real of course – there never was a working benefits payments card. His was mocked up in his hotel suite the night before by his aides, I was told.
I followed the Horizon case from the beginning and I thought I wrote about it on Spend Matters many years ago but I can’t find the article now, so maybe I just thought about covering the case. I do remember my internal debate about whether to include the story in my Bad Buying book, but it was complex, unfinished and subject to ongoing legal action, so I decided not to, unfortunately perhaps. Although I don’t think my book would have had any effect compared to the TV programme.
Let’s just hope now that the compensation gets sorted out quickly for those affected. And I’ll come back to another issue which Colvile comments on, the question of why Fujitsu has continued to win government contracts since the Horizon affair became public. That takes us into some interesting questions about public procurement regulations, so I’ll save that for another day.