Post Office scandal: Trouble on the Horizon

The power of monopoly laid bare: evidence reveals a picture of tampering with witness statements, falsifying data and coercing would-be whistleblowers.

Proletarian writers

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Spurred on by rising public anger, the government has gone into damage limitation mode, feigning shock and promising that ‘heads will roll’. The truth, however, is that the government knew for years that Fujitsu and Post Office executives were colluding to hide issues with Horizon and that all three were quite prepared for the counter staff to take the fall. There could be no clearer illustration of the fact that in our society monopoly is king. Whoever does or doesn’t get sacked or get their honours revoked, the conditions that created this outrage remain untouched.

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Back in 1996, the Japanese company Fujitsu started providing the Post Office with Horizon, which it described as “the most advanced and secure electronic banking and retail network in Europe”.

Fujitsu bragged that Horizon provided a counter system in all 17,000 Post Office branches, claiming that the software “allowed Post Office branches to become more efficient and improve their services by reducing customers’ waiting time, simplifying procedures, and computerising traditional paperwork”.

So pleased was the government-owned Post Office with its decision to delegate some of its key responsibilities to outsourcing giant Fujitsu that in 2003 it awarded the company a contract extension for operations and maintenance. The Post Office thus deepened its dependence on Fujitsu, which also laid on a help desk and data centre staffed by about 400 of its own people. (Fujitsu’s systems and operational services to UK Post Office and the worldwide trend of post offices, Fujitsu case study)

Yet despite all the gung-ho assurances of a lean, mean computer system that would abolish “traditional paperwork” and pretty much run itself, only assisted where necessary by the IT wizards on the Horizon help desk, cracks soon began to appear in the system. Under the new regime, cash receipts failed to tally with what was being reported by Horizon; money seemed to be leaking away from tills without rhyme or reason.

And from the very first, sooner than get to the root cause of the cracks, the unerring management instinct was firstly to pretend that there was no real problem, and when that failed, to lay the blame on Post Office staff.

Now, having spent 20 or more years adding lie after lie, throwing hundreds of subpostmasters under the bus sooner than admit that Horizon was actually getting its sums wrong, it seems that the day of reckoning might be arriving for Fujitsu, in the form of an official inquiry led by judge Sir Wyn Williams.

The inquiry, first initiated back in 2020, proceeded at a snail’s pace until the beginning of 2024. What in the end has put new vigour and purpose into the inquiry has been the cumulative effect of numerous forays into investigative journalism, which have doggedly chipped away at Fujitsu’s lies and the Post Office’s wilful credulity.

For many years, Fujitsu and Post Office senior managers all swore blind that there was no way that either Fujitsu or the Post Office could remotely access or tamper with Horizon, hoping thereby to put the blame exclusively on the till operators and to shrug off all responsibility. The growing scandal began to stink so badly that more than one journalist was drawn to challenge the official disclaimers.

In 2011, BBC reporter Nick Wallis interviewed a subpostmaster in Hampshire who claimed that the Horizon computer system had made money seem to vanish from the tills at her village branch. Three years later, Wallis interviewed a subpostmaster who recounted having seen Fujitsu staff tampering with accounts. Former Fujitsu worker Richard Roll added further damaging testimony in 2015.

So when last year the scandal broke wide open to public view, with the sensational television drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office, the story could not be suppressed any longer.

Hot on the heels of the TV series came the government’s sudden decision to rush through a law to exonerate post office operators. Taken aback by the strength of public feeling aroused by the screening, the government has scurried into damage limitation mode.

Every day of the inquiry now throws up new sickening evidence of the moral bankruptcy of both Fujitsu and the Post Office – and the dreadful consequences this had upon the workforce between 1999 and 2015 in terms of redundancy, social ostracism, marriage breakdowns, bankruptcy, mental illness, jail terms and even suicide.

The inquiry has heard that as far back as 2008 Fujitsu knew about faults in the system that it used to extract data on Post Office transactions, yet the Post Office senior management went on to use these suspect data to justify the prosecution of hundreds of Post Office operators. Indeed, the inquiry has discovered that the same dodgy Fujitsu data are still being used to prosecute workers today.

Evidence now coming under scrutiny reveals a picture of tampering with witness statements, falsifying data and coercing would-be whistleblowers. According to the Guardian: “Emails shown to the inquiry between Fujitsu managers and the fraud and litigation team, which investigated transactions that failed to complete on Post Office systems, revealed that Fujitsu knew about a string of ongoing problems that it did not reveal.

“Problems that Fujitsu found included as many as one-third of transactions being duplicated with some fixes involving ‘manual workarounds’ [pencil and paper? back of an envelope?], which the company knew if exposed could call into question the integrity of the data and therefore prosecution cases.

“‘In essence, we have a problem with the ARQ [audit record queries] extraction tool,’ said one executive in one of a number of email exchanges shown at the inquiry covering the period 2008 to 2010. ‘If we do not fix this problem our spreadsheets presented in court are liable to be brought into doubt if duplicate transactions are spotted.’

“Problems with the system were variously referred to as ‘inherently insecure’ and ‘endemic’. In 2010, it emerged that a so-called ‘fast ARQ’ method developed to collect the data did not distinguish duplicate transactions when it was handed over to the Post Office.

“‘The customer [Post Office] and indeed the defence and court would assume that the duplicates were bona fide transactions and this would be incorrect,’ stated an email in 2010. ‘There are a number of high-profile court cases in the pipeline and it is imperative that we provide accurate records. Defence teams may spot this and call into question the integrity of our data. This will call into question the reliability of the evidence presented by the prosecution team.’”

“Fujitsu executives hoped to present data to make prosecution evidence ‘more consistent’, in an effort to ensure hundreds of ultimately wrongfully brought cases would ‘go through smoothly’.

“As part of this process it was decided at Fujitsu not to keep a ‘known error log’ of the bugs, or disclose them to defence teams as they tried to fix them. (Fujitsu still providing Horizon IT data for use in Post Office legal actions by Mark Sweney, 16 January 2024)

Public anger is growing as each new day of the inquiry exposes further the lies told by Fujitsu, the vile treatment meted out to the Post Office workers and the complete failure of successive governments to exercise their duty of care for what in practice were its own employees. (The Post Office is in theory a private company and the subpostmasters are ‘self-employed’, but in practice the company is wholly owned by the government.) Instead, the government has stood by and watched as Post Office workers, often with many years of loyal service, have been trampled underfoot by outsourcing monopolists.

A few heads will roll, but do not expect any fundamental changes on the back of this scandal. The Post Office is still contractually bound to Horizon, and Fujitsu still has many fingers in many lucrative government pies. The pledge to desist from lobbying for further juicy contracts is only for the duration of the inquiry — after which it will be back to ‘normal’.

Forget the Guardian and 38 Degrees placebos. The public anger stirred up by this scandal needs to be harnessed and directed towards the path of revolution, the only solution to capitalist oppression and exploitation. Fight for socialism.