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Watch: Fujitsu “truly sorry” for role in Post Office prosecutions

By Michael Race
Business reporter, BBC News

Fujitsu Europe’s boss has admitted the firm has a “moral obligation” to contribute to compensation for sub-postmasters wrongly prosecuted as a result of its faulty IT software.

Paul Patterson said Fujitsu gave evidence to the Post Office which was used to prosecute innocent managers.

He added the Post Office knew about “bugs and errors” in its Horizon accountancy software early on.

It comes as victims of the scandal told MPs of problems receiving compensation.

Between 1999 and 2015, more than 900 sub-postmasters and postmistresses were prosecuted for theft and false accounting after money appeared to be missing from their branches, but the prosecutions were based on evidence from faulty Horizon software.

Some sub-postmasters wrongfully went to prison, many were financially ruined. Some have since died.

It has been described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in British history, but to date only 93 convictions have been overturned and thousands of people are still waiting for compensation settlements more than 20 years on.

Appearing before MPs on the Business and Trade select committee on Tuesday:

Fujitsu’s Mr Patterson said his “gut feel” was that staff at the company knew about problems with Horizon before 2010
Post Office chief executive Nick Read, said he could not give an exact date when the Post Office knew the IT system could be accessed remotely
Both Mr Patterson and Mr Read frustrated MPs who criticised a lack of answers and knowledge of the events
Jo Hamilton, a victim in the scandal, told MPs she felt like she being treated like a criminal during the process to get compensation
Lord Arbuthnot said it was essential for victims, some of which are “living hand to mouth” to get money as soon as possible
Solicitor Neil Hudgell said only three off his group of 77 wrongly convicted sub-postmasters had received full and final compensation.

Mr Patterson apologised for Fujitsu’s role in what he said was an “appalling miscarriage of justice”, and admitted the company had been “involved from the very start”.

“We did have bugs and errors in the system and we did help the Post Office in their prosecutions of the sub-postmasters,” he said. “For that we are truly sorry.”

Asked why Fujitsu didn’t do anything about glitches in the Horizon system when the company knew about them at an early stage, Mr Patterson said: “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

He added: “On a personal level I wish I did know. Following my appointment in 2019 I have looked back on those situations for the company and the evidence I have seen and I just don’t know.”

Nick Read, the chief executive of the Post Office, appeared alongside Mr Patterson in front of MPs.

He was criticised for having not provided information to the committee with key events in the timeline, such as when the Post Office first knew that remote access to sub-postmasters’ Horizon systems was possible.

When prosecutions were taking place, Fujitsu had told the Post Office that no-one, apart from sub-postmasters themselves, could access or alter Horizon records – meaning the blame for mistakes could only rest with sub-postmasters, but that turned out to be untrue.

“You must surely have had time in four years [since joining the Post Office] to cut to the heart of this issue, which is: when did the Post Office know remote access to terminals was possible?” said Labour MP Liam Byrne, chair of the committee.

“I couldn’t give you an exact date on that,” replied Mr Read.

Delays

Earlier, Neil Hudgell, a solicitor representing 400 people directly affected by the scandal and 77 sub-postmasters wrongly convicted by the Post Office, told MPs that just three people had been paid full and final compensation.

He said layers of bureaucracy, along with certain requests by the Post Office, were causing problems in victims securing financial redress.

“I am not sure enough resource is thrown at it, in terms the right resource in the right areas. Routinely with the overturned conviction cases, it’s taken three to four months to get a response to routine correspondence,” he said.

In some cases, he said requests had been made for documents that were held in Post Office branches that clients had been locked out of some 15 to 20 years ago.

“We need to give the sub-postmasters the benefit of the doubt on key matters,” Mr Hudgell said.

‘Bogged down’

Jo Hamilton, who was wrongfully convicted of stealing £36,000 from the village Post Office she ran in Hampshire in 2006, said getting compensation “almost like you’re being retried”.

“It just goes on and on and on,” she told the committee.

Watch: The real Mr Bates speaks at Post Office inquiry

Alan Bates, the campaigning former sub-postmaster at the centre of the ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office which has thrust the issue back into the spotlight, said that compensation was “bogged down” and the pace of processing claims was “madness”.

He said his own compensation process was hampered by delays.

“I think it was 53 days before they asked three very simple questions,” he said. “And there’s no transparency behind it, which is even more frustrating,” he said. “We do not know what’s happening to these cases once they disappear in there.”

Mr Read, who joined the Post Office in 2019, admitted there was a “culture of denial” behind the organisation dragging its feet over compensation payments.

“I think that the most important cultural challenge that I have in my organisation is to ensure that everybody in the organisation sees and understands absolutely what has been going on.”

Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake welcomed the suggestion that the Post Office would seek to make the compensation process simpler.

He told the committee that he wanted to reduce the amount of bureaucracy involved, but acknowledged there were “a lot of moving parts” with the various compensation schemes.

“No amount of compensation can ever make good completely [what victims went through],” he said.

“I think it’s incumbent on all of us involved in this process to try and accelerate every part of the process.”

Separate to Tuesday’s hearing, an inquiry into the scandal is ongoing.

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