Post Office boss unable to say when biz knew Horizon could be remotely altered

CEO stays tight-lipped in front of MPs while Fujitsu admits moral responsibility for compensation

Post Office chief exec Nick Read left British politicians shocked with his evidence before a Parliamentary committee yesterday after he admitted he could not say when the public body at the center of the historic miscarriage of justice knew when its system was at fault.

A key element of the scandal – in which 736 managers of local Post Office branches were wrongfully convicted of fraud when errors in the system were to blame – is when the Post Office understood that the Horizon electronic point of sale and accounting system from Fujitsu could be accessed remotely without branch staff's knowledge. Reports suggest the Post Office knew from at least 2012 - the system was installed in 1999.

During the hearing, Fujitsu also admitted that it bore a moral responsibility to compensate victims.

In 2015, the Post Office told the BBC and a Parliamentary committee that remote access was not possible. It only admitted the fact to the High Court in 2019.

The media has hyped up the pressure on the Post Office and Fujitsu since the broadcast of an ITV television drama about the injustice. Prime minister Rishi Sunak has since promised to introduce legislation to accelerate exoneration of the victims, as well as compensation.

Speaking after Read's evidence, Parliament's Business and Trade Committee chairman, Liam Byrne, said: "You have left us fairly shocked. You've not been able to supply the committee with key events in the timeline, such as when the Post Office first knew that remote access was possible. You've told us that you haven't kept evidence safe about what money was paid to you inappropriately and therefore is owed back, and you can't estimate the scale of compensation."

Read became Post Office CEO in September 2019, shortly before the High Court slammed both the Post Office and Fujitsu. In his ruling, Mr Justice Fraser said the Post Office's attempt to defend its Horizon IT system "amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat."

Paul Patterson, director of Fujitsu Services Ltd, told MPs yesterday: "Support and the interventions remotely from Fujitsu has been documented, and it is clear the Post Office were certainly aware of that remote access, and that was clear for some period of time."

Read refused to say who knew what when he joined the organization, deferring instead to the ongoing statutory inquiry.

"I've only been in the organization since 2019, so it's difficult for me to comment," he said. "I think the most important place for the commentary is going to be [during chairman] Sir Wyn Williams' inquiry. We are obviously cooperating with him wholeheartedly to make sure that all information we have – and that we are aware of – is supplied to that inquiry. There will be individuals in the Post Office who will be providing witness statements."

Read told MPs he had – since taking over as CEO – met with 30 victims who had talked to him about their trauma.

Jo Hamilton, a former subpostmistress who saw her conviction for theft quashed in 2021, was asked how she felt after saying that remote access was possible for more than nine years, while the Post Office was denying the facts.

"It's still not sorted out. How long have you got? It's shocking that it's taken this long and cost this much money. Just to have something that we've been banging on about for years [come out]."

Also speaking to MPs, Alan Bates, founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, said the Post Office didn't have the technical expertise after it commissioned the £2.3 billion contract with ICL, which was later bought by Fujitsu. "They very much relied upon their supplier to also be their IT experts and advisors along the way," he said. "That was the major problem. Even if they didn't have the in-house expertise, they should have brought in a third party to assist them along the way and not rely on Fujitsu."

Fujitsu boss Patterson told the committee: "We were 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 subpostmasters [and for] that we are truly sorry."

He said Fujitsu bore a moral obligation to contribute to compensating the victims of the scandal, but its extent would be determined when the statutory inquiry finishes. ®

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