A boss of Fujitsu has said the company has a “moral obligation” to contribute to compensation for sub-postmasters wrongly prosecuted as a result of its faulty IT software.
Paul Patterson, Fujitsu’s Europe director, said the firm gave evidence to the Post Office which was used to prosecute innocent sub-postmasters.
He added the Post Office knew about “bugs and errors” in Horizon 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 the Business and Trade select committee of MPs, Mr Patterson apologised for Fujitsu’s role in what he said was an “appalling miscarriage of justice”.
“We were involved from the very start,” he said. “We did have bugs and errors in the system and we did help the Post Office in their prosecutions of the sub-postmasters.
“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.”
Appearing alongside Mr Patterson in front of MPs was Nick Read, the chief executive of the Post Office. 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.
“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.
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.
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.
“As it stands at the minute, we are faced with requests for information that go into finite detail in relation to heads of loss that have no supporting documentation, either because of the passage of time, or because the poor sub-postmaster was locked out of a Post Office 15 to 20 years ago and all the documents were in there.”
‘It’s like being retried’
Jo Hamilton, who was wrongfully convicted of stealing £36,000 from the village Post Office she ran in Hampshire in 2006, said getting compensation was like being treated like a criminal all over again.
“It’s almost like you’re being retried.
“It just goes on and on and on,” she told the committee.
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, told MPs 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. 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.”