The Post Office’s move to extend its controversial 22-year contract with Fujitsu to supply and support the Horizon retail and accounting system is part of a plan to bring the work in-house.
An announcement this week that the contact, which began in 1999, will go beyond the original March 2023 expiry, said this was part of a transfer process. Although it did not state what it was transferring to, an interview given by Post Office CEO Nick Read provides a clue.
According to Read in an interview with The Grocer magazine in December, there are plans to bring the service provided by Fujitsu in-house, with a recruitment campaign under way to bolster the IT team.
Bringing the service in-house would fit with the Post Office’s decision to extend the current contract with Fujitsu by a further year to March 2024, due to the length of time it would take to migrate the service from Fujitsu to the Post Office’s own team. It would also give the Post Office the opportunity to fix the problems it has experienced in the past as a result of Horizon complexities and user problems.
The Horizon contract, and the retail and accounting system at its core, led to hundreds of subpostmasters being prosecuted for financial crimes, such as theft and false accounting, based on evidence from the IT system. In what has been called one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history, some subpostmasters were sent to jail and many were made bankrupt, after being blamed for unexplained losses. It has since been proved that the Horizon system contained errors that could have caused unexplained losses.
A High Court case proved subpostmasters right that computer errors were causing the losses and since then, about 50 prosecuted subpostmasters have had their convictions sent for appeal.
Fujitsu, the Post Office and its owner, the government, have all been blamed for allowing the scandal to happen after subpostmasters were vindicated after nearly two decades of campaigning.
In a contract award notice this week announcing the 12-month extension, the Post Office said: “In order to prepare the Horizon agreement for expiry, and in order to receive transitional support from Fujitsu Services following such expiry, the Horizon agreement will be extended for a term of an additional one year.”
In the interview with The Grocer, Read said he wanted to make Horizon more user-friendly. “The system was designed a long time ago, and was made for the Crown Post Offices, not franchises,” he said. “I don’t think a great deal of thought was taken as to how simple it needed to be to operate in a busy retail environment.”
Wiltshire-based subpostmaster Mark Baker commented: “It would make sense to bring as much of it as possible in-house, if of course they have the expertise.”
One IT professional posted on Twitter that the Post Office had been recruiting senior IT executives. “I know one excellent, experienced person the Post Office has recruited recently. They were very lucky to get her,” said the post.
Thousands of subpostmasters, who own and manage Post Office branches, have been using the Horizon software since its introduction in 1999. The system was supposed to revolutionise how branches operated by automating largely manual processes, but soon after its introduction, subpostmasters began suffering unexplained accounting shortfalls.
In 2009, Computer Weekly told the stories of seven subpostmasters affected by the losses, which led to many more who had suffered losses coming forward (see timeline below for Computer weekly coverage since 2009).