14 Oct 2022

Fujitsu: How a Japanese firm became part of the UK Post Office scandal

4:13 pm on 14 October 2022
Fujitsu logo displayed on a phone screen and a laptop keyboard are seen in this illustration on October 30, 2021.

Photo: Jakub Porzycki / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP

By Mariko Oi, for BBC News

Japanese firm Fujitsu is at the heart of the UK Post Office's IT scandal. More than 700 Post Office branch managers were convicted when faulty accounting software made it look as though money had gone missing from their sites. That software, named Horizon, had been developed by Fujitsu.

As the public inquiry into the scandal continues, Fujitsu's legal representatives will make their opening statements on Friday. So how did a Japanese company, generally known to Brits as a maker of laptops, become embroiled in one of the most widespread miscarriages of justice in UK legal history?

In Fujitsu's home market, hardly anyone has heard of the Horizon scandal.

"Horizon? What's Horizon?" was the reaction of a former company president in Tokyo when the BBC asked him about it.

This is a person who worked at the firm for nearly four decades.

The current president, Takahito Tokita, has turned down our multiple interview requests, even when I asked for a written comment he may wish to make to the victims whose lives were turned upside down.

The Horizon scandal saw some sub-postmasters attempt to plug huge shortfalls with their own money, after IT errors made it appear thousands of pounds were missing. Some even remortgaged their homes.

Hundreds ended up with criminal convictions for false accounting and theft, and some went to prison. Many were financially ruined and have described being shunned by their communities. Some have since died.

The assertion in Japan has repeatedly been that this is a matter that its UK subsidiary is handling.

To understand Fujitsu's role, let's go back to its takeover of the British firm International Computers Limited (ICL) - which developed the Horizon software - in the 1990s.

The relationship between ICL and Fujitsu goes back decades, and the ways in which both operate are quite similar.

In the 1970s, the Japanese government was trying to counter the dominance of America's IBM, and provided 57 billion yen of financial support to three giant technology alliances, one of which was Fujitsu.

In the UK, the Wilson government was doing just that by forming ICL.

With the might of the government behind them, Japanese firms went on a shopping spree in the 1980s, encouraged by the favourable exchange rate.

That is when ICL was having financial issues at home. It held several UK government contracts as the government had a policy that every computer over a certain size was bought from the company. But the firm was struggling to keep up with its international competitors, and by 1981 it had lost £18.7m.

Fujitsu and ICL were a perfect match. The takeover allowed Fujitsu to have an outsized presence in the UK as ICL's strong ties to the government often meant that it was the only bidder for government contracts.

Previous problems

Even after the Horizon scandal, its products are deeply entrenched in the UK government's IT infrastructure.

To some MPs' fury, the company was still winning new government contracts as recently as this September and it is the third biggest IT supplier to the UK government, according to the procurement analysts Tussell.

Since 2013, the UK government has awarded Fujitsu contracts worth more than £3.7bn, including:

  • £1bn with HM Revenue and Customs
  • £572m with the Ministry of Defence
  • £487m with the Home Office

And that is despite Horizon not being the first Fujitsu-developed software that has created problems for the UK government.

In 1999, the firm won a £184m contract to develop Libra - a software meant to standardise case management transactions across more than 300 magistrates' courts.

In the end, it cost nearly three times more than expected, and the National Audit Office (NAO) concluded that it was not able to produce even basic financial information.

Horizon was installed at the Post Office around the same time. But its flaws were already known by then because it couldn't fulfil the requirements of its original project, an automated system for benefits payments announced in 1994.

"Horizon was offloaded to the Post Office to try to salvage something from the failed scheme," says IT journalist Tony Collins who has covered the industry for decades.

Then, there was an NHS lawsuit. Fujitsu was one of four companies tasked with digitising the NHS in 2004.

But after repeated delays and failure to deliver the promised product, the NHS terminated its contract with Fujitsu in 2008. The Japanese company sued and won the case in 2014, which cost the UK government £700m.

Some believe the government may be reluctant to engage in another long and potentially expensive legal battle.

In addition, Collins says the government is not in a rush to get rid of Fujitsu because "it is an indispensable IT supplier".

"Its mainframes have been used for decades at HM Revenue and Customs and the largest department of all, the Department for Work and Pensions, have been pretty reliant on Fujitsu equipment," he says.

The government has confirmed that Fujitsu is no longer on some approved vendor lists, but remains a strategic supplier and can still compete for and win government contracts.

Troubles at home

Fujitsu's software is not without controversy at home.

In 2002, Fujitsu and two other tech firms came under fire for glitches at the ATMs of one of the country's major banks, Mizuho, with problems still being reported as recently as last year.

People use Mizuho bank automatic teller machines (ATM) at Shinagawa train station in Tokyo on July 18, 2019.

People use Mizuho bank automatic teller machines (ATM) at Shinagawa train station in Tokyo on July 18, 2019. Photo: Behrouz Mehri / AFP

Fujitsu was also blamed in 2005 for a $300m trading loss when its software, installed at the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE), was unable to cancel an incorrect order. The TSE and the securities firm involved fought a decade-long legal battle, with the court eventually ruling in 2015 that Fujitsu as a software developer wasn't legally liable, and that the TSE must pay the securities firm.

Fujitsu's critics blame the industry's business model.

"They don't like to have a software engineer as a full-time employee," says Satoshi Nakajima, who worked at Japan's telecoms giant NTT before becoming one of the foundational members of Microsoft.

In a country where companies have traditionally practised the lifelong employment system, they prefer not to hire engineers for individual projects and let them go as they do in the US.

That means hiring full-time software engineers - who develop code - becomes costly when they are between projects. Instead, they outsource to multiple layers of external vendors.

But those vendors often cannot afford to hire top engineers - like Fujitsu can - and this practice has been blamed for the quality of their products. Vendors also tend to focus only on single aspects of a project, and often cannot be held accountable for project failures.

As a graduate of the prestigious Tokyo University, 31-year-old Junpei Ikegami joined Fujitsu in 2015 as a system engineer - responsible for building and maintaining computer networks - because he thought "it was at the forefront of the latest technology".

"But once I joined, I realised that the systems they use are ancient and they're still trying to conserve the old systems," he says.

Ikegami felt he couldn't grow so left Fujitsu to join a start-up.

Despite some bugs and scandals, Fujitsu continues to play a major role in the public and private sectors.

"Their unique advantage is the relationship with the government," says Nakajima, referring to the company's ties since the 1970s but also how it still wins big government contacts.

"That's why they still exist. Without that, they're not competitive at all. If this is a really open free market, then they should have been eliminated 10 to 20 years ago."

But amid growing calls for governments to include smaller, more agile companies over established giants, government attitudes may be changing.

When I asked the country's former digital minister, Karen Makishima, who will win contracts in Japan's push to digitalise its economy, she repeatedly emphasised the growing role start-ups will play.

As Fujitsu comes under the spotlight in the UK, it remains to be seen if their British subsidiary too will lose the preference of the government it once enjoyed.