Let’s talk about Fujitsu. In particular, let’s ask why the Japanese multinational IT supplier has not been taken to court, or heavily fined, or barred from bidding for new public-sector contracts, for the faults of its Horizon sub-post-office system and the mishandling of pleas for help from hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters who were wrongfully convicted. Public reaction to the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office has provoked the former Post Office chief Paula Vennells to hand back her CBE, but whatever she did wrong, she wasn’t the root cause of the scandal. So let’s take a closer look at the maker of the kit that failed.
Fujitsu built Japan’s first computers in the mid-1950s. But the DNA of its UK operations makes it more than just another foreign tech supplier, to be compared with China’s sinister Huawei. In 1998 Fujitsu acquired a very British subsidiary, ICL, the ‘national champion’ for the computer sector formed by a multiple merger in 1968 (driven by Tony Benn as Labour’s minister of technology) to compete against IBM and Hewlett-Packard of the US. ICL’s components included the successors of two historic British computing pioneers of the 1950s, Ferranti and Leo. Fujitsu not only bought a business which, as the major domestic player, already held huge contracts with the Post Office and other arms of the state; it bought the entire history of British IT.
Hence the Horizon contract, recently extended, is a drop in the bucket of Fujitsu’s broader portfolio of government work – which extends across HMRC, the Home Office, the police national computer, the ‘Border Crossing’ watchlist and the Environment Agency’s flood warning network, as well as systems for the military and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (which we might guess includes MI6). One of 39 designated ‘strategic suppliers’, Fujitsu has its own ‘crown representative’ in the Cabinet Office, an official called Vincent Kelly, and is shown in a recent Tussell survey of ‘smart data on the government marketplace’ as having won 113 new contracts since 2018/19, long after Horizon broke, and earned £427 million in public sector revenues in 2022/23.