The IT scandal that destroyed people’s liveson May 17, 2024 at 11:38 Computerworld

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Editor’s note: The UK parliament this week debated a proposal to exonerate those wrongfully convicted of fraud due to flaws in a Post Office computer system, while an independent public inquiry into a cover-up of the flaws heard evidence from former Post Office CIO Lesley Sewell. Here, Marcus Jerräng, editor in chief of Computerworld Sweden, gives an outsider’s perspective on a uniquely British affair.

Say the phrase “IT scandal” and many might think about the mess around Transportstyrelsen  (the Swedish Transport Agency) or Computer Sweden’s revelation of the 1177 data leak (affecting Sweden’s emergency service number). But they both pale in comparison to what has been described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in Britain’s history: the Post Office sub-postmaster scandal.

The Post Office scandal goes back 25 years and can’t be easily summed up. But it began when the British postal service introduced a new IT system for 14,000 Post Office branches: Horizon, a cash register system from Fujitsu intended to automate accounting for sub-postmasters – the franchise owners that run local post offices. 

The system quickly showed missing funds for many sub-postmasters, who couldn’t explain the shortfalls and were unable to trace the errors as they could when accounting was done on paper. The result was that over 900 sub-postmasters were prosecuted over the ensuing 15 years for theft and false accounting. Hundreds were sent to prison, with many more handed other punishments, while countless numbers were driven into bankruptcy and became deeply indebted. 

But it turned out that the sub-postmasters had done nothing wrong. The problem lay in the Horizon system. And, to make things worse, the Post Office had attempted to hide it all by intimidating the sub-masters into silence over the IT problems with threats of legal action. 

The problems with Horizon were revealed as far back as 2009 by tech news site Computerweekly and the story has continued to run, with, among other things, a large class action lawsuit and an ongoing government enquiry. So far, around 90 convictions have been overturned. 

In January this year, the story suddenly exploded into the political debate when the TV channel ITV broadcast the drama series “Mr Bates vs The Post Office,” which portrayed the history of the sub-postmasters who had their lives ruined by the IT scandal. The TV series sparked huge media and public pressure, which led to debate and a parliamentary inquiry, with strong measures from politicians.

In March, a new law was passed with the aim of overturning all convictions. A huge program of compensation payments is planned, where convicted sub-postmasters are each offered £600,000 ($760,000), while others that were affected in other ways — such as those who paid out of their own pockets to cover the discrepancies reported by the IT system – will also be compensated. 

According to British politicians, there could be as much as £1 billion ($1.27 billion) paid out in total.

No one has been held personally accountable for the situation, either at the Post Office or service provider Fujitsu. The Japanese IT giant saw its share price drop by hundreds of millions of dollars after the TV series premiered, and Fujitsu’s global CEO, CFO, and head of European operations have all subsequently apologized publicly.

“We were involved from the very start. We did have bugs and errors in the system. And we did help the Post Pffice in their prosecutions of the sub-postmasters. For that we are truly sorry,” Paul Patterson, Fujitsu’s Europe chief, said during a parliamentary inquiry in January, where he also indicated that the IT service provider would contribute to compensation for those affected. 

Although the saga has continued for 25 years, it isn’t over yet. The commission appointed to review the situation continues its work and is expected to present its results in the fall.

The TV services “Mr Bates vs The Post Office” had its Swedish premier on March 27. It may be worth reflecting on the power IT has over people when watching the show, not least in a time when automation and AI is playing an increasing role in important decisions and processes for both government and business. 

Because, even if IT and digitization can do a huge amount of good, bad IT systems can – literally and demonstrably so – ruin people’s lives.

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