Post Office scandal: Fujitsu role in Manchester investment zone in question

Fujitsu signed a partnership agreement to support Greater Manchester's investment zone. Image credit: Pavel Kapysh / Shutterstock.com

An agreement for Fujitsu to support Greater Manchester’s advanced manufacturing investment zone is in question over the Japanese IT giant’s role in the Post Office scandal.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) signed an “exploratory partnership agreement” with Fujitsu in December during a trade mission to Tokyo.

It will explore ways to apply Fujitsu’s “technical expertise” to Greater Manchester’s advanced manufacturing and materials sector.

UKTN understands that the GMCA will consider whether the findings of the statutory inquiry into the Post Office scandal, led by Sir Wyn Williams, have any implications for its relationship with Fujitsu.

The statutory inquiry, which was announced in 2020 but has faced delays, is expected to complete its final phase by the summer of this year.

The investment zone agreement was struck prior to ITV airing its drama, ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’, which has sparked a fierce public backlash over the false convictions of over 900 Post Office operators that stemmed from Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon accounting software.

Horizon software erroneously showed ‘shortfalls’ in branch accounts. The Post Office insisted Horizon was “robust” and relentlessly prosecuted hundreds of sub-postmasters for offences such as theft, fraud and false accounting.

No work has yet been undertaken for the Fujitsu investment zone partnership in Greater Manchester.

The December announcement stated that “Greater Manchester and Fujitsu will explore opportunities to deploy the company’s expertise in information technology, automation, and artificial intelligence to help Greater Manchester manufacturers innovate, improve their processes, and increase their productivity”.

At the time, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham described partnering with Fujitsu for the investment zone as a “massive boost” for the region.

A spokesperson for Fujitsu said the agreement is at the “very early stage” and that they are “discussing the future shape of the partnership”.

The spokesperson added that no payments have been made between Fujitsu and the GMCA as part of the partnership.

The agreement was announced weeks after the chancellor confirmed Greater Manchester as one of the UK’s investment zones, which provide financial incentives to local businesses such as tax relief.

The Greater Manchester investment zone is expected to create 32,000 jobs and will be backed by £160m in taxpayer funding.

One Manchester tech leader told UKTN that they hope the GMCA pauses work with Fujitsu until the situation is resolved.

Another said that the timing of the partnership’s announcement – before Christmas and ahead of trade events restarting – means there has not yet been much discussion about it among the Manchester tech community.

They added that they “very rarely see anything from Fujitsu on the ground in the ecosystem”.

A spokesperson for Fujitsu said: “Fujitsu sees Greater Manchester as an innovative region with ambitious plans to unlock the potential of technology and we hope the exploratory partnership signed in December will develop and bring value and benefits to the region.”

A spokesperson for the GMCA said: “There is a longstanding relationship between Fujitsu and Greater Manchester, which dates back some 75 years to when the company collaborated with the University of Manchester in developing the world’s earliest computer systems.

“More recently, in 2022 Fujitsu announced that Manchester was a key focus for a £22m investment in its Centre for Cognitive and Advanced Technologies.

“The latest exploratory partnership agreement is focused on supporting the development of the Greater Manchester Investment Zone.”

Fujitsu contracts under scrutiny

Between 1999 and 2015, over 900 sub-postmasters were prosecuted in what was subsequently named the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. Thousands more have been affected.

Despite a landmark High Court victory in 2019 showing that Horizon’s software was flawed, only 93 have had their convictions overturned, with some committing suicide or not living to see justice.

Since the ITV dramatisation, the government said it will introduce legislation quashing all convictions. Plans have also been drawn up to provide sufficient compensation to victims after previous payouts were deemed inadequate.

While the Post Office and its leadership are at the centre of the inquiry, Fujitsu’s role in the scandal has spurred scrutiny of its other government contracts. There have been calls from politicians to block Fujitsu from securing new government contracts, strip it of existing deals and for it to pay some of the taxpayer costs associated with the scandal.

David Davis MP suggested to BBC Radio 4 that he “would certainly suspend any possibility of new contracts” until the tech firm has answered key questions.

Fujitsu currently has more than £2bn worth of contracts with the UK government, holding the status of a key strategic supplier.

Fujitsu secured 101 of these contracts since the ruling that the sub-postmasters convicted were at no fault. Its UK division reported £22m in profits, according to Fujitsu’s most recent accounts.

A Fujitsu executive is due to appear before a Parliamentary Business and Trade Select Committee on Tuesday.

A Fujitsu spokesperson said: “The current Post Office Horizon IT statutory inquiry is examining complex events stretching back over 20 years to understand who knew what, when, and what they did with that knowledge. The inquiry has reinforced the devastating impact on postmasters’ lives and that of their families, and Fujitsu has apologised for its role in their suffering.

“Fujitsu is fully committed to supporting the inquiry in order to understand what happened and to learn from it. Out of respect for the inquiry process, it would be inappropriate for Fujitsu to comment further at this time.”