Post Office inquiry: Fujitsu manager called sub-postmaster ‘nasty chap’


As published on BBC News

A Fujitsu manager called a Post Office sub-postmaster a “nasty chap” ahead of a legal battle that left him bankrupt, an inquiry has heard.

Peter Sewell, who was part of the Post Office Account Security Team at the company, made the comment about Lee Castleton in an email in 2006.

Mr Castleton was found to have a £25,000 shortfall at his branch after being sued by the Post Office.

Mr Sewell told the inquiry: “I don’t know why that was written.”

In response to the revelation, Mr Castleton told the BBC the comment surprised him because he had never met, corresponded, or spoken on the phone to Mr Sewell.

“Obviously it’s difficult to hear but it’s not something that I didn’t expect,” he added. “I think we’re all realists and we knew there was some kind of conspiracy under there and it’s been laid out for all to see.”

Fujitsu developed the Horizon software used by the Post Office which was later found to be faulty and incorrectly made it look like money was missing from branches. More than 900 sub-postmasters and postmistresses were prosecuted for theft and false accounting from 1999 to 2015 based on Horizon evidence.

It has been described as the UK’s most widespread miscarriage of justice.

Mr Castleton’s branch was found to have a £25,000 shortfall and he was subsequently suspended following an audit almost 20 years ago. The Post Office spent two years and £320,000 pursuing him for the missing money through the civil courts.

The inquiry looking into the scandal heard that Mr Sewell appeared to give words of encouragement in an email exchange with his colleague, IT security analyst Andrew Dunks, ahead of legal proceedings starting against Mr Castleton, who ran a Post Office in East Yorkshire.

The email said: “See you in court then.

“Fetters lane is where they used to hang people out to dry. I don’t suppose that type of thing happens any more though.

“That Castleton is a nasty chap and will be all out to rubbish the FJ (Fujitsu) name. It’s up to you to maintain absolute strength and integrity no matter what the prosecution throw at you.

“We will all be behind you hoping you come through unscathed. Bless you.”

Mr Dunks replied: “Thank you for those very kind and encouraging words. I had to pause halfway through reading it to wipe away a small tear…”

Julian Blake, counsel to the inquiry, questioned Mr Sewell about the email and asked if that was “typical of the approach to the work that you were doing?”

“No, no – I don’t know why that was written,” Mr Sewell responded. “I don’t know, I don’t know why I wrote it. I apologise.”

The Fujitsu manager later admitted “we all protect our own companies” when pressed further on whether he saw it important to protect the firm’s reputation.

Following Mr Sewell’s evidence, Mr Castleton said: “They set out to ruin me, which they did, and it was groupthink – it wasn’t just one person. It was a group of people and it’s a case of ‘sorry, not sorry’ isn’t it?”

Asked if he had a message for Mr Sewell, he replied: “I hope you have as many sleepless nights as I have.”

The latest revelation at the inquiry came after Fujitsu told the government it will not bid for public contracts while proceedings into the Post Office scandal continue.

Minister Alex Burghart said the technology firm had written to the Cabinet Office to inform it of its decision.

The government has continued to award billions of pounds worth of public contracts to Fujitsu even after information about the scandal involving Horizon emerged.

The Post Office, which is wholly owned by the government, still uses Horizon and it paid Fujitsu £95m to extend the system for a further two years after plans to move to Amazon were abandoned.

Mr Burghart told the House of Commons on Thursday: “This morning (the) Cabinet Office received a letter from Fujitsu voluntarily undertaking not to bid for government contracts whilst the inquiry is ongoing, unless of course the government ask them to.”

He made the statement after former cabinet minister Sir David Davis asked that companies such as Fujitsu be blocked from bidding for government contracts because of “terrible track records”.

The Financial Times had reported that the Cabinet Office had wanted to stop using Fujitsu for IT contracts on the basis of its past performance.

The newspaper said that government lawyers said it would not be possible legally to discriminate against firms based on their track record.

But Sir David told the House of Commons: “Government lawyers advised this could not be done. They’re wrong.”

He asked: “So will the government give further serious thought to blocking large companies like Fujitsu with terrible track records from bidding for future contracts? And if absolutely necessary legislate accordingly?”

At that point, Mr Burghart announced that Fujitsu had voluntarily stepped back from bidding for future government contracts.

On Tuesday, Paul Patterson, Fujitsu’s European boss, apologised for the firm’s role in the scandal.

He said that the Post Office knew about “bugs and errors” in the Horizon software early on. However, the Post Office carried on with the prosecutions.

At a hearing before MPs, Mr Patterson also said that Fujitsu had a “moral obligation” to contribute to compensation for sub-postmasters wrongly prosecuted as a result of its faulty software.

On Thursday, Fujitsu Group, which is based in Japan, said that it would “be working with the UK government on the appropriate actions, including contribution to compensation”.

“The Fujitsu Group hopes for a swift resolution that ensures a just outcome for the victims,” it added.