Fujitsu, the Post Office, and Nationalisation Cats

The Post Office Horizon nightmare is in the news again, and this time, I suppose because it's been on the television, something is actually happening.

If you are unfamiliar with the events that unfolded, the Post Office commissioned some accounting software in the 90s called Horizon, from a company called Fujitsu. The original purpose of this was to basically act as a one-stop shop for all financial activity in various Post Office branches, with one of the goals being to cut down on benefits fraud. This would have been a not-insignificant task; it's basically the equivalent of asking for a payments processor, auditing system, and all the rest; a field that was functionally in its infancy in the 1990s. The software was eventually delivered, in a slimmed-down form, with no benefits elements, to the Post Office. Problems ensued.

In short, the system was riddled with bugs. They haven't been made public, but multiple third parties audited it, and found it not fit for purpose. This resulted in a number of Post Office branches looking like they'd absconded with tens of thousands of pounds, and the Post Office itself decided to take the postmasters of these places to court rather than acknowledge the software was full of bugs, and consequently, over more than a decade, they destroyed a whole lot of people's lives, forever. The Government has been in the process of helping them pay reparations to the people who didn't kill themselves, and since the TV show, have been looking into pardons for everyone.

I don't want to get too deep into that side of things, but I do want to address something I keep seeing.

A Tory minister expressing confusion in the Grauniad about why Fujitsu keeps getting government contracts.

That is "why did this happen", and "why is Fujitsu a preferred supplier", and that's what I'm going to talk briefly, a little bit about, today. To understand why, you have to know a little bit about the history of computing in the UK. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the UK was a trail-blazer in terms of the tech industry. Several firsts happened on UK soil. Indeed, the Post Office itself was actually quite technologically competent! They actually set up the first UK-wide test network. They bought a bunch of computers from a company called Ferranti in 1971, and then used them to build a packet-switching network. You can find their 1974 paper here:

So, what happened? Well, this is actually a culmination of a whole history of half-baked ideas by successive British governments. The first is that, in the 1960s, the Wilson Labour government decided to create a Frankenstein out of the major British consumer computer players; they were forcibly merged into a company called ICL, or International Computers Limited, of which the government was a minority owner, and provided a significant injection of money for research purposes. The idea was to create a British competitor to IBM; a large, monolithic giant that could really show those chaps. Unfortunately, this didn't really pan out. British economic troubles, European competitors and issues, and IBM's dominance and strategy conspired to, effectively, keep ICL sickly in its cot. However, as the now defacto only major technology company in the UK (Ferranti, above, escaped this for a time, before falling to an ignoble end that's worth another blog one day), they were effectively guaranteed government contracts, which did keep them alive for some time.

Meanwhile, the Post Office, having become a major player in telecommunications with serious knowledge about technology, was forcibly divested of this element in 1984, which became the private company BT. The Post Office returned to sorting mail, and BT went about its business.

Fujitsu and ICL became close bedfellows in the 1980s, with the British pseudo-giant wanting to source hardware from them, because it was cheaper than developing their own integrated circuits. Little by little, over time, ICL grew ever-closer to Fujitsu, until finally Fujitsu absorbed it, not unlike what happens to a male anglerfish when it encounters a female. ICL was allowed to exist as a subsidiary for a little bit, acting as a sort of handpuppet to keep those government contracts going, before Fujitsu got bored and took it off, revealing Mr. British Technology Industry was actually just them, now. But as part and parcel of all this, Fujitsu effectively inherited ICL's position and contracts with the UK government; a position it continues to hold today. If somewhere is using some ICL technology, or something ICL helped with, Fujitsu is really the only one you can turn to. Decades of knowledge of the inner workings of the British government have made them pretty much the preferred supplier. If you know anything about Britain, too, you'll know that large upgrading and migration projects tend to take an inordinate amount of time there. Fujitsu may well have delivered solutions with support contracts lasting 10-15 years, or more.

Some might say that the British government trying to tamper in the technology industry was a bad idea, especially when it comes to thinking they could somehow create an IBM-killer. To that, I would agree. Some might also say that allowing Fujitsu to buy and make a corporate suit out of the remains of the British technology industry was a bad idea. To that, I agree. While I wouldn't call this an inevitable outcome, I do think it was, sadly, predictable. If it wasn't this, it would have been something else. Indeed, it's entirely possible something else, somewhere, did go wrong, just without the same level of consequences.

Most importantly, though, I think it's an absolute tragedy that people died as a result of this, and that's something that nobody involved should be allowed to forget. All the reparations and apologies in the world, timely or late, can't bring anyone back to life.

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