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Where are the PO/Fujitsu whistleblowers?



Apart from IT engineer Richard Roll, who made contact with journalist Nick Wallis in 2015, we have been unable to find any whistleblowers in relation to the British Post Office Scandal, although we think several individuals came close.


The Public Interest Disclosures Act 1998 (UK) purports to protect whistleblowers from retaliation but there are high profile examples of employers instructing lawyers to argue whistleblowers out of their protection, including Alison McDermott (Sellafield, a nuclear waste processing facility) and Drs Chris Day and Usha Prasad (NHS).  A Bill before Parliament seeks to increase whistleblower protection and criminalise retaliation.  It has passed its second reading. 


Meanwhile in New Zealand, the similarly outdated Protected Disclosures Act 2000 was updated in 2022.  The legacy of the weak PDA2000 continues and its failure to protect whistleblowers has caused bankruptcies in relation to employment disputes, the most notorious of these being Tauranga City Council v Brown (formerly anonymised to ITE v ALA).   But in a positive development, the Employment Relations Authority, similar to the UK’s Employment Tribunal, recently reinstated a taxi company employee who had been dismissed under the new legislation (the parties settled in a mediation soon after). 


In this article we’ll list a few Post Office and Fujitsu employees who we think would have blown the whistle on serious wrongdoing if they had been aware of the conflagration to come.



The former Fujitsu call centre operator


Nate Orrow was the first call taker to go public with what it was like being told on no uncertain terms that subpostmasters were to be told there were no problems with the Horizon software, the caller was the only subpostmaster experiencing accounting shortfalls and they were liable for that shortfall.  Orrow’s short interview with ITV, just weeks after the screening of ITV’s Mr Bates vs The Post Office, is here.



The anonymous printout discloser


Nick Wallis (postofficescandal.uk) has the scoop on this, and we are waiting for developments.  In 2013, after six years as a subpostmaster, Penny Williams wanted to go back to teaching and attempted to sell her Post Office branch.  Post Office auditors “found” a shortfall of around £20,000 and the knock-on effect bankrupted her.  Around this time some computer printouts indicating evidence of software bugs were sent to her anonymously.  Read Nick Wallis’ article here.  We would love to see those printouts in the public domain, with an explanation of what they mean.  Sadly, the printouts did not find their way to anyone influential, such as Computer Weekly, back in 2014.



The Fujitsu IT engineer


Over a three year period from 1998 to 2001, David McDonnell (who we have spoken to) was part of a large team that worked on the Horizon POS software that was rolled out in 1999 and 2000.  McDonnell recalls intense pressure to rush a defective software product to market, starting with “model office trials” at selected branches.  Problems started immediately and the bugs and defects were not adequately resolved by the time the rollout to more than 10,000 branches started.


McDonnell had up to 10 to 12 subordinates, and his cautious, quality-focused approach to software development was at times in conflict with the overconfident, deadline-driven approach of some of his colleagues. 


In 2001 McDonnell was shadowed by an engineer who soon replaced him after he was transferred to a new position, which was even more unbearable.  He resigned after a few months under circumstances that we would call constructive dismissal, although he did not raise a grievance.  McDonnell’s somewhat portable skill set put him in a good position to hit the ground running. 


New Zealand is no stranger to IT disasters – INCIS and Novopay spring to mind.  No engineer wants to be associated with a white elephant and McDonnell was no exception, and he got out when the writing was on the wall for Horizon.  


A plausible prediction at that point (2001) might be that Horizon should have limped along for a few years until a competitor of Fujitsu won a tender to upgrade the Post Office POS system, quietly kicked out Horizon and installed its own equipment and software. 


But Horizon wasn’t kicked out – it was later shored up by senior management of the Post Office in an effort to cover up prosecutions and unsafe convictions that had relied on Horizon data – the legal enforcement equivalent of a Ponzi scheme.  Lawyer Jarnail Singh’s infamous “Horizon-bashing bandwagon” email is an example of that mindset.


After a number of years working overseas including in Japan, David McDonnell returned to the UK in 2019, just as details of what we now know as the Post Office Scandal were emerging in mainstream media.  He expressed despair at what the cowboy culture at Fujitsu 17-20 years earlier had evidently led to, as reported at that time - and reports have obviously gotten worse since.  But could an IT engineer have reasonably envisaged such a catastrophic outcome, let alone prevented it by making Public Interest Disclosures?  Highly unlikely. 


McDonnell gave evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, chaired by Sir Wyn Williams, on 16 November 2022.  The link is here.

 


The Union representative


Michael Rudkin was the chairman of the National Federation of subpostmasters.  He was a subpostmaster, and his wife Susan ran another branch.  In 19 August 2008 Rudkin visited Fujitsu’s Bracknell site in his capacity as a negotiator for subpostmasters.  He signed the visitor’s book and was escorted to Fujitsu’s “boiler room” where he was glibly informed that Fujitsu had back door access to branch accounts and were able to make “corrections”.  Noting Rudkin’s concerned expression, Fujitsu staff terminated his visit early.


That triggered a swift Machiavellian response - the following morning Rudkin woke to find Post Office investigators standing over his bed, claiming his wife’s branch had a £44,000 shortfall.


The Bracknell branch denied that Rudkin had ever visited, and even “disappeared” the visitor’s book, but he was later able to find an otherwise unremarkable email confirming his planned visit.


In 2009 Susan avoided jail but was fitted with an electronic monitoring tag.  Her conviction was overturned in 2021. 

Susan’s harrowing witness statement to the Inquiry is here and it should go some way towards explaining why the Rudkins did not have capacity to articulate serious wrongdoing earlier than they did.

 


The General Counsel


Susan Crichton was the General Counsel of the Post Office from January 2010 to late 2013.  It was Crichton who hand-picked forensic accounting firm Second Sight having worked with one of its principals Ron Warmington at a previous job.  Second Sight was engaged to look into problems with Horizon in the context of an over-reliance on Horizon data to support criminal prosecutions and civil claims against subpostmasters whose branches had experienced accounting shortfalls. 


Crichton’s evidence at the Inquiry suggested that she asserted that Second Sight’s independence was of paramount importance.  While not mentioned in her evidence, we can suggest an example of an auditing firm that told its client what its executives wanted to hear, as opposed to telling it what it needed to hear.  The client eventually collapsed under the weight of a financial scandal, which took the highly negligent auditing firm down with it.  The auditing firm was Arthur Andersen and its client was Enron.


But at Post Office Limited, the other extreme applied.  The truly independent and highly competent firm Second Sight was eventually dismissed when it got too close to the truth, specifically Fujitsu’s remote access and altering of branch accounts in an attempt to cover up bugs, errors and defects.


In late 2013 Crichton resigned because she felt that she had lost the confidence of the Board; for example the then CEO Paula Vennells had humiliated her by excluding her from a board meeting, and an internal email noted that her professional obligations conflicted with, and were prioritised over what was thought to be the Post Office’s interests.  Perversely those interests included continuing to cover up knowledge of flawed Horizon data on which prosecutions relied.  Crichton told the Inquiry she signed a compromise agreement (NDA).  As a potential whistleblower we would not be surprised if she was bullied into it.



Whistleblower legislation in the works


Leighton Associates occasionally receives tip-offs from whistleblowers in other (New Zealand) matters usually as a response to an article.  Similarly, if we want to know what has been happening under the radar with regard to Post Office / Fujitsu, we need to ask the experts directly.



WhistleblowersUK is secretariat to the APPG for Whistleblowing and designed and drafted the Whistleblowing Bill.  Its CEO Georgina Halford-Hall said:


“The evidence that we have received demonstrates that there has been no shortage of whistleblowers at Fujitsu or the Post Office but the problem is that they have not been listened to and where they have they have been suppressed by a reportedly ongoing and aggressive culture of fear.  I am confident that as the inquiry proceeds more people will come forward. 


The Post Office Horizon scandal should be an important watershed moment for the government, an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy in the form of the Whistleblowing Bill (currently going through Parliament) championed by Mary Robinson MP, chair of the APPG for Whistleblowing. The Bill is designed to incentivise right doing and normalise speaking up by creating a safety net for all citizens.”



Tristam Price, Leighton Associates

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