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Emergency Alert System: Fujitsu

Volume 829: debated on Wednesday 19 April 2023

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the suitability of Fujitsu’s involvement in the UK emergency alert system.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question of which I have given private notice, I refer to my entry in the register as an unpaid member of the Post Office Horizon compensation advisory board.

Fujitsu has had a small role in the development of the UK’s emergency alert system, initially providing a subject matter expert to support early development by DCMS. Emergency alerts are a critical tool in our toolkit for warning people whose lives are at risk.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. I have no objection at all to the emergency alert that is to be sent to our mobile telephones on Sunday: it is good for the resilience that the House of Lords Select Committee on risk called for a year or so ago. But why was Fujitsu granted the contract? Fujitsu’s Horizon system caused the sub-postmasters of this country to be shamefully accused of things that they had not done. Some went to prison, some took their own lives and all those accused were humiliated in the eyes of their own communities. Fujitsu, which knew perfectly well what it was doing, has said not a single word of apology. This is already costing the Government hundreds of millions, potentially more. Why has Fujitsu not been taken off the government procurement list?

My noble friend and I agree that the impact of the Horizon scandal on postmasters and their families is utterly horrendous; we used to work together on this when I was on the Back Benches. That is why the Government have set up an inquiry, much encouraged by my noble friend, to get to the bottom of what went wrong and ensure that it can never happen again, as well as providing compensation for those affected.

All government contracts are awarded in line with procurement regulations and transparency guidelines, and that goes for the contract on the alerts. As noble Lords would expect, robust security measures are in place as part of the procurement process.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, for his relentless campaigning over a period of 13 years. Otherwise, the sub-postmasters would not have received any form of justice. Fujitsu’s track record is quite appalling; the noble Lord mentioned that it has never apologised. It was described as giving unsatisfactory and inaccurate evidence in the case brought by the sub-postmasters. The NHS terminated two contracts with it back in 2008-09, then Fujitsu sued the NHS for £700 million and did not settle for 10 years. On exactly what basis do the Government judge Fujitsu to be fit and proper to hold this contract?

I will make one preliminary point: Fujitsu has been fully co-operating with the postmasters inquiry. I also emphasise that there is no link between the small amount of work that Fujitsu has done for DCMS and the Cabinet Office and the work done for the Post Office.

My Lords, I am so grateful to the Minister for setting out the issue about the regulations and security. But in addition to security concerns, there are basic decency and morality concerns. How do people in this country feel about contracts being given to this company in the interim, while this inquiry is pending?

I have explained what we are doing about the inquiry. The grounds for the exclusion of bidders from public procurement procedures are set out in the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. These rules set out the circumstances in which bidders must or may be excluded from the public procurement process. We have to follow those processes. The Procurement Bill, which was brought forward by this Government and debated extensively in this House, and is now being considered elsewhere, strengthens the grounds for exclusion, but we have proceeded with this contract on alerts. I emphasise the value of these alerts in warning and informing people where we have serious problems.

Can the Minister tell the House how much Fujitsu is being paid for this contract and how many other ongoing procurement contracts there are with Fujitsu?

I do not have information on other procurement contracts but I can tell the noble Lord that, in the year that has just finished, we paid Fujitsu £1.6 million for the alerts contract. If he looks on Contracts Finder, which is one of the transparency mechanisms that we have, he will see that the range of the contract is from £1.6 million to £5 million, but at the moment we have used Fujitsu for only the £1.6 million that I have outlined.

My Lords, that is £1.6 million too much. Does my noble friend accept that when she speaks from the Dispatch Box she is, of course, speaking for the whole Government, right across the board? It is completely wrong—I would say immoral—for any department of government to pay money to a company whose actions, carelessness and downright stupidity in some respects have led to the deaths of British subjects, to the incarceration of others and to the misery of many. Were it not for my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot, the situation would be far worse.

We have to follow due process. An inquiry is rightly taking place into the Horizon and Post Office scandal. In the meantime, it is important that procurement processes are open, that people are allowed to bid and that awards are made in accordance with the rules. I emphasise the point that I have already made: there is no link between the work that Fujitsu has done for DCMS and the Cabinet Office and the work done for the Post Office.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the London Resilience Forum. The emergency alert system is a really good idea. In fact, it is such a good idea that the Cabinet Office first successfully tested the use of emergency text alerts in 2013. Why has it taken a decade to hold a nationwide emergency alert system test? Can the Minister confirm how quickly the test will be evaluated and how soon the Government think this potentially life-saving system can be rolled out?

I thank the noble Baroness for her support. Indeed, I think this alert system appeared in the Labour Party manifesto; we have had cross-party support for it. We have set up the test in consultation with various affected parties, which obviously means that it has had to be done properly—with motoring organisations, for example, and for vulnerable groups. That has taken time. The test is now taking place on Sunday. My hope is that it will be successful. Just to reassure the noble Baroness, we had trials in East Sussex and Reading, and the feedback we had from the people involved in the test was very positive, with 88% of people wanting to keep going and encouraging the test. We need to move things forward, which is exactly what we are doing.

My Lords, I understand the point about following procurement procedures, but can we try a different tack? What would Fujitsu have to do to make it excludable from these procedures?

All of this arises from the horrendous case of the Post Office, which I have studied over many years and feel equally strongly about. That process is continuing; Fujitsu is continuing to answer questions. As to putting companies on excluded lists, I have tried to explain what the arrangements are under regulations and that changes are coming forward in the Procurement Bill. Where companies co-operate and a finding has not been found against them, it is important that we treat them fairly. This is a country that believes in that.

My Lords, the Williams inquiry is still taking evidence in late winter this year, so the chances of it reporting even this time next year are probably slim. During that time, how many other contracts will Fujitsu be bidding for and winning? Surely the Minister can see that there are grounds here for suspending Fujitsu’s ability to bid on government contracts until such time as the report has had a chance to be published.

I do not have information on how many contracts Fujitsu plans to bid on, or indeed whether it will be successful in bidding for those contracts. All I can say is that we are pursuing the Post Office side of things extremely keenly, and I think we have moved from a very bad place into a better place with the plans for compensation. I note what has been said about Fujitsu, but I emphasise that the small contract we are talking about is very separate from the large and troublesome contract that we have all discussed on other occasions when we have been debating the awful circumstances of the postmasters, which, frankly, is probably the worst thing I have ever dealt with while I have been in government.

The Minister prays in aid the process of procurement, and that is quite right; let us leave aside for a moment the moral cases that some people have made. Is it not a standard part of procurement processes to have regard to performance on previous contracts by bidders? Other contracts, for example with the NHS, have been mentioned earlier in the comments this afternoon. If that is not part of our procurement process, surely it should be. If it is part of our procurement process, what on earth must the other bidders have been like?

The noble Lord is right that we do not always get as many bidders as I would like in procurement, and one of the things we are trying to do in the procurement area is to broaden procurement so that we get more bidders. Having said that, of course he is right that those who are looking at contracts, both within departments and across government— because we have central assistance for procurement now—look at the track record of companies, but you have to do that in a fair way.

My Lords, I endorse what the Minister said about the emergency alert concept being excellent. The Minister will not necessarily be aware that I was one of the MPs who represented a number of the sub-postmasters, including one who was forced out of the locality in disgrace. His life, his wife’s life and his family’s life were completely destroyed and ruined, whereas he was obviously completely innocent. What really grates—I am sure the Minister understands this, but it would be good to hear her reinforce it—is: why has Fujitsu not in any way apologised?

I sympathise with the point made by my noble friend. That is for Fujitsu, of course, and the process of looking at the awful history of the postmasters is still not finished. I agree with him that it can be helpful to say sorry, but that is a matter for Fujitsu. I am sorry that we are not talking much about the alerts, on which I have every answer under the sun. I will try to move things forward more broadly and, on the postmasters, to encourage the progress of the inquiry. We are all longing for the result of that.

My Lords, I declare my interests in the register and the fact that I have been campaigning for these emergency alerts to happen for a number of years. I think the first alerts were used in a number of countries way back in 2012. The Cabinet Office trialled them in 2013, and then nothing happened for virtually a decade. The system is proven in Australia, where a number of people were saved from dying in fires, and in India people’s lives were saved from floods and so on. This is very important, but emergency alerts require public trust in the authorities. I hope the Minister acknowledges that this small part of the contract that has gone to Fujitsu will undermine that trust. What further steps will the Government take to improve trust in the emergency alert system going forward?

I do not accept that the small addition of Fujitsu’s work in this area negates this very important piece of work, which the noble Lord was obviously involved in and agrees with. We need to get on with it. He is right that the US, Canada, the Netherlands and Japan already have such a system. We did have something of a system, as he will know, because we used texts during Covid, but we found that their coverage was not good enough. That is another reason why we have been spurred to move faster. Obviously, I am involved in this area and taking a big interest. I like to get on with things, as he knows. I very much hope that the test will work and that if we have a national crisis of the kind we very much hope not to have, these alerts will be helpful. They will also be useful locally, because the COBRA unit co-ordinating them will find them useful on occasions of local flooding and storms. At the moment, we get alerts but it is more haphazard than it needs to be.