Blair said scrapping Horizon would damage relations with Japan

Britain’s relationship with Japan was one of the factors considered when Tony Blair, pictured in 1997, decided to go ahead with Horizon – Thomas Imo/Photothek

The Foreign Office warned Sir Tony Blair that scrapping the Horizon plan would damage relations with Japan, The Telegraph can reveal.

The former prime minister ordered officials to press ahead with the Post Office’s new computer system despite being told it was “riddled with problems” and that independent IT experts had found that the company behind it “did not complied with good industry practices” in its management. of the project.

Documents released by the Cabinet Office show Sir Tony’s decision came after Sir David Wright, the UK ambassador to Japan, warned that scrapping the deal would lead to the collapse of the Japanese-owned company building the system. and would have “profound implications… for bilateral ties” with Tokyo.

Sir Geoff Mulgan, Sir Tony’s No 10 adviser and now a professor of public policy at University College London, told The Telegraph that a reluctance to strain relations with Japan “had a big influence” on decision-making on Horizon.

The revelation raises fresh questions about the then prime minister’s decision to continue with the problematic scheme, which Labor inherited from the Conservatives after coming to power in 1997.

Errors in the system created problems for thousands of subpostmasters for more than a decade and led to the biggest miscarriage of justice in British history.

A spokesman for Sir Tony said Britain’s relationship with Japan was “one of several factors” considered when he decided to go ahead with Horizon, but that his “main concern was the technical capability of the system”.

Government documents show that in 1998, Labor government ministers and officials were concerned that Horizon was significantly behind schedule and, according to an official note from Sir Geoff, was “riddled with problems”.

A Treasury document presented to the then Prime Minister on April 22, 1999, titled “ICL Pathway: list of failures,” stated that “independent reviews of the Horizon project by external IT experts have been concluded (most recently this week). than ICL Pathway [the subsidiary building the system] “They have failed and are not complying with good industry practices in carrying out this project, both in their software development work and in their management of the process.”

Every version of the software released to date had been subject to “bugs and issues,” according to the document.

But Sir Tony made it clear that the project should not be scrapped, and Jeremy Heywood, his principal private secretary, told ministers the following month that the prime minister wanted to avoid putting “the whole future of ICL at risk”. The Government decided to proceed with a reduced version of the project.

It can now be revealed that the decision followed an intervention by Sir David in which Sir Tony was warned that scrapping the deal with Fujitsu-owned ICL “would lead to significant internal difficulties within Fujitsu and the collapse of ICL”.

The warning came in an urgent dispatch written in December 1998, which read at the top: “CABINET OFFICE PLEASE GO TO PS/NO 10” – a reference to Sir Tony’s private secretary in Downing Street.

Sir David warned: “We have a significant and potentially damaging problem on our hands.” He described a meeting in which Michio Naruto, vice president of Fujitsu and president of ICL, expressed concern about the risk of the government withdrawing from the plan.

He said Naruto “repeatedly emphasized that the failure of the project will have serious repercussions for Fujitsu’s international position, lead to significant internal difficulties within Fujitsu and the collapse of ICL”, adding: “Any threat to the continued viability of ICL would have profound implications for jobs in the UK and for bilateral relations.

“The waves created would be damaging politically at home and to the UK’s position of strength here against our European competitors. This is already being weakened by perceptions of distancing from the center of Europe over the single currency. We can do without more problems.”

Sir Geoff said it was difficult to overstate “how important Japanese investment was in the country in the 1980s, and in the 1990s, it almost saved British manufacturing. So there was a lot at stake and that was definitely a big factor.”

He added: “My recommendation was, despite that, I still thought [Horizon] It should have been canceled and started again. I think Alistair Darling took a similar view.”

According to testimony from a former senior DoC official, in early 1999 Downing Street made it clear to ministers and officials that Sir Tony “was not seeking an outcome that would involve moving away from Horizon or ICL.”

A spokesman for Sir Tony said: “As is absolutely clear from published correspondence within the government, Tony Blair, as Prime Minister, took very seriously the issues raised about the Horizon contract, which when he took office was behind schedule, but considered vital. for savings in the benefits system.

“After Mulgan’s warning… Mr Blair wrote in that note: ‘I would be in favor of Option 1 [pressing ahead] except for Geoff’s claim that the system itself is flawed. Surely there must be a clear vision in this regard.

“Tell me about that: I mean, reading the attached document, everything is focused on the financial business. But the risks there are fairly even and will probably lean towards the side of continuing. The real thing about this is the system itself.’”

The spokesperson pointed to a note from Mr Heywood which stated that the Prime Minister’s “only concern was getting a workable system agreed that actually delivered what the Government wanted”.

“An independent panel of experts was asked to provide a technical assessment of the feasibility of the project, which concluded that it was viable,” the spokesperson added.

“Therefore, at every stage the issues were taken seriously and investigated… The implicit idea that Tony Blair was warned and ignored them is categorically wrong.

“It is now clear that the Horizon product was seriously defective, leading to tragic and completely unacceptable consequences, and Mr Blair has deep sympathy for all those affected.”

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