Post Office Trial. What is the truth?

It is fair to say I think that the coverage of this trial in the mainstream press as well as social media has been a bit one sided.   Nick Wallis’s live coverage of the trial via a twitter feed plus the fact that the evidential documents he has obtained have been published for all to see, has allowed commentators like myself to establish and communicate opinions that are not entirely unbiased.  I make no bones about the fact that while I want the Post Office network to eventually flourish, that has to be under new management and a new ethos regarding the relationship between the company and the subpostmaster community.  I believe the outcome of this trial will be a catalyst for that change and I am hopeful of a just verdict in favour of the claimants.

Nick Wallis has endeavoured to maintain a neutral reporting stance and in that regard has repeatedly (I am led to believe) encouraged both Post Office Ltd (POL) and the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP) who are broadly supportive of POL’s case in this trial, to respond with comments that he can publish alongside the commentary of others.   Both parties have issued short statements to the effect that they cannot comment while the trial is ongoing but stand by their position with regard to the claims made by the Appellants.

By restricting themselves in this way I believe that POL and the NFSP are doing themselves an injustice because in some instances the documents that have been published can be misconstrued and harm can be done to their side of the argument if these, perhaps misinterpreted, documents and/or published comments on them are not publicly refuted.

So in the interests of fair play can I for once take a contrarian opinion to my more well known stance of criticising the role Paula Vennells (CEO of POL) has played in all of this and provide what I consider a better interpretation of what has become a rather infamous email chain that has been published as evidence for the claimants.  https://www.scribd.com/document/393804483/Bates-v-Post-Office-Paula-Vennells-email-chain

This is the sequence of emails originating from an internal POL email Ms Vennells sent to Mark Davies (then head of marketing) and Lesley Sewell (then chief information officer) where she asked them for assistance with possible replies to potential questions that were likely to come up in a forthcoming Government Select Committee hearing https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/business-innovation-and-skills/news/oral-ev-post-office-mediation-01/

There appears to me, on social media at least, an interpretation of misdemeanour on Ms Vennells’ part in looking for an answer to be provided to her that would enable her to deflect questions from the Select Committee if asked whether or not POL could access Horizon remotely (I think it safe to assume that she was referring, in her email, to accusations made public that POL could remotely interfere with branch accounts and which POL had repeatedly denied).

I don’t think that interpretation is correct.  If anything I take some encouragement from what Ms Vennells actually asked because it serves to explain in a small way perhaps, her attitude to the persistent claims made by subpostmasters that there is definitely a problem with Horizon.

Ms Vennells is the CEO of POL.  She cannot be expected to delve into the minutiae of every complaint that is received by POL and in particular complaints levelled against such a sophisticated system such as Horizon.   She has to be reliant on her subordinates to establish the circumstances and the merits of the complaints and report back to her the significance of their findings.  Having said that, not only must she take ultimate responsibility should her support staff be unable to accurately determine the true circumstances, she is totally responsible for having employed them in to their positions in the first place.

Complaints about Horizon are not new.  Since it was first introduced in 2000 there are ongoing instances of problems with both the hardware and software components of the system.   Ms Vennells must have been aware from an early stage in her career at POL that this was a very important issue and any evidence to suggest Horizon is unreliable would cause an existential threat to the business model that POL currently and historically work under where much of the financial transaction risk is passed to the subpostmaster network.  Ms Vennells’ opinion on the reliability of the system must be significantly influential then on her determination to fight these allegations in court.  I think it is fair to say that she accepts what has been told to her as being the truth by her management colleagues.

My point then, about this chain of emails, starts with her opening question:

1) “Is it possible to access the system remotely? We are told it is”  (the possible question from the select committee)

And Ms Vennells then asks:  “What is the true answer?”

My interpretation of the email chain stops here.  She is asking her colleagues for the truth. Nothing more and nothing less.   What her colleagues did after that in reply is clearly open to interpretation but I leave that for others to do and speculate on.  However, considering the question she has put, surely there is some doubt now in her reliance on what has been told to her in the past.

Ms Vennells joined POL in a senior position, in 2007.  This email chain is from 2015 when she is now the CEO and she is now (8 years later) asking for the truth to be told.  I am sure if the answer she received had not been the one she was expecting she would have been angry, but I am just as certain she would have told the Select Committee the answer she received regardless of any potential personal humiliation she would have encountered.

For me, I think this question of hers “What is the true answer?” is crucial in understanding what has gone wrong inside POL.  The perception of truth is based on who you ask what the truth is.  As Socrates pointed out:

I went to the artisans, for I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought they knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom

Perhaps Ms Vennells, albeit as long ago as 2015, is beginning to realize that while her ‘Artisans’ are supplying her with what they believe to be the truth, the actual truth belongs to the claimants and that she has been misled, not deliberately perhaps, but misled all the same for some considerable time.

 

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Does the truth hurt?

When Seema Misra stood in the dock at the Crown Court in Guildford on Monday 11th October 2010, she was expecting justice to be seen, to be heard and to be done, and when that happened she would be found not guilty of theft.   Eleven days later, when the jury returned to deliver their verdict of Guilty, albeit after lengthy deliberations, it was abundantly clear to everyone surely other than the Jury that justice had not been served.   In a criminal case, it must be proven beyond reasonable doubt, that Seema had stolen the amount that was missing.   No evidence was put to the court that proved anything other than a shortage in the accounts of West Byfleet Post Office existed.

Even the Judge in his summing up commented on the fact that despite investigations, with freely provided access to her assets by Seema, there was no evidence of any inexplicable expenditure.  No evidence was provided to support the concept put forward by Post Office Ltd that the missing amount was physical cash.   Yes, it could be said, her defence was extremely weak, but she clearly had no idea where the missing amount was either.  If she could have proven that then she would have had no case to answer.

It is possible, even probable, that the amount that went missing was down to inexperience in running a Post Office and that under the terms of her contract she was liable to pay Post Office the amount of the discrepancy, but the point is that that is a DEBT not THEFT.  The discrepancy could also have been the result of an error in Horizon and the prosecution made a very distinct point to the jury which I am certain eliminated that possibility from their thinking.  They said that if there had been an error in Horizon Ms Misra would have certainly noticed it.   Totally and utterly absurd.   Under what circumstances could Post Office Ltd possibly bring a prosecution for a criminal offence against a subpostmaster whose defence questioned the efficacy of the computer system they were forced to use, when they knew perfectly well that errors had existed in the system from day one of its rollout that the majority of subpostmasters had failed to notice?

And that is the real question this trial needs to answer.

I have really struggled with coming up with possible reasons why this has happened, until recently.

A comment was made about one of the key witnesses in Seema’s trial.  A person who had met him, suggested he found him to be likeable and a man of great integrity.  No possibility then that this witness had deliberately set out to deceive the court, but on the other hand he could only answer the questions that were put to him.  I would add to that a personal opinion, that over the years I have had dealings with Post Office Ltd staff from top to bottom, and with only one exception (mentioned in a previous blog post) I have found them to be really nice people who clearly share the same love of the Post Office network that I do.

I would say that the majority of Post Office Ltd employees don’t just tow the party line; they believe the party line to be true.  I was there in that position too.  I really believed that there were no problems with Horizon and if and when errors occurred POL would fix them and make sure I didn’t lose out too.   The trouble with that scenario is that there is no-one, it seems, within Post Office Ltd that questions the now quite obvious problems with what they perceive to be the truth.

That premise though leads to a conundrum that I have only just remembered exists (I am a bit slow on the uptake sometimes) and it came to me after I inadvertently tweeted about it yesterday.  If everybody in POL, from Tim Parker down, really believes in the fallacy that Horizon and POL are perfect in every way, and 500+ claimants are guilty as sin then:

WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR STOPPING THE SECOND SIGHT INVESTIGATION AND WHY DID THEY DO SO?

IN LIGHT OF EVIDENCE SUBMITTED TO COURT WHY HAVE SECOND SIGHT NOT BEEN ASKED TO CONTINUE WHERE THEY LEFT OFF?

Does the truth hurt?

Answers on a postcard for those questions, hopefully the Judge will wonder this too, but I am not sure if or how the answers could be revealed in court.  Perhaps now would be a very prudent time for at least one of these ‘really nice people’ to start questioning the truth as they perceive it and shed a little light on what is actually happening in the murky waters surrounding Horizon and the desperately  unfair treatment dished out to Subpostmasters.

 

 

 

Be careful what you say …

One thing that has transpired from the current trial, is a waft of disclosed evidence now available to be put in the public domain, which our intrepid court reporter Nick Wallis has done.   (Before I go on, his court reporting, sourcing of documents and publishing them all costs time and money so if you haven’t already, pop along to www.postofficetrial.com and top up his piggy bank because we really need his work to continue)

Already a mountain of documents to wade through and comprehend but just as important is to cross reference what is revealed in them to what has previously been said in public.  The trouble for some is that what they said then in public is not quite what it appears they said in private.   These people could not for one moment have imagined that a full blown trial would come to be and with it the disclosure of so many revealing documents.  They could also not have imagined for one second that the transcript of the trial of Seema Misra would also be published courtesy of the barrister Stephen Mason, which reveals so much about how POL went about obtaining criminal convictions.

There should, quite rightly, be some worried people out there, considering their futures in more ways than one.

Perhaps not so, Mr George Thomson, past General Secretary of the NFSP union and then CEO of what became NFSP Ltd.  His statements in the past may not come back to haunt him personally but they must have a devastating effect on the current and future relevance of the NFSP.  I am looking forward to hearing Justice Fraser’s take on that particular issue.

In August 2013 an email exchange between Thomson and Beal of POL revealed the following:

https://www.scribd.com/document/394041328/Bates-v-Post-Office-NFSP-Signed-in-Blood-Email-Chain#from_embed

“4. POL and NFSP to sign a 15 year contract for the NFSP to represent all post office operators. This will include: Financial agreement £500k payment 2013-14 £1.25m payment 2014-15 £1.25m payment 2015-16 £2.5m payment 2017 onwards to 2028 This process allows for the drop off of our present membership fee, and facilitates the change from check off towards POL charging a fee from all agents which is passed directly to the NFSP. Memorandum of Understanding to be worked on with rights and responsibilities on both sides. If necessary, NFSP will drop Union badge to sign contract. Please note – a signed agreement with the blood of both myself and Paula is necessary on the future of the NFSP before any agreement is granted on either NT and other points.”

I have been warned about my scribblings in the past and the fact that they might attract some interest from the legal profession on behalf of POL and others so with that in mind I better be careful what I say here.

On second thoughts, given that I am pretty much penniless and couldn’t give a shit plus of course I would be delighted to have my day in court with them I’ll just carry on saying things as I see them.

It is pretty clear from the email extract above that George is telling Paula, regardless of any benefit or lack of benefit of Network Transformation to the very SPMRS George was meant to support, he, George Thomson, wants Paula to personally commit POL to pay the NFSP close to £30m, otherwise he/NFSP will not provide public support to the project.  The withdrawal of public support for NT by the NFSP, it should be noted, would have had major political consequences.  Of course he also throws in the attraction of having the NFSP relinquish its union status despite his public outcry at those he believed responsible for ultimately bringing that about.

Now you can interpolate the above for yourself to determine what occurred in between that email and what or what did not transpire as a result, but I could point out a couple of things:

a) The NFSP continues to this day to receive heavy financial backing from POL

b) The NFSP never withdrew support for the NT Project

c) The NFSP lost their Union Status

d) to the best of my knowledge the final agreement between the NFSP and POL was not signed in blood (but who knows? I haven’t actually seen it.)

I do not know if the role of the NFSP in the events leading to this trial will be a major turning point or a mere irrelevance.

What I do know that unless the NFSP changes tune pretty damn quickly then they, as an organization, are and will remain totally irrelevant to the SPMR community.

 

Risk v Reward

 

While the ongoing trial continues to throw up significant reasons why potential new subpostmasters should be wary of taking on a Post Office franchise, existing subpostmasters need to consider the considerable financial risk involved with the ever increasing amount of banking transactions they perform on behalf of High St banks whose local branches are closing in increasing numbers.

I am currently supporting a new bill that is in the first stages of passing through parliament (Banking and Post Office Services (Rural Areas and Small Communities))  and last week I visited Westminster to put my views to two of the sponsoring MPs.

For this bill to succeed in its’ premise:

a Bill to require banks to provide certain services in rural areas and small communities; to make provision for access to Post Office services in such areas and communities; and for connected purposes.

The Bill would amend the law relating to banking and Post Office services; make provisions to strengthen access to banking for rural and small communities by placing the access to banking standard on a statutory footing; place a duty on banks that received taxpayer funds to establish a community investment fund for when those banks leave a community; and strengthen the provision of Post Office services for rural and small communities across the UK.”

it will need to address the real underlying issues of transferring the risk of providing such services via the Post Office network to the subpostmaster and the remuneration they receive in return for accepting those risks.

Let me be clear though, these risks have always been there for subpostmasters, it is the increased risk due to the spate of bank branch closures that must be taken into account.   The subpostmaster needs to take them into account but so must Post Office Ltd, the government and the banks themselves.  The banks will tell you that all transactions they enter into are priced based on several factors not least of which is the risk involved.  The greater the risk the more you pay and I see no reason at all why subpostmasters should not expect more pay as the risk they carry increases.

These risks include:

  1. Increased risk of robbery (usually armed) including the possibility that Post Office Ltd will not cover the full amount stolen.
  2. Transaction errors where the blame and cost is to the account of the subpostmaster
  3. Acceptance of counterfeits as real and passed to the Post Office who then claim back the amount of the forgery from the subpostmaster

 

 

Each of these risks requires a full explanation as well as a risk reward analysis but let me take just one, the latter, as an example.

Accepting Counterfeits

A standard risk for any retailer who accepts cash as payment.   It is for them to use various methods, intuitive or automated, to determine whether or not the note presented is genuine or not.

Post Office Ltd no longer supply any assistance in this regard and it is for the subpostmaster to invest in equipment capable of determining a forgery.  Not all of these methods are foolproof though and occasionally one will slip through the net and be accepted as payment for a Post Office service.

Remembering at all times of course that many sub post offices also accept foreign currency in exchange for Sterling and certain types of notes, from all countries of the world, can each have their own unique anti counterfeit markings to be checked.   Note designs can also change on a regular basis and there will be times when multiple designs of the same value note will be in circulation.   Very difficult to keep up with especially when a subpostmaster may only come across a few of these variations a year.

So the subpostmaster, or assistant, has inadvertently accepted a counterfeit note.  If it is subsequently spotted before it is sent to Post Office Ltd in a return remittance of cash, then there are procedures in place where a subpostmaster can reclaim the value of the accepted note from Post Office Ltd.

However, if they do send back to POL a remittance that includes a counterfeit note and that is spotted by POL then the SPMR is sent a transaction correction for the face value of the note. In other words the SPMR loses that value.   The SPMR can challenge the decision to charge him the loss but in order to do so, he must personally attend the nearest Post Office Cash Centre which could be hundreds of miles away in order to review the evidence.  If the SPMR does this and manages to persuade POL that the note is in fact genuine then the SPMR can recover from POL the travel expenses incurred.  If POL prove the note is counterfeit then no travel expenses are re-imbursed.  Note that it is standard practice NOT to return the counterfeit note to the SPMR so that they can confirm for themselves the authenticity of the note.  They must travel to the cash centre to do this.

This is patently absurd and stinks of distrust.  POL may as well adopt a straightforward, unchallengeable procedure should they be sent a counterfeit from a branch.

With the increase in banking transactions now, most notably cash deposits, the risk of accepting a counterfeit note increases as does the risk of passing that through to POL where the SPMR will ultimately bear the cost of accepting it should POL notice it as a forgery.  As I mentioned before, in banking terms, if the risk increases then should the cost of processing these transactions increase.  That is certainly not the case with POL nor does the present level of remuneration reflect anything like the risk of undertaking banking deposits.

Example

A SPMR currently receives 18p per £1,000 he accepts as a deposit.

Had the customer paid the cash into a High St bank they would have paid approximately 70p or more per £100 deposited.

That in itself is a staggering difference. For a £2,000 deposit, the largest most subpostmasters are authorised to accept, they would receive 36p while at a bank branch the customer would be paying at least £14.00 in charges.

If you asked the bank to explain how they arrive at the amount they charge their customer they would explain about the cost of handling cash, the staff costs and the risk inherent in handling large amounts of money.   That risk is carried in total by the bank as a whole.  The Bank Branch Manager isn’t charged for any forgery he inadvertently accepts, and while he may face disciplinary action for not following standard security procedures during a robbery, he certainly wouldn’t be asked to pay back a portion of the amount stolen because of that.

The ludicrous nature of this discrepancy between SPMR remuneration and Bank charges for their customers is best highlighted by a recent example sent to me by a serving SPMR who raised his objections directly with Paula Vennells (so ignorance is no excuse).  This SPMR sent back cash to the cash centre and the cash centre declared that a £50 note he had sent back was counterfeit.  The SPMR recognised the note as it had stood out at the time of acceptance and he used all available methods at the time to check if it was a forgery.  He was left with the choice of travelling a hundred miles or so to the cash centre at the risk of not only losing £50 but also his time and travel costs, or accepting the loss, which he reluctantly did.

In order to recoup this lost £50, in banking remuneration, he would have to process banking deposits to the tune of £278,000 which is beyond belief. (note to self: nothing POL does is beyond belief)

Conclusion

This is just one of the risks associated with banking that subpostmasters currently accept for so little remuneration.   The reward does not justify the risk and can only serve to alienate more and more subpostmasters from accepting these banking deposits.  Even worse, if this became public knowledge, which it should, then it will certainly disenchant potential franchisees.   No parliamentary bill hoping to secure rural banking services through the increased use of the Post Office network will be worth the paper it is written on if it does not recognise that the risks associated with these transactions are high, are mostly carried by the subpostmaster and for an unacceptably low level of remuneration.

I would also add for my dear Post Office Ltd management readers, the simplest of solutions for this particular problem of counterfeit notes.  Do as the banks do and accept the loss on a national scale and do not, ever again, pass the loss associated with the acceptance of a counterfeit note onto extremely lowly paid workers that your company employs.  (I use the words ‘worker’ and ‘employ’ advisedly)

 

And it happened to me too …

(I am waiting for my train so time to write…)

The trial, for some reason, brought back memories of a small, seemingly innocuous loss I incurred while the serving subpostmaster at Foyers on the banks of Loch Ness.   Income was very low and we were on restricted hours although generally we kept the Post Office counter open the same hours as the shop.   When we took over in 2004 it was a very tight squeeze into the single fortress position and it meant on most mornings we needed two people serving; one in the shop and one in the fortress.

The local area manager, Kenny Lamont, came to visit and suggested I go and have a look at Croy PO, a small shop to the east of Inverness as it was one of the first POs to have installed a combi counter.  I liked the idea and progressed the project through the various channels only to discover that the rural grant fund I needed to fund 50% of the project had been depleted.    But you know me by now I suppose.   An email on another subject one Monday morning to none other than Alan Leighton, Chairman of Royal Mail, attracted an immediate response from him and we exchanged a few replies, and in one I mentioned the trouble I was having justifying investing more of my own money into a combi counter.   Next thing I know, one of his assistants called me to say they had ‘found’ a small amount left over in the fund and if I applied straight away I could grab it for my project.  The combi counter was duly installed, the fortress removed and the shop refurbished.  All this just as background I suppose but not really relevant other than I supported the underlying concept of productivity gains that a combi counter brought and in 2006 it was ahead of its time.  Oh dear … I have just thought, perhaps I helped convince them that NT was a good idea.  Sorry.

Anyway back to the error.   In those days banking customers would have an arrangement with POL that they could fill and seal money bags with the correct amount of notes (say £1,000 in £10) they wrote on the bag who they were and when deposited at their local branch all the branch would have to do was accept and stamp the bag and rem it out when required without checking the contents.   These customer filled bags would wing their way to the cash centre AND THEN be sent out to another branch unopened and unchecked.  It was for the receiving branch to open the bags and check the contents.  If there was a difference then you would report this as a REM difference and modify your accounts accordingly.   POL would clearly (maybe not) retrieve or refund the different from/to the customer account.   The element of trust involved in this process is staggering.  The allocation of risk to the SPMR even more so.

One day I received two bags of £10 notes, both customer counted and from two different customers.  I really hadn’t thought about it before and opened both bags and counted the contents.  £100 short.  So I phoned the help line.  They told me what to do and what would happen and then they asked which bag the shortage was in.  That was when the trouble started.  I had opened both bags at once.  I couldn’t tell which bag the shortage was in.  The long and the short of it was that POL insisted that it was now my responsibility to make good the £100.  There is some sort of logic around why they might say that but logic can be described in many terms and in my terms that logic was perverse.  Being who I am I didn’t stop at the help desk and ended up talking to the most remarkably horrible person I have ever came across in POL (move over AvdB I just remembered someone better than you – difficult I know).   You can imagine the conversation but it came to an abrupt halt when, as I was getting slightly more frustrated and angrier, he uttered the immortal words, “Do you know who you are talking to?”.   Now that to me is similar to a partially sighted person standing directly in front of what appears to be a large animal and waving a red flag to find out if it is a bull.   “For a brief moment sir”, I responded, “I thought I was talking to a human being.  I am clearly wrong” and put the phone down.

The anger, the frustration, all the problems I was having with the business all came flooding over me and tears flowed.   I called Kenny Lamont, the very helpful Area Manager, and still in tears explained the situation in terms I know he understood – poor Kenny it wasn’t his fault but I did take it out on him.  “Tomorrow morning come here and take your fucking post office shit out of this office before 10am or you will find it on the decking outside”.   Understanding that I was probably quite sincere, he asked if he could just go and check to see what the situation was.   “10am Kenny – no later”.

An hour or two later Kenny calls back, I am slightly less angry and more reticent while he explains that POL will wave this loss, this time.   That is all I wanted.  I knew I wouldn’t make the same mistake again but with the whole system of customer cash deposits remaining in place I am sure others made the same mistake until the system was withdrawn some years later.

There are lessons to be learned from this story.  Maybe just repeats of what goes on elsewhere in the network but testament to the idiots who managed to come up with such a system that was clearly open to abuse from all three sides.  Yes all three sides.  The crooked customer that manages to pass on their theft to the SPMR while POL sits happily in between.   Yes – truly madly deeply logical….

 

The Trial, Trump and Brexit

Edited preface to this post .. “Sometimes I write things without thinking about the personal circumstances of some of the people that read my blogs, and this post is proof of that.  It is understandably hard to read for any of the claimants that found themselves lacking the support they should have received from the NFSP.  It is worth pointing out that all the claimants did not receive either any or full support from that organisation when they needed it most.   I am truly sorry and the post below merely reflects my ambition that that organisation adapts itself to ensure that what has happened never happens again“”

I come away from 4 days attending the trial in a melancholy mood.   Reflecting on the situation as it stands, what it might have been and what it may be in the future.

We live in ever increasing divisive times with polarised opinion dominating the media and our thoughts.  The end result of course is frustration regardless of which side of the fence you sit on.  The frustration though is limited to those who feel it necessary to engage with their opponents and try to alter their opinion to reflect yours.  Stubbornness and the unwillingness to contemplate and include contrarian opinion in your own judgement making process just fuels the frustration of others.  It is time I think, in Post Office Land, to address these issues.

To put this into context:  the USA is divided by Trump, you either love him or hate him but ALL want the best for the USA.  Brexiteers or Remainers are united in their wish to have the best possible deal with our European neighbours.   Every single person involved in the Post Office network wants the best for the company they are associated with (including some like myself whose association with the company is in the past but I believe I can associate myself with the general public’s opinion of the Post Office who love it to bits despite all its apparent faults). But we have similar divided opinions within the company which have inspired several ‘them and us’ scenarios.   Subbies v Crowns.  CWU v NFSP.  Management v SPMRs and those who truly believe Horizon to be infallible and those who don’t.

With Brexit, no one knows the truth of what will happen, what the effect will be on our lives in the future.  With Trump, and I show my side here unfortunately, one side clearly has no concept of the real truth.  In POL Land, the truth, for many of the divisive issues among us, is about to be made starkly clear with the outcome of the trial.  It is inconceivable that the decision of the judge will not serve to change people’s opinions on what they had observed to be the truth in the past.

We can also reflect on what may have been.  In a perfect world and a perfect POL, the venerable Mr Alan Bates may still have been a wonderful subpostmaster in Wales, serving his community proudly and lauded for it while approaching retirement safe in the knowledge that his sub post office was worth more now than he bought it for and that it remained an attractive investment that he could sell on.  Well the POL world as we know is not perfect.   Mr Bates reflections on what may have been should create genuine sadness for us all, but it should also be realised that his quest for the truth over the last 15 years while maybe fuelled by other emotions, will ultimately lead to a far better run company, and divisive barriers broken down.   No matter the outcome of the trial, change will come and those prepared for it will be in a better place.

Of course there will be recriminations.  There will be side effects.   The people who led us into this situation are clearly not the people to manage the inevitable changes and those that refuse to acknowledge that change is necessary may well leave on their own account.   Those that remain will have to engage with those they despised in the past.  It is going to be difficult but possible.

I think now is the time to start preparing.   Yesterday for instance the NFSP was attacked in court which their opponents the CWU enjoyed.  Elements of ‘I told you so’ appeared even before the Judge has reached his verdict.  But who are the NFSP in reality?   They are a collection of well meaning subpostmasters, who devote a lot of their own time in helping others as well as enjoying the camaraderie of Federation meetings, conferences, rules and protocols.  The collection however is limited in size.  Claiming to represent the entire network but in reality reflecting only the views of their most active members which I would number now far less than 100.  Against this we have the CWU subpostmaster’s branch whose active members are found on the CWU facebook page and may number 20 to 30 (active members actively post and provide opinion).   The CWU branch is funded by its members while the NFSP have a substantial income from POL.    The CWU and the NFSP ultimately want the same thing as stated above but they have different aspirations on how they might get there.  Working against each other over the last few years has, I believe, been beneficial in a certain way, to all subpostmasters.  Any NFSP action is subject to intense scrutiny by the CWU and vice versa but is there a place for two subpostmaster organisations going forward after the trial?

One thing is very very clear from yesterday’s events and revelations.  There is no place for a representative organisation to be funded by the very company that employs its members.  Yes it happens in practice elsewhere, but the conditions associated with the NFSP funding from POL are and always have been ridiculous.   Calum Greenhow, the CEO of the NFSP, said yesterday that he is keeping an open mind on the outcome of the trial yet 10 minutes after he left the room, POL were conceding that the MOU that controls his organisation’s source of funding binds him to not criticize POL in any way shape or form.  That is not a great catalyst for a change of opinion based on the outcome of the trial.  I would suggest with the greatest possible respect, that as a result of yesterday’s testimony, Calum seeks the removal of that binding clause from the MOU with immediate effect.

And with the greatest of respect to both of you, Calum Greenhow and Mark Baker of the CWU, you need to sit down now and start preparing for life after the trial.  Two representative organisations, antagonising each other, at the very time unity and harmony is needed to start repairing the mess and ensuring it never occurs again will be vitally important.   POL are NOT going to come out the other end of this trial covered in anything else but dung, that is already clear and I for one am certain you will not be negotiating with Paula Vennels for much longer.   Together you can make sure that the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT action following the outcome of the trial, the selection of her replacement, is something you have an active role to play in.

Finally I appeal to all SPMRs of either persuasion who post on chat boards – let us stop the name calling now.  My hand is up. I was one of the worst. From today onwards that changes and please torture me if half a bottle of wine and a bad day at the office makes me slip in an unwanted and unnecessary satirical comment about past behaviour .. although I would dearly love to reserve my right to talk about one particular person .. no no no .. forget him .. totally inconsequential as am I of course..

 

 

POL, National Audit Office and ATMs

No court for me yesterday as I was off to Parliament to meet with a couple of MPs who are introducing a bill to  hopefully legislate protection for Banking and Post Office services in Rural Areas which is of great interest to me.  Mark Baker from the CWU postmasters branch joined me (great to meet up with him again although we do chat regularly on the phone) and we certainly put forward a few points that the MPs needed to know.  I surprised them with the fact that Post Office Ltd do not fall under the remit of the National Audit Office, just as the new Post Office APPG was surprised to learn.  It seems remarkable to think that I am the only person who has approached the NAO to investigate the financial mess the Post Office appears to be in.   You would have thought that at least one of the parliamentary watchdogs would want more information about how the £3b has been spent from an independent source rather than the management team who think nothing of throwing what will now be close to £30m when it is finished on legal expenses alone for the ongoing trial.  (£20m of this clearly being spent after any sane person would have realised they have lost already).  Anyway, the good news is that my discovery is now in the open and MPs from all parties will be enquiring as to how this situation has arisen and what needs to be done about it.

Following my meeting, I was lucky enough to be invited to observe PMQs on what was thought, was going to be a very fiery exchange between May and Corbyn.   Bit of a damp squib really, but the bonus was a question from an SNP MP to the Prime Minister regarding the real reduction in postmaster’s pay compared to the profit POL are ‘allegedly’ making.  I could easily have got thrown out as I teetered on the brink of applauding and shouting support for the question.

I returned to court to meet up again with Mark Baker only to find there would be no afternoon session.  Mark appeared from the court building in conversation with another former SPMR who I presumed was part of the claim.   It transpired he was not and had had his contract terminated in similar fashion to the rest of the claimants.  The problem with him though was that he knew nothing about Freeths, nothing about JFSA, nothing about the CWU before it was too late.  I am sure he will now join in subsequent claims to be made and eventually have his case heard and most likely he will win but be that as it may, the real concern from this is the fact that both POL and the NFSP failed to advise him of the ongoing JFSA claim which he could have joined in time to be one of the claimants in this case.   That is very disturbing indeed.

Helen Baker, former CWU Postmaster Branch Chairwoman, joined us later and we discussed the above case as well.  I hadn’t even got to the point of disclosing where the problem in his accounts lay, when she jumped in and said ‘I bet it was the ATM’.   Yes it was Helen and many many of the cases I believe have an ATM lurking in the background.   This reminded me of the Seema Misra trial transcript which I have read several times.  She went to prison as some of you may recall and details of her case are elsewhere on this blog.   Now you can read her trial’s transcript and come to the conclusion, quite rightly, in my opinion, that she did not steal the £80k or so in question but you have to ask where might it have gone.   It was only when I looked at her former office on Google Streetview did I see that she had an ATM in her post office.  Not once, NOT ONE SINGLE TIME, was this ATM mentioned by POL as prosecutors and to be fair her defence team.   POL have known for a long time the difficulties and mistakes that are being made in the extremely complicated process of trying to enter figures produced by  the ATM into Horizon.  Proof of this is of course the recently introduced ‘Easier’ way of doing this on Horizon.  I haven’t seen it in action and can’t comment on how difficult it remains but if you make something easier then clearly it was understood to be difficult before.   Helen’s knowledge of similar incidents is astounding and she can testify to the fact the she had to show POL Auditors on numerous occasions how to feed ATM readings into Horizon.  If POL Auditors can’t do it then how the hell can SPMRs be expected to do it perfectly every time.

I would point out that in this new case above, the former SPMR says his branch was fine until the ATM was installed.  I think there are many similar cases out there.

Joining the dots from all these points you come up with the conclusion that if each and every SPMRs was now visited by an independent inquiry team I think we would find that the current Freeths claim of c550 claimants is the mere tip of the iceberg.  I also think that if you put every POL ‘Auditor’ in charge of a branch for a couple of months, the number of claimants would rise considerably.

I haven’t forgotten about the error I mentioned yesterday – still following up on that one.

Off to court now for my last time.