Lions led by donkeys

At no point during the entire Network Transformation project does it

seem to have occurred to Government, POL, NFSP or individual

SPMRs how fragile the entire PO business is.

You would have thought that separation from RM would at least

have stirred the thought somewhere “hang on, do we really NEED

11,000+ outlets??”

Much of this absence of common sense can be laid at the feet of

local politicians too scared to acknowledge the reality of the need for

fewer branches, and other National politicians too stupid to

recognise that trusting POL to innovate, bring on board new

contracts, develop new products was just flying in the face of the

last 15 years experience of complacency and decline.

Sadly, we find ourselves like blacksmiths at the dawn of the

combustion engine.

Even more sadly, the restrictive (illegally restrictive??) nature of our

POL contract means that, whereas blacksmiths could adapt and

turn their hand to fixing cars, we just have to keep making

horseshoes – we can’t take on other couriers, we can’t even use

Paypoint for water and TV licensing.

And as nobody wants horseshoes, the price drops, and will keep on

dropping.

Adaptation is the key to survival in fast changing circumstances, but

POL thinking is so hidebound, so blinkered, so unable to face the

future that we find ourselves in the position of WW1 soldiers; lions

led by donkeys. I often wonder whether Paula Vennells knows (or even cares) about the

despair that is spreading amongst SPMRs, as they watch the business they

have worked for years to build, being treated like a toy set by people

whose only concern is how much they can individually earn.

BT are by no means a perfect organisation, but they faced similar

threats and challenges head on by creating Openreach, to serve all

telecom companies whilst not fragmenting infrastructure ownership.

If POL had had any vision, they would have attempted something

similar, a PO network that would serve as a central hub for all

couriers, not just RM, and that would allow POs to price parcels

based on the lowest price to the customer, not just the lowest RM

offering.

This sort of approach would protect existing operators, retain the

skills that are so obviously lacking in new entrants and allow POL to

bargain with RM and all courier companies for a reasonable rate for

the job.

Instead, POL have wasted over £1 billion of public money

destroying the financial basis of the very network they are supposed

to protect, and ruined 11,000+ businesses into the bargain.

As a Convenience Store retailer, I choose what products I sell and at

what price. I sell ecigarette liquids, not snuff!

In the 21st century, how can any organisation like POL be allowed to

treat us like serfs, grateful for whatever crumbs they decide to throw

our way, whilst living high on the hog off our backs..

DVLA – The Unkindest Cut of All

The ever decreasing income (both transaction rates and volumes) from DVLA is yet another nail in our coffin.

This wouldn’t be so hard to swallow if DVLA had not negotiated their new contract with POL a mere 3 months before closing all their area offices. I can perhaps understand that POL may not have been fully informed on DVLAs plans, but I have to raise the question – in their desperation to keep a contract at any price, how much did they really ask?

The DVLA Annual Report for 2013-2014 states that the saving from closing Area Offices was £26m, with a further £17m saving from the new POL contract, That £17m equates to an AVERAGE annual saving per 4600 DVLA POs of £3,700,  or a £3,700 annual LOSS of income per PO.

How much of that £3,700 would have been ripped off (sorry, used to defray essential HO expenses) by POL HO is impossible to know.

In 2013-2014 over 50% of transactions were being done online.

The 2014-2015 Annual Report cheerfully reports that figure is now 75%, bringing that loss of income to SPMRs to  c£5,500 (compared to 2013 volumes and rates).

And yet, FCA are still telling prospective Locals that they must be open 60-70 hours a week to satisfy the needs of a DVLA that have slashed our income from their work by close to 90%.

We now have the ridiculous situation where customers are using and abusing 4600 POs for the most difficult transactions, only when every other avenue has failed.

And for providing this failsafe/backstop service to DVLA 60 – 70 hours a week, Saturdays and Sundays, POs are getting about the price of a Cadburys Fudge. Was this transaction rate agreed by NFSP (Never Fault Saintly Paula)?

I spent 10 minutes today helping a customer (who can’t read) fill in a V62 form, a transaction that will not earn me a penny,

Similarly, many of these last ditch attempts to tax a car similarly end in failure, through no fault of the SPMR, so we don’t even get paid for the numerous abortive transactions.

In my honest opinion, given that my income from DVLA is now in the £20-£30 per MONTH bracket, this is one of the few cases where collectively SPMRs could, and should, say to POL/DVLA either increase the transaction rates to a viable level, or just shove your contract, and see how well you do with Paypoint or some other sucker.

JFSA and the ANC

Yes you read that right. The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) and the African National Congress (ANC)

I am in a bit of a reflective mood this morning.   My personal belief is that we are so close to a definitive end to the Horizon scandal based on the new evidence that has come to light.   I wondered why I have maintained such an interest in getting to the bottom of it despite no longer having any connection with POL.    It really is all down to wanting to help others who have had injustices done to them.

If you read my blog on the contract recently and then have a look at Alan Bates’ description of his story on the JFSA site you will see a lot of similarities in the conclusions made.   The difference though is that Alan reached his conclusions years ago and it has taken me all this time to come to the same ones.  If it wasn’t for Alan’s tenacity in continuing the struggle for vindication we wouldn’t have reached the point we are at today.   He managed to identify, long before Social Media, that there was indeed a common link of injustices done to SPMRs by POL.  How he did that I do not know – you could liken it to Galileo trying to convince the world that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe.   Alan maintained that tenacity to fight not in the hope but in the certainty that one day it would all end and he and his fellow alliance members would be vindicated.

Which brings me to the ANC.   A long time ago, 25 years in fact – seems like yesterday – I lived in Cape Town.  I had my own company selling PCs, Installing Networks and providing training.   I was approached by a friend who was a Quaker.  The Quakers were actively supporting the ANC at that time and they wondered if I would help them.   They wanted to provide the Border Council of Churches (the front for the ANC at that time) in East London with computer equipment, PCs and Printers with training so they could produce their own propaganda.  I volunteered to assist and drove up to East London with the equipment to install and train them.    In the evening after setting up everything I was taken to dinner by a wonderful man called Smuts Ngonyama – who later became a senior Government figure.

In 1990 we (the privileged few) could see the changes that were taking place in the country.  We could see that the ground was being prepared for what was to be delivered later.  When Smuts made a disparaging comment about FW De Klerk at the table I made the one of the worst comments, the most insulting of comments, I have ever made.  I suggested to Smuts that he should welcome FW with open arms and just ‘wait’ I said – it won’t be long – maybe just a year or two – until what you dream of will become reality.    Smuts flew into a rage.  What he told me next really altered my perspective on life forever.  “Wait?” he shouted.  “Wait?  You have no understanding what our life is like.  How we have been mistreated and how we are persecuted for the colour of our skin on a daily basis.  If I cannot go to bed at night and dream that tomorrow will bring freedom then what is the point.  I live for tomorrow I cannot wait any longer you stupid man”.

I am sure Alan dreams of the day his struggle ends and his efforts are rewarded.   I bet you he hopes it is tomorrow.  I do too.  It may well be.

What constitutes a loss in the eyes of POL

Over last Xmas I had a long exchange of emails with Ms Vennells and a Ms vd Bogaard including a telephone conversation with the latter.   I was trying to explain to both of them an error in the HOL system that required the SPMR who experienced the error to make good a loss that had not actually occured.

There is, for the moment, an option in Horizon to print multiple postage labels of the same value should a customer present multiple packets of the same size and weight for postage to the same pricing destination.  This is a key time saving procedure for what are typically ebay or amazon customers.

The error, for whatever reason, occurs when the SPMR requests the system to print X number of labels yet once the process has completed only X – 1 (or more) labels have been printed.  At this stage the system shows that X number of labels have been printed and that the customer is due to pay £Y.

The situation is obvious.  To provide the number of labels the customer requires the SPMR has to print another label (or labels).   For simplicity let us say the label value is £5.   The system therefore wants X * £5 which the customer is willing to pay, plus another £5 for the extra label.

The question then that I put to Ms Vennells and the other one, was who should pay for the reprinting of the missing label.   Of course they denied the system could have been at fault and that it must have been as a result of the SPMR using the same label twice.  A perfectly reasonable explanation because that does indeed happen – sometimes.   Especially when you are printing twenty labels.  The explanation becomes slightly less believable when a SPMR requests 5 labels and only 2 print.   I mean, sometimes you have to laugh at these denials of system failure – more of that coming in the next few weeks.

Anyway back to the point of what constitutes a loss in the eyes of Ms Vennells and that other woman.

They insisted that the SPMR would have to make good the ‘loss’.   So I queried that with them.  The customer arrived with X parcels, paid for X parcels to be sent, and Royal Mail delivered X parcels.   However Royal Mail got paid for delivering X+1 parcel, POL got the commission on the extra label and to rub salt in the wound, the SPMR was also paid commission on the extra label.

Who lost what in this process and who gained?

Royal Mail gained by the £5 less the commission the pay POL.   There was no additional cost involved in terms of delivering a packet that did not exist.  A highly profitable exercise then.

Post Office Ltd gained the commission they received from RMG less the commission they paid the SPMR.

The SPMR lost £5 less the commission he received from POL.

Both POL and RMG are making profit from either a simple mistake by the SPMR or a system error.

I explained all this to the pair of them but they would have none of it – couldn’t be a system error they said (we’ll see about that soon enough) so the SPMR was liable.   At about this point I gave up trying to get them to see sense and explained it really wasn’t a major problem as SPMRs have a wide range of ways they can fraudulently recover the loss from POL.

They seemed to concur with this view point.

This is a widespread problem throughout the network.  It happened in our branch twice.   Can’t say if I recovered the losses generated fraudulently or not.

But consider this – what would be the overall effect if I printed a label, declared it spoiled yet used it all the same.  SOmething you are not meant to do.

Royal Mail would get paid for X packets and deliver them all

POL would get paid commission on X packets

SPMR would get commission on X packets

Voila – system normal – the only difference being?  The SPMR has committed a sackable offence!

Worth going on to the RMG web site and trying to print out a PPI – there RMG give the user the benefit of the doubt and allow them to reprint the label.  SO why don’t POL trust their SPMRs to be honest?

I have this sneaky feeling we will be revisiting this terrible tale in due course or should that be courts?

Common sense tells me that the contract is part of the problem

For some strange reason I have woken up this morning thinking about the last paragraph on my blog yesterday.

Finally – let me add.  Up until the advent of NT, subpostmasters signed a contract with POL that was written in the 60s long before a computer system arrived on the scene to assist them.   It is an anachronistic contract that has no place in the 21st Century – similar to POL management then.

It doesn’t fit in with the rest of the piece and for the life of me I can’t think why I added it at the last moment.  Was it my subconscious?

I started to think about all the errors we have discovered in the Horizon computer system and the charges that have been brought against the JFSA subpostmasters.   They have all been asked to pay back to POL significant amounts of money that may never have existed in the first place.   Could such a scenario have happened in the old days prior to SPMRs using Horizon?

I only became a SPMR in 2004, 4 years after the introduction of the computer system.  So I can only imagine the manual bookkeeping practices that SPMRs had to perform prior to 2000.   In 2004 though I do recall still having to send weekly a signed and date stamped print out of your accounts to Chesterfield.   Obviously prior to 2000 SPMRs would have to do something similar but on a hand written ledger I presume.

If Chesterfield spotted an anomaly in the accounts of a branch they would be totally reliant on checking/auditing the paperwork in the branch.   All the evidence they would need to prove any discrepancy would be in the control of the subpostmaster in the branch.  And most importantly vice versa ALL the evidence the SPMR needed to prove his innocence was in the branch too. An audit in those days I assume would be a completely different affair to what happens now.  Today auditors arrive, count and double count the Value Stock (Cash and Stamps) held in the branch.  If their tally does not match what the HOL system record shows then they act on that,  They do not investigate how, why, where or when the discrepancy occurred.   In the old days the Auditors would also have to check the paperwork.   They would have to be sure that the accounts declared by the SPMR were not showing a discrepancy because of a simple arithmetic error.

The contract then as it was for a manual system could, theoretically anyway, be said to be fair to the SPMR.   After all it was the SPMR who derived what cash the branch should have by means of a manual accounting system and of course he counted the cash to declare what the branch actually did have.  He could well have and probably did on a regular basis, make simple mistakes in his tally.    But the important thing was that he had all the evidence to hand in order to check his work.

However as soon as a computer system was introduced – to assist the subpostmaster in preparing his accounts – things changed.  He was – and still is – reliant on the software program not to make a mistake.   He has absolutely no means at his disposal to verify the program code and or the hardware that forms the computer system.

So should the introduction of Horizon have required a new contract between the SPMR and POL.

I think it should have.   A new contract should have included some protection to the SPMR against software errors.  POL should also have introduced some protection against failure including a Service Level Agreement(SLA) – because without a working computer system the SPMR was no longer able to go about his business and earn his income.

A key area of a SLA for a computer system is notification.   The supplier of the system is responsible to notify the user of details about changes, bug fixes and upgrades.   POL have never provided users with this, yet Microsoft for instance provide all users of WIndows with a vast amount of detail about their upgrades and fixes.   The absence of this information from POL could be construed as hiding evidence of system failures.    If a SPMR had been provided with details of bug fixes they may have been able to relate their own experiences to what had failed in the system that had to be corrected.

This leads us to where we are now.   You see the reason we have been able to identify the system errors that exist is because we have noticed on social media individual reports of possible system failures.   When investigated and highlighted on the same social media channels we come across similar occurrences across the network.   We also to some extent rely on memory – realising that a similar occurrence has been reported before.  We can go back and check and get in touch with the original poster.  There is no denying that the advent of SPMRs getting together on social media to discuss their woes has been a remarkable help in finally tracking down these serious system errors.

Going back to the contracts and what should have been included in a new one after the computer system was introduced.   Liability for losses could no longer be placed on the SPMR because he had no control over the software and no control over the accounting records for his branch.   He is not even aware of the name or the location of some of the many computer systems that are now incorporated under the Horizon on Line system (remember the computer in the branch is merely (for the most part anyway) a workstation connected directly to a huge system somewhere in the UK (location unknown) Journal entries are made in Chesterfield to his accounts by someone he has never met.  How can POL possibly mention the likelihood of a miskeyed transaction as a source of error when they themselves key in transactions in a remote location that the SPMR is unaware of?

POL have all the evidence of system failure.  Actually they don’t – we have some evidence they are not aware of yet.  The current contract states that it is the SPMR who must prove system failure.  If POL don’t provide the evidence the SPMR can’t prove it.   If the SPMR can’t prove it then POL are at liberty to recover losses of cash that in some cases has never existed.

For goodness sake – as I write this – there are thousands of SPMRs out there who have losses in a suspense account because of the failure of POL to write a simple program and thoroughly test it before releasing it.  These ‘losses’ were created by a transaction that had no intrinsic value – a free lottery lucky dip.    What more evidence do you need to show systemic failure and incompetence?

I am no lawyer.  I have no idea if this is a reasonable argument to put before a judge.   But a Judge while constrained by law in his decision making capabilities must also bring to the table common sense in reaching his judgement.  I may not know much about law but I do have a pretty fair appreciation of common sense.

Common sense tells me that the contract created for a manual system is not appropriate for a computer based accounting system.  In the face of the evidence we can present, common sense tells me that the system is clearly at fault.  Errors have occurred that have resulted in SPMRs having amounts deducted from their branch accounts by the computer.   Common sense tells me that it is not for the SPMR to identify and fix these errors in the computer system.  Common sense tells me it is not for the SPMR to advise the rest of the network that these errors exist.   Common sense tells me that over 200 SPMRs are not all lying when they have say they have lost money because of the computer system and/or the procedures around them.

Unexplained Losses

Continuing on with my background on this developing story …..

The Subpostmaster’s contract is very clear.  It states the Subpostmasters are responsible for all unexplained losses at their branches.   A loss occurs when the system generated accounts show that the branch should be holding more cash and value stock items than physically exist in the branch.    If subpostmasters can prove that the loss is down to an explainable event that will rectify itself in due course then they are allowed to accept the loss into a suspense account until the rectification takes place.

The law is very clear.  If the subpostmaster makes any attempt to hide any such unexplainable loss by falsifying their accounts and over declaring their value stock position they are guilty of an offence.

Looking at it from POL’s point of view.  They are not omni-present at each and every branch to oversee each and every transaction.  If the unexplained loss is as a result of a counter assistant stealing then I can see, understand and accept that the loss would be attributable to the SPMR (with a proviso that POL do not and have never assisted SPMRs in training, advice and support in countering this type of theft)

But if the subpostmaster is the only person on the counter and an unexplained loss occurs how can a SPMR prove that they did not steal the money?

The only way to do so is PROVE without any other doubt how the loss occurred.    They have to prove it, POL does not.

How could they prove this?

Well first they would need the absurd – continuous CCTV images of all value stock from the moment the last time the office balanced correctly until such time as the loss was discovered.

They would need printouts of all transaction logs over the same time span that affected their branch

They would need CCTV images of all REMittances for their branch being prepared in the Cash Centre

They would need all paperwork that related to all the transactions that occurred during that period.

They need a record and transaction logs for all sub systems in the Financial Services Centre that would have been involved in processing the transactions of the branch.

Then of course there is the possibility that the system itself generated the error as a result of a bug.  The SPMR actually needs to prove that the system could not be responsible.  That is ludicrous.

And of course they would need several forensic auditors to go through it all to find the error that caused the loss.

Once that is done the SPMR is no longer responsible for the loss, POL are UNLESS POL can then prove that loss was down to the negligence of the SPMR.

SO of course the bleeding obvious conclusion is that the SPMR hasn’t a hope in hell of proving an unexplainable loss.

POL win every time.

But that may be about to change.

Clause 12 of the contract provides that the subpostmaster is responsible for all losses caused through his own negligence, carelessness or error, and also for all losses of all kinds caused by his assistants.  By exclusion he is not responsible for losses caused by POL or the computer system or the multitude of manual processes that happen out side of his branch to the paperwork he has generated.

We can restate the above as: Unless the SPMR can explain the losses are attributable to POL then he is liable.

There is in my opinion a key word in all of this – “Unless”

What if we turned it around and said that POL are liable unless they can prove their systems are reliable and trustworthy?

What if the subpostmaster could prove without a shadow of doubt that the system does create unexplainable losses to a branch in a random intermittent fashion?  What if the subpostmaster could prove without doubt that POL knew of these errors and did nothing to warn subpostmasters of their existence?  What if we could provide Hansard copies of Select Committee hearings in which the Managing Director of POL and the CEO of the NFSP categorically deny these bugs exist? What if we could prove that the losses were generated even though no physical cash was involved?

Would it really be the case then that the subpostmaster would still have to prove that these did not occur at his branch.  Is it the subpostmaster’s duty to find ALL of these bugs for POL?  Even if only one has been found surely it is bad enough?  But if there is more than one?

I get angry thinking about this but I now know of several software errors that exist in HOL that cause these losses where no money was involved.  I also know that they know about them and have done nothing about it.  The inescapable conclusion is that these very same errors could well have caused the losses incurred by the JFSA group and that there was NO CASH INVOLVED.   POL however sought in court to recover CASH from these poor people.   An absolute disgrace and one I am certain is about to be rectified.

Finally – let me add.  Up until the advent of NT, subpostmasters signed a contract with POL that was written in the 60s long before a computer system arrived on the scene to assist them.   It is an anachronistic contract that has no place in the 21st Century – similar to POL management then.

hh

Systemic Errors

There has been quite a dramatic development of late that, in my opinion, delivers the final proof that Horizon on Line is flawed and does in fact contain software errors that result in unexplained losses to SubPostmasters.   More of that in detail in the days and weeks to come.

First though I need to settle for once and all an argument, discussion, call it what you will, about what constitutes a SYSTEMIC ERROR in a computing system.

The definition from the Law Dictionary

What is SYSTEMIC ERROR?

Error affecting all items comprising the group in a similar manner and magnitude. They are caused by a flaw in the system and occur in the same direction and don’t cancel each other eat. Also known as constant error.

Law Dictionary: What is SYSTEMIC ERROR? definition of SYSTEMIC ERROR (Black’s Law Dictionary)

Using this definition it is easy to see why some people like Paula Vennells and George Thomson of the NFSP interpret the term ‘systemic’ as one that ONLY affects the whole group and not just part of the group.   Paula does at least admit that from time to time Horizon will throw up a ‘systemic’ error but that they are identified and fixed.   She relies totally on the misguided belief that because the system handles millions of transactions successfully everyday there is not and cannot be an error in the system that they do not know about that could be classed as systemic.

What annoys me more than anything is her refusal to listen and consider that her interpretation is wrong.   That systemic errors do exist in the system at all times; the only difference is that they do not manifest themselves in the way she and her team can readily categorise as systemic.

Systemic errors can and do show themselves in different forms and can be split into subcategories.  One such category is an Intermittent Error.   It manifests itself infrequently in a random pattern across the network.   It affects only one or a few of the nodes in the network at a time.  The affected nodes are not necessarily part of a subgroup of the network and the only common group they belong to is the whole network.   That is important with reference to the definition of a systemic error above.

All nodes within the Post Office Network use (as far as I know) the same version of the Horizon Online Computer Program.  Any software bug in the system is therefore present at each node.  It is only when the bug is triggered and the effect of the bug becomes apparent can it be recorded as an error in the system.

So how could software errors be classified as intermittent?   Well the simplest example is an unexpected sequence of events that the programmer of the system failed to take into account when writing the software and the testers of the system failed to take into account when testing what he had written.   As a former programmer I can attest to the unbelievable variety of ‘unexpected sequence of events’ that can occur and you have to ‘try’ to deal with them all.

Hardware issues and communication problems can give rise to an unexpected sequence of events as can an unexpected sequence of keystrokes.

Finding the problem…

An error that manifests itself across a wide number of nodes within a particular group on a regular basis can easily be identified.   As an example the current debacle over the new Free Lucky Dip lottery prize is of course limited to only those branches that offer lottery.

The error comes to the attention of POL by, and only by, the calls to the Help Desk.   Several calls in rapid succession will alert POL and as the problem is easily identified they can take remedial action straight away – perhaps by issuing a notice to all branches telling them they are aware of the problem and it will be fixed in due course.

An intermittent problem is harder to identify.  It happens infrequently.  It happens to what appears to be a random selection of branches.   Most importantly the Help Desk is beholden to the Subpostmaster to report the error in a way that can be categorised and that the description of the problem is consistent with other descriptions of the same error from other SPMRs.   Without that happening it is extremely difficult for the Help Desk to analyse logged calls over time (and that time could be measured in years) to see if a pattern is emerging.

If the intermittent error is eventually discovered by analysis of Help Desk Logs over a period of time then it is almost impossible to return to the scene of the original incidents and ask for supporting evidence or a more detailed description of the event.

Fixing the Problem ….

Fixing a simple problem/bug/systemic error such as the Lottery Debacle is easy.  The problem is identified and most importantly it can be replicated in a test environment.

Replication of the error is vital.  If you cannot replicate the original error then you can never be sure you have fixed it.

In an Intermittent Error scenario then you have to be able to replicate the unexpected sequence of events that occurred in the first instance.   This is almost impossible to do.  And if replication is impossible then fixing the problem with 100% confidence is impossible too.

However you can work backwards.   If the cause cannot be determined you can work from the effect and build in protection to ensure that the erroneous effect of the problem is rectified before it causes problems elsewhere   You can also build in error trapping routines to try and notice the event occurring and record as much detail of what has caused the event or even stopping the program at that point to await Help Desk assistance.

…………………

I see you have read this far.  Thank you.  If you didn’t understand the term ‘systemic error’ before I hope you do now.  It is really important to do so.  The error that is currently under investigation by POL is probably the most devastating piece of evidence against this organisation to date.  I think it will highlight their incompetence and their misplaced arrogance.  I am extremely hopeful it will lead to closure on the JFSA cases.

Just to remind you these are a collection of 2 or 3 hundred SPMRs, many of whom have reported the same effect, in a random sequence over a period of years.  An intermittent error?   Which is as I hope I have shown above could also be a Systemic Error?

More to follow in due course …..