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.