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.

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8 thoughts on “Common sense tells me that the contract is part of the problem

  1. Good Morning Tim
    Yet another well reasoned and considered blog from you. I hope that POL are reading theses?

    Just to give you an insight into my case when i purchased my PO in 2002 I was never given a copy of the contract all I was given was a three page document that I was to sign which did have the clause that I was liable for losses however incurred.
    When I was suspended in 2008 I asked for a copy of the contract and within 2 weeks received I received three, two from POL and one from GT’s organisation.
    Having then read the book in hindsight I doubt that I would have bought the wretched thing.
    When I purchased the lease I discovered that it was of the “fully repairing” type which I did not agree with so consequently in discussions with the landlord we had it changed to one that was acceptable to both of us.
    Purchasers of Post Office are never given the full facts when they consider buying one and now with all the problems they have brought on themselves it is no wonder that they are difficult to sell.

    At some point of time POL must realise that without the hard work of all SPMR’s they wouldn’t have a business.. .

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  2. Bizarrely, this morning I looked at what purports to be our NT contract. It’s not a conract at all really, merely an array of documents relating to NT about who does (and pays for) what, so at best its an addendum to the existing contract.

    I was also looking at this

    http://bit.ly/1NsB4cx

    which is all about unfair contracts, the relative power of the parties, inducements, reasonableness of clauses, practicability of parties proving loss etc which, (I’m not a lwayer either) sounds pertinent to me

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  3. Hello to all readers of Tim’s blog.

    I’m a working SPM having purchased my PO in August 2001 and converted to Mains contract in Feb 2013.

    I accept Tim’s observations regarding the old versus new record keeping as being pertinent to how contractual arrangements may / should have resulted in changes to our contracts.

    As the Horizon system was introduced in late ’90’s perhaps there were changes / addendum a to the previous contracts – I haven’t the history within the network to know the answer – perhaps a fellow reader with longer service can shed some light on this.

    Before commenting on Tim’s “common sense” views ( which I don’t disagree with ) I would like to submit further “common sense” views of my own:

    In a population of ten’s of thousands of Horizon users ( 30,000 to 40,000 ? ) Common sense tells me there will be a % – however small – of people with less than 100% integrity / honesty.

    Common sense to me, suggests staff not held personally & contractually responsible for losses / gains will generate opportunities for those so inclined to take advantage of procedures not 100% watertight.

    I was faced with a £5,000 loss several years ago.

    Did I suspect staff?
    No
    Did I suspect Horizon?
    Yes

    I did not purchase my PO without fully researching the business.

    I did not purchase the PO without having a solicitor reviewing the contract.

    I joined with my eyes open to my responsibilities.

    £5,000 was a big hit.

    Within a month I introduced each user to have their own stock & cash.

    They count the cash & stock DAILY.

    We have had no reoccurance.

    Do we have losses / gains ?

    Yes

    They are resolved before close of business by combination of Horizon interrogation/ CCTV analysis. ( love to say 100% but sometimes after we’ve all slept on it & one of us wakes with a “eureka” moment.

    Does POL read this blog?

    I don’t know but as a member of the Forum which meets bi-monthly with the senior management of POL ( Branch User Forum consisting of SPMs ) I will ensure they will be made aware at next meeting on 05/11.

    Look forward to any feedback, hostile or friendly

    Bryan Hewson
    Amble Main PO

    ps I did propose at a forum meeting last year that POL should make it a contractual obligation for every Horizon user to have their own SU & cash & stock – the view from POL ( and the other five SPMs ) was that such an obligation was too draconian – I said that & Ill say now, it was the best business decision I’ve ever taken but it’s only “common sense” to me

    Hope all have a great week and travel safe.

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    • Hi Bryan

      There were no changes to the contract with reference to the introduction of the computer system.

      Sorry to hear that you lost £5,000. Using a stock unit for each user is certainly the best idea for the bigger offices but in the smaller offices it is actually more trouble than it is worth particularly if you are not experiencing losses. CCTV and other measures can certainly help identify losses when these occur,

      You seem to place some trust in the computer system – I did too initially. I think you will find and no doubt be shocked that the details of the error we are about to reveal are positive proof that the system has inherent flaws and the people charged to test and fix it are not capable of doing so.

      With regard to the criminality of those who have faced massive losses – some of them operated the PO on their own. The ‘money’ they were accused of taking may never have existed yet POL went after them to recover it. These ‘criminals’ didn’t profit from their desperate deeds, POL may well have.

      Say Hi to Angela for me.

      Cheers, Tim

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      • Hi Tim,
        I will pass on your regards to Angela – so I guess some at POL do read your blog & the comments / responses.

        Appreciate your comment regarding individual SUs in smaller offices but it was a SPM in a single counter small village branch that made me aware of the advantages ( they had four part timers along with the SPM ).
        On the face of it operating with individual SUs in a single counter branch sounds like a lot of extra work ( transfers in / out ) at month end but in reality “month end” happens every single day, hence it makes life for all much easier ( and accountable !)

        Have a great week to all & don’t visit Northumberland without popping in for a chat, best to all

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  4. With the Local model, when you are working 70 hours per week, closing at 7pm and getting derisory pay levels that do not even cover staff pay, the ability to pay for even more time swapping things around when somebody hops on the counter is nice in theory, but problematic in practice.

    Luckily, we have a number of trustworthy PT staff who have been with us for years, which I am fully aware doesnt mean any one couldnt rip us off big time. To date, we havent experienced any problems and any shortages have tended to be because they forgot to count cassettes still in the main safe!

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