No blog posts for the last couple of weeks as I have been totally immersed in the transcript of the Misra trial. I have finally completed my review of this and released my report to interested parties and the Criminal Case Review Commission.
So let me have a look at the past year in PO land and express my thoughts on what has transpired and what might happen next year.
As Liam Byrne, the outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury wrote, “There’s no money left”. In April of this year, POL received the final NT payment taking the total spend by the Goverment on POL over the last 4 year to close to £2b pounds. In the land of austerity, that is an incredible amount.
NT Started in 2011. Transform the network they said. Make it ready for the digital age they boasted. This is not a closure plan they espoused. 6,000 offices would be converted by March 2015 they declared. Crown losses would be eliminated they shouted.
Well the facts are all there to see. Targets were not met but bonuses had to be paid so change the targets. SPMRs didn’t like what was on offer so they increased the compensation by almost 50%. Still they failed. In late 2015 they almost declared a national holiday when the finally reached 5,000 conversions still less than half the network.
With all the money gone and a significant portion of it having to be paid back at some stage according to EU State Subsidy rules, they became desperate Dans and a closure program it became. SPMRs who didn’t want to realise the capital loss they have incurred on their investment in a PO wanted to stay as they were. Not so said POL, leave voluntarily or compulsory – doesn’t matter – we need to ring fence the money we need now because Osborne’s not giving any more to us.
There is no more stark reminder of the failure of the NT program than what became of the original vision of moving the network into the digital age. I know there is new technology in the pipeline but 5 years down the line of NT the Horizon system is still running on antiquated PCs and an operating system that was out of date in 2004. (Did you know that the technology in the branch is so out of date that it cannot even run Internet Explorer?)
That new technology – brand new PCs – is I believe being leased – no purchase required out of the £2b and I hear, but can’t believe it, that they are sticking with the original Epson receipt printers which were purchased on a 5 year agreement from Epson last CENTURY.
No doubt there are some new operators and even some old SPMRs who have embraced NT and profited from Paula’s ‘vision’ but sadly there are more that have not. There are now a significant number of ‘stuck’ offices who have nowhere to go with rapidly diminishing income. NT has failed them completely just as we warned right at the very start.
Those of us who left and received copious amounts of compensation for doing so have done quite well but the fact is we were replaced by operators whose motivation was footfall and increased retail revenue, not with providing PO customers with a better service. The fact is that in the desperate rush to meet targets, unscrupulous deals were done and the quality of these new operators, as was highlighted in this year’s CAB report, leaves a lot to be desired.
There has to be a parliamentary inquiry into this project. Those responsible for its failure must be held to account because, understandably there is no more money and the future of the Post Office network will now be decided on that fact alone.
The Horizon Scandal
I have used this blog, hopefully, to lay the foundations of the problem in order that more people can come to realise that it really does exist and affects probably every subpostmaster that has used this system since its inception. Those at the centre of the JFSA struggle have been affected more than most – losing everything because in their cases large amounts of money were at stake.
I end this year more in awe of Alan Bates and his team than ever before. I cannot understand how he saw this problem right from the very start and nobody else did. Years and years of fighting has brought him and others to the point of vindication and I trust restitution in due course. At the start of the year even I still believed that there were a few of his members that probably were guilty of their original offences. I end it knowing for certain that that is not the case. We have all suffered at the hands of POL and there desperate efforts to portray the Horizon system as being robust and reliable.
Of course the media publicity this year on the Horizon case was brilliant and really helped to raise the profile of the JFSA members. Nick Wallis and Karl Flinders deserve special mention. I am sure when all this reaches a conclusion, Karl will write the screenplay and Nick will direct the movie.
A special mention must be made also of the Panorama program and the investigative journalism that went on behind the scenes. It resulted in the Post Office, reaching out, grabbing hold of a shotgun, and blowing their feet to smithereens.
Towards the end of the year, Mr Stephen Mason , who has an interest in Computer related Law, managed to publish the full transcript of the trial of Mrs Misra – who was seen explaining her circumstances on the Panorama program. I have subsequently reviewed that transcript and reported my findings to the Criminal Case Review Commission. Here is an extract concerning the rebuttal of the Panorama program by POL.
I would like to refer to a quote from the document published by POL in rebuttal to the BBC Panorama program (http://corporate.postoffice.co.uk/bbc-panorama-our-response)
* The Post Office does not prosecute people for making innocent mistakes and never has
* There is no evidence that faults with the computer system caused money to go missing at these Post Office branches
* There is evidence that user actions, including dishonest conduct, were responsible for missing money
If POL were to make good on these assertions then they would have to make sure they investigated the causes of all the losses that occurred at West Byfleet (and of course any of the other branches that resulted in prosecution).
First of all they would have had to investigate the transaction logs over the entire period of Mrs Misra’s tenure at West Byfleet to ensure that common mistakes had not been responsible for the losses. They produced no evidence in court to prove that they had done this. Even then, from new evidence emerging at Oxford, it is clear that even POL cannot track down these errors in the way that experienced sub postmasters can, so they should really have called in an experienced sub postmaster to investigate.
The third line is frankly absurd. “User actions INCLUDING dishonest conduct” suggests that some of the user actions that resulted in losses were not dishonest. “There is evidence” – in the case of Mrs Misra no evidence was submitted that she had committed any crime only a theory. Finally they refer to “missing money” and as I have pointed out user actions can lead to losses that are not the result of physical cash going missing.
The second line is just as absurd and reflects I think on POL’s lack of comprehension on this matter. I hate to be facetious, but computers can do many things but one thing they cannot do is steal physical money. They can, and do, however give rise to discrepancies in the accounts of sub postmasters.
Revelations continued throughout the year as more Horizon errors came to light culminating in the Dalmellington error which I have documented on this blog. What really gets my goat though is some of the obnoxious replies I have had from a few SPMRs who continue to assert that the Horizon system is perfect because they have never had any losses. Really? They would happily pay over £24k because the computer couldn’t possibly have entered those transactions by itself. Good luck to them.
I don’t really like commenting on this one man show (it was a two man show up until yesterday when Mervyn resigned) but every member of this once proud organisation has been sold down the river. What price independence? A merger with the NFRN or the CWU would have provided far more bargaining power than they ever had yet the chance was spurned in favour of a package from POL that only one person stood to benefit from (well two up until yesterday).
So what will 2016 bring. It is clear that the JFSA saga will reach the end game. The CCRC are currently reviewing other cases that involve criminal convictions and I am certain that Mrs Misra’s case will be returned to the Appeal Court and her conviction overturned. That case alone will have severe repercussions on POL management and I expect many heads to roll. What Tim Parker brings to the table as the new Chairman remains to be seen but if it is a brush then I hope it is associated with a door not a carpet.
A clear out of POL management will also have repercussions on the arrangement with the NFSP – that would not be able to continue with the management of the NFSP so closely tied to the failings of POL through NT and the Horizon scandal. What replaces it I do not know but whatever transpires it can only be a better arrangement for the protection of the Subpostmaster community.
The future of POL will be questioned. A new ‘vision’ will be required. I suspect that past mistakes such as the separation of POL from RMG will be revisited to see if there is another way forward in which both organisations can work together. One thing is for sure though, in its present shape and size, with the current management team and the prospect of no further Government investment into the network, POL cannot survive.
Seasons greetings to all of those of you who have read this far. A prosperous New Year? I do wish it for you but it may take longer to get there if you still own a PO.