Post Office Network Transformation – Wrong from the start…

Post Office Network Transformation – Wrong from the start…

I believe a book is being written about the problems within the Post Office.  This could well be a chapter in its own right.   I understand that the majority of readers of this blog have a close connection with the Post Office and therefore understand the background to what I am about to point out.  It should have been ‘bleedin obvious’, to use the vernacular, to all concerned and that, dear reader, probably gives us the best insight we have into the complete lack of commercial acumen within the upper levels of POL management.

There were, and still remain, many good points about NT which sadly keep getting rolled out to hide the mess underneath;  a mess of POL’s own creation I might add.   The fact is though that right from the start it was doomed….

Let me take the Main Post Office concept as an example.   In 2010 news broke of the Network Transformation project.  Details were sketchy and even the NFSP had a problem keeping up with what seemed like daily changes to the scheme.  So when it became clear that only 3000 or so Sub Post Office would become the chosen few every SPMR wanted to know is they were to be one or not.  Investment into the branch coupled with increased Transaction related pay seemed liked a good idea as well as the prospect of increased value of the business.   To that end, and to answer these SPMRs a list was produced for POL people so they would know which branches were the chosen ones.   George Thomson, General Secretary of the NFSP, admitted to me at the time that the list existed but Freedom of Information requests to see this list were denied.  Why the secrecy?

So even if you were one of the chosen ones you had no way of finding out other than to apply the general rules for being selected and that was to do with footfall and demographics.   You might have had a rough idea but couldn’t be certain so for several months SPMRs were in the dark as to their future.

Now you have to remember that NT was a cost cutting exercise.  In order to justify the £1.35 Billion POL had to show that the overall effect would be a reduction in payments made to SPMRs.  The 3000 ‘chosen ones’ selected for Mains would lose their monthly fixed Core Tier Payment in return for higher transaction related pay (TRPs).  Let us suppose, in a very conservative fashion, that POL decided that for the Mains at least the overall effect of the move to TRP only pay would be cost neutral.  That is for the 3000, what they received before is what they would get after.  All well and good you might say but not quite.   This was to be a voluntary program after all and a voluntary program can only work with willing volunteers.

Which brings me to another list.  This was the list of enhanced TRPs that the new Mains would receive.   It was extremely confidential.  No one knew what was on it although some examples were leaked by POL as a ‘little teaser’… Really?  So why did they not want the prospective mains post offices to know the numbers?   Well fairly obvious really.  If the nett effect was to be cost neutral then out of the 3000 selected offices there had to be a mixture of winners and losers.   Clearly the losers weren’t going to convert in a hurry but the winners would be trying to get on board as soon as possible.   Most importantly though POL needed the NFSP to convince their members that NT was the way to go, that there was no plan B, that their investments would be lost without it.   Trying to convince an SPMR that the way forward is for their neighbouring Post Office to make more money while you make less wasn’t going to hold water.   With hindsight of course the NFSP at least got two parts of their forecast right.  There is no plan B (currently) and most remaining SPMRs have lost a significant part of their investments if not all.

Back to the mysterious TRP list.  I got my hands on a copy and at an appropriate moment in reply to a post on the NFSP forum from an Executive Council member I published the list in full.   George Thomson was outraged.  He didn’t just delete the post, he shut the whole forum down as it was becoming increasingly obvious that the ‘scaremongerers’ as we were labelled had rumbled what was going on and what was going to happen.   Not many got to see a copy of those TRPs but those that did reported mixed fortunes.  Some were going to make a lot more as a Main while others stood to lose a lot and clearly were not going to engage with NT voluntarily.

This action by Thomson is a clear indication in my opinion that he knew what the problem with NT was – he must have been told by POL because I don’t think he is capable of working out these things himself – and that if the TRPs were leaked on a grand scale he would never be able to convince his members to back it.

So NT got going and Lo and Behold the very first offices to convert to Mains were ones that were going to make more money.   You should be aware that as part of the ‘selling’ of NT, Field Change Advisors (who had no idea how to run a Post Office) showed the prospect what he would earn after NT based using the new TRPs.    This practice was dropped later and instead prospects were advised of the increase in sales due to additional footfall as well as cost efficiencies of having a Horizon terminal at their retail counter.

Initial converts were happy and of course were eager to tell everyone what a success their transformation was.  POL were exuberant.  They were spending lots of the £1.35b, they were converting their target Post Offices – not quite on schedule but close enough to convince the Civil Servants that they were doing a grand job – and the payment to SPMRs was increasing!

Now several years later and without going into detail NT has failed completely.  The effect on SPMR commission has in fact been cost neutral for the Mains and no great savings have been made.   Now POL’s only alternative (a plan B?) is to reduce the TRPs considerably and they are going to find great difficulty in doing that unopposed.    The breaking strain has been reached already with offices just closing their doors as a result of the poor compensation for difficult and tiresome interaction with the bureaucratic nonsense of POL.   This remains a problem that POL don’t understand but which was pointed out repeatedly at the onset of NT.  When a new style PO gets shown the door by an operator which local businessman in their right minds is going to take it on without finding out why it was thrown out in the first place?

So if you are interested in talking to your MP about this, show them this blog.  Ask them to ask the Business Secretary why those TRPs were not published initially.  Why was the NFSP forum closed down when they were published on there?  What wasn’t the list of prospective Mains Offices not revealed in Freedom of Information requests?   How much money did they say they would save and how much have they?   Get them to ask who POL are accountable to although I know the answer – nobody.

 

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Why did the jury find Seema Misra guilty?

(If you are unaware of the Seema Misra trial please refer to my other blogs on this)

I woke up this morning thinking about this very point.   Always worthwhile to consider all angles.

We have the complete transcript of the trial (http://journals.sas.ac.uk/deeslr/article/view/2217)  to consider and that includes some interaction between the jury and the judge.   At the end the jury ask specific additional questions before retiring to reach a verdict and I think this gives the best insight into the way they were thinking at that late stage in the trial.

The questions:

a) When you buy a ticket for the lottery is it on the till in the shop and how is it related to the Horizon System?

b) How long was it that she dismissed Nadia after dismissing her husband for suspected theft?

c) Where is any statements from the trainees —” – presumably “trainers” – “— or cross-examination by the barristers in court on her honesty or ability to be the boss of the post office or even the area manager?

d) Has Mrs Misra’s husband the authority by the Post Office to unlock the Horizon system and get into the post office section?

e) Was Mr Misra in charge of the Lottery till as well as Mrs Misra?

In my opinion the trial was biased from the start as there was no support for the defence team from an experienced subpostmaster who was unconcerned (POL’s contract with SPMRs prevent them from ‘telling’ tales)  about speaking out about the dubious practices of POL.   There was therefore no chance whatsoever that the jury could gain any sort of understanding of how a Post Office operates and how complicated it really is.

Question (a) demonstrates that the defence had failed completely to make the jury comprehend the significance of the Lottery issue.  In fact  it seems to me very clear that the defence themselves did not quite grasp the significance of this.  Prior to the losses in question being discovered by POL Seema had for some reason not been transferring the Lottery money received through to POL accounts leading to a loss of some £20k from memory.   When this was pointed out to Seema she immediately made the losses good and in doing so POL accepted that not only she had made a genuine mistake but that – and this is vitally important -they were losses and not theft.  She was liable to POL for these losses which she admitted to but she hadn’t stolen the money although she was the beneficiary of the proceeds.

Losses incurred in a branch are just that, losses, and they incur a debt to POL under the terms and conditions of the SPMRs contract.  When they occur the SPMR has to pay them back which Seema Misra not only offered to do but was actively seeking to do by borrowing money from her relatives in order to protect her investment in her shop.

(b) is a good question.  It is unclear why they asked it but consider the circumstances.  A husband and wife team were working for Seema in her Post Office.   Seema found losses being incurred and immediately suspected the husband of stealing so sacked him.   It is very strange then that the wife continued to work in the PO after her husband was sacked.  The point though to make is that when an employee takes money from a sub post office that is theft which they can be prosecuted for.  The effect though on the branch accounts is a loss which as I have said is a debt to POL that the SPMR must make good.

The possibility that the employees of the branch could have been responsible for the losses by stealing was discounted by the judge, prosecution and as far as I can tell the defence due to lack of any evidence as well as the fact that losses continued to mount after the suspected employees had been sacked.   The fact though is the judge in his summation made exactly the same point about lack of evidence regarding Seema.  No CCTV, no witnesses and no evidence of large amounts of money stashed away or being spent.  In fact more investigation was done into Seema’s affairs than that of the possible miscreants.

That in turn leads to a most troubling issue.  POL have a record of prosecuting SPMRs both in the Civil Courts as well as the Criminal Courts, ostensibly in order to seek legal protection to recover the losses incurred.    (see the Panorama program for proof of this)

There is though a significant difference between a Civil trial and a Criminal trial and that is the burden of proof.  A criminal trial requires evidence to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed while a civil trial requires the mere establishment of the event to have occurred on the balance of probabilities.  So why then did POL choose civil prosecution in some cases and criminal in others?

Lee Castleton was taken through the Civil Courts and lost to POL.   There is much correlation between Seema Misra’s circumstances and Lee’s: unexplained losses, repeated and continued to this day, denial of any wrongdoing as well as absolutely no evidence of theft by either of them and certainly no evidence of financial gain.  Why wasn’t Lee charged with criminal conduct if the evidence was exactly the same?

The ONLY difference between the two is that Lee hadn’t made the mistake of signing off on accounts that were at odds with the true balance in the office.   Had he done so and subsequently been charged with False Accounting then no doubt he would have been sent to trial for theft.

And therein lies the rub.  A theft charge is only brought by POL after admission of a False Accounting charge – they can’t have one without the other – so why both and in Seema Misra’s case why 5 charges of false accounting and not more or alternatively just one?  The reality is that it assists the prosecution in making their case and in Seema’s case the prosecution introduced this right from the beginning by informing the Jury in the prosecution’s opening statement that Seema had been, and had admitted to, quote “cooking the books”.

c) I am amazed but glad that at least someone in the jury picked up on that fact that Seema may not have been at all capable of running a Post Office branch.  From reading the transcript that is my understanding of the situation.  She clearly did not know what she was doing and had completely given up on trying to get to the bottom of the problems.  She admitted this in court.   The absence of the testimony of an experienced Subpostmaster in this case is self evident and would have added to, if not confirmed, the suspicions and doubt of the jury member who asked this question.   Remember – beyond reasonable doubt and this question as well as the others suggests a fair degree of doubt.

d) and e) A very good point and a clear indication of the failure of the defence to point out all the other possible reasons for the losses.   Why was it left to the jury to question these alternative reasons?   I am not suggesting for one moment that Seema’s husband was responsible but it is the duty of the defence to raise reasonable doubt in the jury’s minds and they failed – completely.

It is utterly beyond comprehension how Seema Misra was convicted by the jury of theft.  It is an appalling travesty of justice that will surely be returned to the appeal court by the Criminal Case Review Commission.   When the case is eventually heard in the Appeal court I am sure there will be questions asked about the absence of testimony in the original trial from an experienced subpostmaster capable of criticising POL and willing to do so in court.  I am one of these, yet even the CCRC have refused to accept me as an ‘expert’ witness which I find frankly appalling.