In November last year, Post Office Ltd (POL) was taken to court by Mr Alan Bates & Others, in a civil suit known as a Group Litigation Order (GLO). Alan and his co-claimants accuse POL of many things but mainly that unexplained losses at the branches the claimants owned or worked in were as a result of faults in the Horizon computer system that POL use to operate their business. Of course the claim is a lot more complicated than that and as a result the judge has decided to hear it over the course of three (or now maybe four) separate trials, each dealing with separate issues. The first of these issues, contract terms, was heard in the first trial in November and we await the decision of the judge on that which may arrive shortly.
During the last seven years, our beloved Post Office has changed dramatically with the introduction of the Network Transformation project. One of the consequences of this project is that the role of the Post Office on the High St has changed. What once was a Post Office branch with a small shop attached is now a shop with a small PO attached and that with significantly less remuneration, the PO is a relatively minor part of the shop’s business model. Since the project began probably more than half the subpostmasters in the network 7 years ago have been replaced by operators who really do not concern themselves too much with what is fast becoming a nuisance having a PO in their shop.
That is a worry. Communication to these new operators is stifled by POL and the National Federation of Subpostmasters, who, when they do communicate with the network, do not highlight any of the real financial risks in running a branch, nor have they provided any real insight into the ongoing court case. Well that is soon to change. The decision of the court from the first trial in November will have an impact on all the contracts in the network and this will have to be communicated to the subpostmasters and the new operators. Those operators that have to date remained blissfully unaware of the court proceedings will have to sit up and take notice.
It is going to be extremely interesting to hear what POL have to say about the decision and how they communicate this to the network because they will have to do this before the next part of the trial starts in late March. The next trial will deal specifically with errors in the Horizon system. POL have already admitted that not only there are faults in the system, but when these do occur they contemplate altering the accounts of the affected subpostmasters in the background without their knowledge.
How will POL advise their operators of what has been disclosed at the trial? Try and keep it a secret? Understandably, given that the trial is ongoing, POL have refused to comment but maintain a stance, well reported in the press, that there isn’t a problem with the computer system. The NFSP support this view and have supported this since the introduction of the Horizon computer system in 2000 despite not only knowing about errors in the system but in the knowledge that many of their own members were affected by them. Minutes of NFSP Executive Committee meetings show that they do this in order not to affect the network’s and the public’s view on the integrity of the system which they say would harm the livelihoods of their members.
Publicity and communication though is at the very root of all the problems POL and the NFSP now face. There is now clear evidence that the fact that they didn’t advise their agents and their members respectively of these problems when they first arose has meant that it has taken a great deal longer than it should have to reach the stage where the truth about the failings of the computer system will be exposed.
Over the years Alan Bates’ quest has drawn attention from the media. Computer Weekly, with Tony Collins and Karl Flinders have been following the story for a long time and more recently, Nick Wallis has used all available resources to ensure that this scandal receives as much publicity as it could, including a BBC Panorama special and multiple appearances on the BBC One Show. With their efforts and support for Alan’s cause perhaps it may well have remained in the background until now. Political interest as well has been generated by the MPs who represent some of the affected claimants, most notably James Arbuthnot, now Baron Arbuthnot of Edrom. No doubt there will political consequences as well for those unfortunate Ministers who ignored the claims and supported the management of the Post Office.
When Alan Bates started his quest, he was alone because there was no real way of finding out if others in the network had had similar experiences. The internet helped him find some others no doubt and a small band formed the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA). The rise of social media assisted and by the time the case came to court there were over 500 claims assigned to the GLO. The exposure in the media in the run up to the trial and the subsequent first part of the trial itself has generated even more claims and as an example when I attended the trial for a week in November I was approached by yet more possible claimants who had come along to the court because they had just heard about the trial and wanted to see what it was all about because their circumstances were similar.
This all goes to show that there will no doubt be many more claimants added to the list as more and more publicity is generated by the trial and the decisions handed down by the court.
There is more to worry about for POL though .. there is one thing in common with the current list of claimants. These are the ones that noticed something was amiss with the system. There will probably be many many more totally oblivious to errors that have caused them losses because the amounts were smaller.
So if you are reading about this matter for the first time here and you have a post office or you work in one, it is time for you to do some research and find out more about it.
You can start here ..