Ignorance and Stupidity must be the answer

There are many defining statements that describe the current state of affairs with the Post Office.  They are currently under siege at what is fast becoming the trial of the century where hundreds of current and former subpostmasters are engaged in a civil trial, claiming many millions of pounds in damages for the treatment they received at the hands of Post Office Ltd.

Many of these victims of the unscrupulous behaviour of Post Office Ltd (POL) found massive losses at their branch which they could not explain and were faced with the Hobson’s Choice of either declaring the losses to Post Office Ltd and be forced to repay them immediately (which in many cases would have been impossible as they did not have that amount of money) or not declaring them and be guilty of the offence of False Accounting.

Losses at a Post Office branch can occur in many different ways.  Mistakes in processing hundreds of different types of transactions are the most common but it is not unknown for the computer system to generate errors that cause losses to the postmaster (it should be pointed out that the computer system also generates gains by mistake as well but that is another story) and of course the back office systems of the Post Office are frequently the cause of errors.  There is of course the possibility of fraud and theft.  This has happened, does happen and will happen again but this is an infrequent occurrence.  Far less possibility that theft could be the cause of the losses than mistakes or computer errors.

An important fact to point out as well is that ‘losses’ are not necessarily physical cash as many pundits seem to assume.  If you mistakenly enter a cash deposit by a customer of £100 as £1000 then the customer has given you £100 and been credited by his bank with £1,000 while the Post Office requires you to pay them the £900 that never existed in the first place.  The risk of losing £900 for a paltry 20p payment just sums up the idiocy of the current system in place.

When mistakes like that add up to many thousands of pounds and you haven’t gained financially from them how on earth can you repay Post Office Ltd from the paltry income subpostmasters receive?  When faced with having to sell your business and losing not only your investment in it but your only source of income as well what pressure must you be under to not declare the losses?  How can any sane and reasonable person not understand that subpostmasters faced with that decision decide to hide the fact from POL and declare false accounts.   Yes it is a crime but it is a crime committed for no personal gain whatsoever and that must be taken into account as extenuating circumstances by the courts.

Which brings me back to the current trial and the ultimate defining statement by POL’s legal team as to the culpability of subpostmasters with huge losses discovered at their branches.

They state in their opening defence:

It is a sound and logical inference that one would only submit false accounts to cover up their own theft

That is such a ludicrous statement.  It shows a complete lack of understanding of the situation faced by subpostmasters and because it is stated by highly respected barristers one really has to question how they have come to this conclusion after being presented with all the facts? There was no theft. Surely they would only present that statement to the court if they, as legal professionals, had been led to believe it was true.  The inference then is that senior management of POL have provided them with that ‘knowledge’ and therefore one has to question either the intelligence of these people or their culpability in failing, completely, to understand how losses can occur in a branch.   We simply cannot keep on saying ‘it is beyond belief’ – there has to be an explanation.  Conspiracy theory does not work here with far too many people involved to hide what the conspiracy theorists would describe as blatant criminal activity on the part of POL.  The only reasonable explanation is complete and utter stupidity and with so many examples to back that theory up I put it to you that that is the answer.  Stupidity and ignorance are no excuses though and if it is found that what has transpired is criminal then the top management of Post Office Ltd should prepare for the consequences.

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Paula Vennells and why she had to go

 

Recent extraordinary announcements regarding the career path of Paula Vennells, CEO of Post Office Ltd (pre-partum) are no doubt linked.  First a CBE, then a call to advise the Cabinet Office now hastily followed by news of her departure to the position of Chairwoman of a NHS Trust paying less than 10% of her current salary.

Let’s be clear that this is a humiliating exit for her from her beloved Post Office but she had to go in the face of mounting criticism of her handling of the claims of hundreds of subpostmasters that they had been victimised during her reign in charge.  More importantly though, the rationale in her effective dismissal is understandable.  A fresh face was needed to be able to handle the aftermath of the JFSA court case, where clearly the subpostmasters involved are now going to win substantial damages.  Ms Vennells ‘ stubbornness in not listening to the aggrieved, making no attempt to investigate for herself their claims and hence not establishing the real truth for herself, left her well and truly exposed and allegedly complicit in what may turn out to be a massive cover up reaching well up the hierarchy of the Civil Service.

Notwithstanding the obvious links to her dismissal from the court case, she has totally destroyed the Post Office network under the project known as Network Transformation.  She certainly transformed it.  She single-handedly destroyed the brand and at a stroke wiped out billions of pounds worth of investments by the very people who ran the network for her, the sub-postmasters.  These subpostmasters are applauding her dismissal and can’t wait for her to go.  The future for them looks a tad brighter this morning, not so for Ms Vennells, who will not escape further consequences from her actions during her period at the top of the Post Office.

Many of her actions will come back to haunt her but I think the one that will stand out at the top of the pile is the decision to dismiss Second Sight who were investigating the claims of the subpostmasters and who were getting too near the truth for comfort.  Their dismissal and the subsequent revelations in the court case will surely lead to a judicial enquiry where Ms Vennells involvement in this whole sorry mess will be exposed.  Ignorance is no excuse.  I told her what was going on in her company (although she would hardly be expected to listen to someone as unimportant as I, she did acknowledge my emails to her) and Second Sight clearly did as did countless others, most notably Alan Bates at the JFSA.

The words ‘beyond belief’ are used frequently to describe the revelations at the Post Office, and they will be used even more frequently once the next trial starts in a couple of weeks time.   I imagine that the sequence of events that led to Ms Vennells’ dismissal started when Post Office received the first batch of witness statements and disclosed evidence from the JFSA legal team.  I would have liked to have seen the face of POL’s QC when he first saw what he was going to be up against in court.  Surely he must have indicated to POL that he was on a hiding to nothing.  Which would lead very quickly to a decision having to be made about settlement with the claimants before all is revealed to the public.  Paula Vennells’ could not be involved in any such settlement given her vociferous but wholly unwarranted denial that there was any merit in the JFSA claims.

So that leads to the choice of her successor.  Tim Parker has said they will look at an interim replacement which makes sense as the calibre of person required to sort out the mess after all is revealed will want to know the extent of the mess before making a decision to join the company.  The interim appointee will be able to use Ms Vennells and her team as scapegoats and may be able to clear out much of the top level management that endorsed Ms Vennells’ actions over the last few years.  The person appointed will be able to negotiate a fair settlement and start the process of ensuring such a fiasco never happens again.   It will be difficult to find an impartial temporary replacement and perhaps impartiality is not a prerequisite.  It may need to be someone who understands what has been going on and the reasons behind that.  Ron Warmington of Second Sight would be my preferred candidate.  He can ensure that the investigation he started is completed and he can compile a report for the permanent replacement showing what needs to be tackled.  Someone coming in cold will have the obvious problem of reliance on the existing staff to tell him or her what the real truth is and as we know now, the real truth is something that completely escaped the attention of Ms Vennells.

Whoever it is that is appointed I wish them good luck and trust that they put in place a new Post Office, founded on trust, truth, and disclosure to the benefit of all subpostmasters and not the misguided aspirations of Civil Servants.

 

Ms Vennells – be ashamed, be very ashamed

A few weeks ago I published a blog post (https://problemswithpol.wordpress.com/2018/12/29/awarding-the-truth/) that put forward a contrarian argument regarding Paula Vennells’ role in the whole sorry saga of the Horizon debacle.  Of course it wasn’t well received but I wrote it to try and understand for myself why and how the CEO of Post Office Ltd could be so naive, so blind to the real truth, that she continues to believe that there is no merit in any of the JFSA claimants cases.

Well given that the Horizon part of the trial is not yet underway and I don’t want to undermine any of the evidence that will be put before the court in that regard, I will stay away from that piece of the jigsaw for the moment.

However Paula Vennells still remains a complete enigma to me.  In the blog post I mentioned above, I considered if her quest for the truth was from the heart and if she really wanted to get to the bottom of the matter.  She seems to rely totally on her underlings to provide her with the facts and it seems she makes no attempts herself to read the evidence that is staring her (and the court for that matter) in the face.

Other than the JFSA case, there are a number of other potential claimants waiting in the wings.  These are the group of former Subpostmasters who ended up with a criminal conviction and whose cases have been referred to the Criminal Courts Review Commission.  One of the most notable of these cases is that of Seema Misra, who was sentenced to a jail term after a trial by jury, and whose case I and others, most notably Nick Wallis, have written about.

The CCRC are understandably waiting until the judge in the JFSA case reaches and publishes his decisions before publishing theirs.  The wait for justice for Seema is unfortunate BUT the fact of the matter is that justice will prevail in Seema’s case and she will be exonerated for the crime she was wrongfully accused of.  THERE IS NOT ONE SHADOW OF DOUBT ABOUT THIS.

I know this as fact because I have studied the evidence.  I have read and re-read the transcript of the trial, and I have even gone so far as have a police investigation opened up against POL for possible misconduct in public office.  That investigation is on hold until the CCRC publishes their decision and releases the evidence they hold back to the police.    It is my opinion that it is inevitable that some current and former Post Office Ltd employees will go to jail as result.

So why does she not take at least Seema’s case seriously?  I do not understand why I and many others see the bleeding obvious but she does not.

In the meantime she sees fit to accept a CBE and now accepts an invitation to be non-executive board member in the Cabinet Office.   While this is unbelievable for many, it is a clear indication that she truly believes she is innocent of any involvement in any of the cases before the courts and commission.   How on earth can she be so deluded?

I will send this blog post to her lawyers (and her) for comment but here is the real truth:

When Seema was accused of theft from her post office, she was on her own.  No one to turn to other than lawyers who knew little about how POL operate.  She did her best though and trawled through the internet looking for clues that other postmasters had been similarly accused and dealt with by the courts.  She found a reference to one such case – that of Lee Castleton – who took on big brother POL in the High court in a civil trial but sadly lost.  In the decision notice for that trial Seema noted that Lee had come across an error in the Horizon system that has become known as the Falkirk error and which resulted in a loss to the SPMR that POL had to make good.  It was only because the SPMR noticed it that it came to POL’s attention and clearly it was an error that had existed in the system at the time Seema was operating her Post Office.   So she advised her defence team to show as one possible defence that the Horizon system had possibly caused the losses in her office.   POL as the prosecution set out to prove that the Falkirk error did not occur at West Byfleet (Seema’s office) and they appeared to be successful in this as far as the Jury was concerned.

 

Seema’s defence expert in her trial played a significant role, and had it confirmed by POL and Fujitsu that there was a log file known as the Known Errors Log, that recorded all the errors that had been found in the Horizon system.  Despite repeated requests from Seema’s defence team, POL would not release the content of this file.  Had they done so it would have been devastating for POL, for the entire subpostmaster community and, as has been frequently suggested as the reason for the non-disclosure of these errors, consumer confidence in the Post Office brand.   More to the point though it would have certainly swayed the mind of the jury, particularly as the reticence of POL to publish this list of errors would have to be taken into account.

 

For the past few years I have tried without success, with repeated Freedom of Information requests, to obtain the contents of the Known Errors Log, but now, as I am led to believe, the JFSA team have obtained a copy of it and it is now public knowledge I believe that there are not just a few errors in it but over 8,000.  How many of these existed at the time of Seema’s trial is not known but SURELY TO GOODNESS MS VENNELLS you can see that the failure of POL to disclose this evidence to Seema was wilful and open to interpretation as a criminal act.

 

Notwithstanding the above though, evidence revealed to date by Second Sight and by disclosure at the JFSA trial, shows that POL deliberately withheld evidence of a known error at exactly the same time as Seema’s trial was ongoing.  In fact the expert witness from Fujitsu who appeared for the prosecution at Seema’s trial was at the meeting that discussed withholding this evidence due to ongoing criminal proceedings.  Ms Vennells there are people in your organisation who must surely be going to jail over this.  A poor and pregnant women was sent to prison as a result of lamentable behaviour by your staff and you are ultimately responsible for their actions.

 

Ms Vennells, all of this evidence has been available to you for some considerable time yet you in your wisdom have chosen to accept a CBE and an invitation to the Cabinet Office.  Reprehensible behaviour that anybody with any decency would not have committed.   You should be truly ashamed of yourself, and I hope and trust that one day you will be.