Whatever the outcome of the Group Litigation Order between Mr and Mrs Bates and Post Office Ltd, there is another outcome that goes without saying. That’s not grammatically correct as I am going to say it anyway – the situation must never arise in the future where a similar trial is needed to ensure Post Office Ltd correct their obvious shortcomings and therefore one of the outcomes I refer to will be the corrective processes POL put in place to prevent a repeat of this litigation.
I believe that we are starting to see the signs of change within the organisation. A week or so ago they issued a Message to all branches informing them of a system error that could affect any branch at any time. That is a completely new approach and one that should and could have been taken when similar errors in the past appeared such as Dalmellington – a key error noted in the trial. Helping subpostmasters identify shortages and surpluses in their accounts starts with telling them about problems they should be on the lookout for. In Seema Misra’s case and stunningly in this last Horizon trial, POL maintained that a system error should be obvious to a SPMR. Revelations in the trial show that not even POL were aware of some of the errors in the system – hardly surprising then that not all SPMRs noticed some of them either.
A new wave of branch support visits has been instigated – these have happened in the past – but this time generally they seem to be genuinely interested in helping the SPMR get more out of his business not just by up selling but putting in place better operating procedures and standards. I hate to be critical of this initiative at this early stage but it is clear that the folk sent out to perform these branch visits are not all singing from the same hymn sheet. I’ll put that down to the generic problem that will take longer to fix, the ‘them and us’ culture prevalent throughout POL.
But what else needs to be done? The biggest problem POL face with regard to mending their ways at the moment is the ongoing litigation. Putting in place the procedures and equipment necessary to make these changes could be construed as an admission of guilt. It is a shame if that reason delays implementation because after the trial is over they will have to do it anyway.
The most obvious and absolutely necessary change is the supply and installation of CCTV to all branches. Why this was never done I don’t know. Try and find a bank branch without any! The decision of the first trial, whether it is appealed or not, makes this a compulsory action. POL are required to prove without any doubt an error on their side did not result in a discrepancy in the branch accounts. Without CCTV linked to terminal inputs that will be impossible.
There is a huge problem with the Help Desks which needs to be sorted out. Personally I would abandon the Philippines as a first action and I would be looking to overhaul the current UK setup drastically. It is clear social media has a place to play in any replacement as well as the vast knowledge base of SPMRs out there in the network ready and willing to help their colleagues.
I have already noted the culture change that needs to be put in place but there is another part of that that should be pointed out. My gut feeling now that the Horizon trial is over and the evidence displayed in court is that there was nobody in POL willing and able to question Fujitsu as to their ability to support and develop Horizon. There was also a huge unwillingness to incur additional costs in utilising Fujitsu support to look at possible errors. I am pretty sure that the judge will have something to say about that in his forthcoming decision. POL need to adopt a culture of questioning the status quo to see if it is reliable, resilient and robust and I am not just talking about Horizon here. That can only be done with fresh faces on board. Habits of a lifetime are not going to change as rapidly as is required.
There is more to be done but the initial changes I see are promising. The business really has a long term future in the High St and the rural communities they support. It is good to see POL starting to win back contracts as well as increase their banking business. These commercial gains are purely co-incidental with the departure of Paula Vennells but there is no doubt she could not have been left in charge to put in place the necessary changes stated above that she so arrogantly ignored for so long.
As a footnote could I just add that I am desperately sorry to hear that Bal Gill, one of the claimants, is in need of help. I am sure all of you reading this will have read his story on https://www.postofficetrial.com/2018/12/a-former-subpostmaster-writes-this-was.html and if not I would urge you to read it. Bal – I wish you all the best mate and hope to meet you one day when we can enjoy the outcome of the litigation.