The National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP) have been mentioned quite a lot in the recent trial but there will be many interested in the story behind the trial that do not know who they are or what exactly they do.
Let me try and explain.
Founded over 100 years ago the NFSP were initially a representative body for subpostmasters to bring matters of concern to the management of the Post Office (in all its collective guises over the years, POL remain a government owned entity). Subpostmasters, then and now, are mostly self employed individuals who have invested capital into setting up shop as a Post Office with or without supplementary income.
Eventually the NFSP were awarded Trade Union status which meant that effectively they had the power to negotiate subpostmaster remuneration backed up by the threat of strike action. This however was clearly an idle threat that not even subpostmasters let alone POL gave any serious thought to. No self employed individual was ever going to strike knowing that a) he would lose all his income b) probably a lot of his customers on a permanent basis and c) the likelihood was that the Post Office down the road would stay open and pick up all the trade that he had lost.
However there was a purpose to the NFSP ‘s existence and it developed a relationship with POL such that POL would listen to them and in many cases adopt the ideas and suggestions that they put forward. The NFSP to this day provides support to subpostmasters in several ways including most notably a benevolent fund that provides financial support for current and former members in difficulty.
The people of the NFSP
This really is the most important part to understand for those readers who have never been involved with a representative body and/or a trade union. By the time the story of Alan Bates & Others starts in the year 2000 there were about 25,000 sub post offices scattered around the country. It is important to note that the best word to describe the relationship between individual subpostmasters and POL was ‘fear’. Fear that POL could walk into your office one day and close you down because you had done something wrong. Fear, that as a result, you could lose the significant personal investment you had made in the business. The NFSP certainly used that notion of fear and the fact that they could support you from a position of relative strength in negotiating on your behalf , to gain new members.
Not all postmasters elected to join the NFSP though but figures show that in their heyday 80% of the postmaster network had joined and paid levies to do so. The NFSP was quite a large and wealthy organisation.
To this day its organisational structure from the ground up consists of local branches, regional councils and ultimately an executive council presided over by a general secretary/CEO. There are those among us who are attracted by the thought of actively engaging in the administration of such organisations. From putting their name forward for a local branch committee position to standing for election to the Executive Committee. For some the attraction is personal recognition and the lure of wielding some influence. For others and from my personal experience the reason most put their name forward was the attraction of being invited to an all expenses paid annual jamboree to the National Conference. The conference was the highlight of their year and the faces of the attendees were pretty much the same year on year as was the content sadly.
You also have to remember that membership was naturally geographically scattered with only one representative coming from each post office. In my area of the borders, attending a branch meeting located centrally in the region meant a 120 mile round trip, in the middle of winter on your one day off a Sunday. Of course the NFSP would provide drinks and lunch so some repayment for the time and effort put in to attend and it was clear that a few attended only for that reason.
When we ask who are the NFSP in terms of numbers then we are referring to the active members only. One could suggest that is the total number of members who regularly attend branch meetings but in reality the number is far smaller and as it stands now I would hazard a guess that less than a hundred are actively involved in promoting the interests of the organisation.
Out of that 100 I would say the vast majority are honestly concerned with the welfare of their fellow subpostmasters and they dedicate a lot of their spare time in assisting them. However the further up the organisation you go and as the financial rewards and benefits increase, sadly personal interests start to play a more important role in the rationale behind their involvement in the organisation. That, I must add, is not a unique premise to the NFSP and can be seen in many such representative bodies.
Clearly a key role in the structure of the organisation is that of what was the General Secretary and now the CEO. In my time since I first became a subpostmaster there have only been three. Colin Baker, George Thomson and now Calum Greenhow. There are stories to be told about all three but the role played by George Thomson is probably that of most interest to the Bates saga. He oversaw the implementation of Network Transformation and ‘negotiated’ the new structure of the NFSP as a representative trade organisation fully funded by POL. In addition, and most concerning to the Alan Bates story is his obstinate stand on the problems encountered by his members when using the Horizon computer system.
In my opinion George is a man of fairly low intellect backed up with an extremely aggressive nature that at times becomes physical. He had, at one stage, political ambitions but lack of ability and his aggressive behaviour put paid to that. However he found his feet in the subpostmaster community and in particular the NFSP. He realised that there was a path to the top for him and to the top he rose becoming General Secretary in the mid noughties. The only good thing I could ever say about Thomson was that he knew how to speak to his members. Probably not by design but by the fact that so many were in awe of his position and, truth be told, many were of the same low intellect as he is as well as the number of threats he issued to them on a personal level. Of note was one issued to me personally in front of a large audience when I was not even a member of the NFSP so how he was going to carry that out is worth considering.
The Horizon computer system was introduced around the turn of the century and from the off it developed problems. I have over the years collected NFSP Executive minutes from various sources and ones from that early period of Horizon note that the NFSP were well aware of the situation. For the next 20 years their stance never changed (until this week when remarkably the current CEO Calum Greenhow expressed dismay that POL should have allowed this mess to happen) and they supported POL in the notion that there was nothing at all wrong with the computer system. The EC minutes tell a different story. They reveal that the NFSP knew of the problems but insisted that they could not challenge them publicly because, for the very same reasons POL did, it would cause grave reputational damage to the brand. Well look at the brand now and the damage the NFSP has done to the members the organisation was put in place to support in the first place.
In my opinion the NFSP wilfully refused to support any subpostmaster who challenged the efficacy of the Horizon computer system including some very notable names and senior figures in the NFSP organisation. Thomson’s remarks to the various governmental inquiries and the press into the Horizon scandal may bear some investigation now that Justice Fraser has delivered two judgements on it which include scathing remarks about the role the NFSP played.
So when we talk about how the NFSP came to be involved in this mess we need to be careful and not insinuate that the majority of NFSP activists were complicit in the deceit. The message, not to question Horizon, came from the top down and was backed up by unsubstantiated claims from POL and the NFSP EC that Horizon was robust and reliable. For many in the NFSP this became the truth they believed in and they were never provided with any evidence to the contrary by either POL or their union’s elite.
Both POL and the NFSP now have a real problem to deal with and that is how to justify in any way shape or form their continued existence while the people that expounded the myth of Horizon reliability remain employed by their relative organisations. In a few months some of the people most deeply involved in all of this will face criminal charges, of that I have no doubt. The question is why have they not been removed from office yet?
As it stands there is no place whatsoever for the continued existence of the NFSP as they remain inexorably linked to the scandal and are totally funded by POL. The latter reason being why they cannot re-invent themselves as an independent organisation once again. Network Transformation had already reduced the number of members they had to a minimum level and now with their reputation in smithereens they have absolutely no means of restoring trust and the membership they would need to financially support them.
POL need to do the necessary and shut them down now. It will be a massive blow to those members who to this day provide much needed support to the subpostmaster community but there will be other ways their efforts can be supported.