The Post Office on Trial – What is it all about?

 

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   Since the project began probably more than half the subpostmasters in the network 7 years ago have been replaced by operators who really do not concern themselves too much with what is fast becoming a nuisance having a PO in their shop.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 ..

  1. https://www.jfsa.org.uk/
  2. https://www.computerweekly.com/news/252452957/Post-Office-held-back-information-about-Horizon-IT-system-errors
  3. postofficetrial.com
  4. https://ukcampaign4change.com/2019/01/07/two-contrasting-new-year-stories-an-honour-for-post-office-ceo-and-misery-for-a-former-sub-postmistress/
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The NFSP and Employment Rights

The NFSP and Employment Rights

Any suggestion that this blog is an attack on the present management of the NFSP is clearly mistaken correct.  I have tried my best with them; tried to make them see the error of their ways (with the exception of George Thomson who remains just an error) and more recently tried to coax Mr Greenhow to at least open a dialogue with Mark Baker over at CWU headquarters.   I often wonder what life would have been like if Callum hadn’t prevented me attending the meeting of the NFSP Scottish Borders branch where they voted that Mark was neither fit nor proper to be a NFSP member.   He may well have come away with a different opinion but there you go – no disapproving voices tolerated in this organisation and in return they are financially obliged not to voice disapproval against POL.

Moving on to the subject at hand.  I came across a couple of articles recently about the new wave of worker rights and I wanted to know what the NFSP had to say about it.  On their website they publish a Branch Secretaries Circular which is really only read by a few people (https://www.nfsp.org.uk/write/MediaUploads/BSCs/BSC_16_-_employment_status_update.pdf) and this one mentions their ideas about the employment status of subpostmasters.   In it they say that:

The NFSP believes the vast majority of subpostmasters wish to remain self employed and will benefit from continuing to remain in that category

That is just like an MP saying ‘what the people really want’ as if they had recently run a secret referendum.   Of course the NFSP took the bull by the horns and in a measure of their undoubted relevance to the ‘vast majority of subpostmasters’ they ran an online poll to gauge support for their stance.  Out of 7,000 or more members an astonishing high number (40) took the time and effort to complete the poll in order to influence the NFSP hierarchy.   I see no mention of the results of that poll but I am sure if it been a ‘vast majority’ they would have published them.

But the really funny part is later in the Circular where they state that:

This complexity can make it difficult for subpostmasters to judge whether their employment status is correct

So they think that the vast majority of subpostmasters wish to remain self employed but it is too difficult for them to make a judgement?

I do agree though that it is a complex issue but there is no doubt that sooner rather than later SPMRs will be free to choose for themselves whether or not they want to be classed as workers or not.  There is not and never has been, any thought or implication, that they were NOT self employed.  They probably always will be, but their option is not about self employment status it is about worker status.  The NFSP has never bothered to try and explain that probably because they don’t understand it themselves – too complex for them I suppose.  Well in the circular they ask for clarity and here it is.

This article sets out the additional rights worker status brings https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/images/infographics/rsa-gig-economy-chart.pdf You remain self-employed but IN ADDITION you get the rights mentioned in the document.  You lose nothing.  It is as simple as that.  POL of course lose a lot – they will have to treat you better and pay you more for sure and that may well cause them financial problems.  Their financial problems not yours.  The company is owned by the government and subsidised by the government.  If POL feel financial pressure after Workers rights are established for SPMRS then tough, the government will have to pay more or come up with a better solution (of which there are many but the present management have no interest in them).

Next week the first step on the road to establishing worker’s rights for all SPMRs if they choose personally to accept them, will happen when the decision of the judge on the first part of the JFSA trial is handed down.  It was very clear that the JFSA QC made a point of establishing personal service as a requirement for SPMRs to take on a PO Contract and that was the only remaining hurdle to be overcome by Mark Baker and the CWU who has been fighting for this for years.   His fight will continue into an employment tribunal later in the year although surely POL will capitulate before then in order to prevent extreme embarrassment to the government.

All being well, after the trial and post aPOLcollapse all SPMRs will become eligible for the very welcome benefits worker rights will bring them and with that an increase in the value of the assets they purchased and which have diminished so badly of late.

Post aPOLcollapse I see no future for the NFSP.  The structure of the organisation cannot really be changed and with funding withdrawn they will have no income.  They are irrelevant now and their demise cannot come soon enough.

 

Working for Nothing COPS for Free

Implied Terms

NB Interesting and very apt comment from Iain follows this post – make sure you read it

The decision coming soon from Justice Fraser will focus on the implied terms in the contract between Post Office Ltd (POL) and the Subpostmaster .   These are unwritten clauses that are assumed to be in place as no contract can possibly cover all eventualities.   POL have agreed already that one such implied term would be that the subpostmaster is not responsible for any losses caused by a Horizon error even though that is explicitly not written into the contract.  A contract which was not changed in any way after the introduction of Horizon in 2000 and very pointedly a clause concerning Horizon was not inserted in the new contracts written for Network transformation.

The JFSA lawyers have specified the implied terms they consider are appropriate to their case, which POL are refuting, but there are certainly more implied terms that are worthy of disputing with POL.

For instance, on the RunaPostOffice website (www.runapostoffice.co.uk) that POL uses to advertise Post Office opportunities to aspiring subpostmasters, it clearly states under the ‘How do the Fees Work?’ tab, that “You get paid a fee for every Post Office transaction – postage, home shopping returns, Local Collect (parcel collection), travel money, easy bill payments, e top-ups, MoneyGram and much more.

Now a transaction is commonly described, in commerce terms, as an exchange of goods or services between a buyer and a seller.  In accounting terms it can also be described as an event that effects a change in liability and/or establishes a legal obligation.

Regardless of what the contract says regarding Fees Payable or its definition of what a transaction is, the runapostoffice declaration is seen by the newsubpostmaster before he signs it and there is no definition other than the above common description of a transaction.  There can be no dispute that this implied payment for all transactions based on common acceptance of the term ‘transaction’ carries through as an implied term into the contract.

Now take for instance a transaction that is very common for all subpostmasters and who do not receive payment for it from POL: a Certificate of Posting (COP).   This can be asked for by anyone posting a mail item regardless of whether or not they purchased the postage at the branch they request the COP from.   It satisfies all the requirements of a common understanding of what a commercial transaction entails i.e. providing a service and it also satisfies the common understanding of what an accounting transaction entails i.e. establishes a legal obligation.

POL of course would argue otherwise and it could be interpreted that those subpostmasters who received a Core Tier Payment were remunerated for transactions that did not attract a payment from customers and this was included in the core part of the remuneration.  However this core tier payment was done away with under NT so that causes a problem for them.

Not only that but it is extremely likely that in the near future Subpostmasters will be conferred Worker Status thanks to the efforts of Mark Baker and his team and among all the benefits that brings is the obligation to remunerate for ALL work carried out on behalf of the ‘employer’.  There is no escaping the fact that POL will be required to introduce payment for Certificate of Posting once worker status is confirmed.   That leads to the possibility of back payments which on top of all the additional costs being incurred at the JFSA trial and Worker benefits places POL in an extremely dire financial position.

There is certainly one implied term missing – POL ARE IN DIRE STRAITS…..

Shame on you Paula Vennells

Paula Vennells award of a CBE continues to bother me significantly for many reasons, but one is that when you are nominated for an award and the panel approves it, you still have to go through the formal process of accepting it.   In accepting the award Paula not only acknowledges the work she has done in the past that has led to the nomination but also affirms to the panel that she has no knowledge of any possible misdemeanours or unsavoury acts of hers that may come to prominence in the future.    In her situation she may very well believe that to be the case and that would tie in with her board’s decision to challenge the JFSA Group Litigation Order.  However she is certainly not party to any knowledge of what the court may decide in March and beyond but she MUST be aware that findings against her would lead to significant disgrace, humiliation and of course the sack, notwithstanding possible criminal charges.

The right thing in her position would be at least to advise the awards panel that while the trial is in progress she feels unable to accept the award.  Of course if this admission were to be made public (which it would have to be now) that could be an embarrassment in its own right but she has chosen not to do this.

On the other hand, there is a body of widely respected figures, who sit on the Criminal Case Review Commission, who have decided in their wisdom to wait until the trial decisions are handed down (it is inconceivable now that they will not adjourn their decisions until after the Horizon Trial in March).  While the delay in reaching their decision is very regrettable and requires further investigation why it took so long, nevertheless I can understand their position.  However the very slim chance that the outcome of the Horizon trial will have a significant effect on their final decision is not worth considering and Paula Vennells must now know for God’s sake, that with the evidence produced in court in the first trial, there is absolutely no doubt that criminal behaviour took place within her organisation in order to secure convictions.

Paula – it is done and dusted.  The very least you can do is to delay acceptance of the award until after the trial is over and the CCRC have confirmed they are returning the convictions to the Appeal Court.  Your organisation has let you down and you have let yourself down by not getting to the bottom of it.  You don’t deserve an award for ignorance.  The establishment doesn’t deserve the embarrassment you are about to bring upon them and most importantly the subpostmasters and their families whose lives you have ruined and whose claims are about to be affirmed in court do not deserve to see you be recognised for abject failure.

Shame on you….

Awarding the Truth?

In my last blog post I questioned whether or not Paula Vennells was really seeking the truth and as a conversation starter I gave her the benefit of doubt.  Since then I have been privy to some more ‘inside knowledge’ of not only what is about to be made public in the forthcoming trial in March but also what she must surely be aware of.   This places extreme doubt on the connotations I drew from my previous piece that she has been misled for some time by her subordinates.

There can be only two conclusions now to be drawn.  Either she is complicit in the deceit or is downright incompetent.  If she was complicit in the deceit then her acceptance of the CBE leaves many more questions to be answered because she surely knows that she will be ‘found out’ in due course.  If there is one man I would bet my life on at the moment to get to the real truth behind all of this it is Justice Fraser and surely she realises this.  But then again maybe she is not only deceitful but incompetent at the same time.

There are no excuses.  Ignorance of what has transpired proves incompetence and complicity proves criminal behaviour.  A reward for her behaviour is astounding but with the acknowledgement that those that offered it have no insight – yet – of what has transpired within the post office.  Perhaps the reward is some token gesture for her having returned the Post Office to profit after all these years?  Well close down the network and stick three billion in a savings account and you come up with a far greater return on your investment than she has achieved.   But the network has survived you say?  No it has not.  Cavender QC for Post Office Ltd has proved beyond all doubt that only incompetent and commercially naive business folk would have bought a Post Office in the last few years and only the same suitably qualified idiots would buy one in the future.  The brand has gone as has the quality of new entrants in to the network.  A brand that was once worth billions is now worthless.  Paula Vennels contribution to the demise of the High St is the only thing worthy of a reward.

But let me get back to ignorance for a bit.  Paula Vennels is not ignorant.  She just refuses to listen to those who have been trying to tell her the truth.  I am an atheist and I have no doubt that she would not enter into any discussion or argument if I put forward my notion that there is no God.   Neither of us could prove our points with evidence and we would dismiss each other’s point of view out of hand.  I accept that.

But I have personally advised her, with stunning evidence, that her version of the truth is at odds with reality.  She has even encouraged me to provide more evidence so not entirely discounting my arguments immediately yet in the long term reverts to the party line of there not being any faults in her company.  Surely some doubt has arisen over the years yet she has made no attempt to personally investigate and find the truth for herself which makes me question how she became so religious.  Did she just believe what she was told?  And now as a reverend she is telling others what to believe despite not being able to provide evidence to support her opinion.

The conundrum of my last post though, whether or not Paula was actually seeking the truth, is superceded by the one question that will answer nearly all our concerns, why were the very people who were employed by POL to seek out the truth, Second Sight, sacked when their job was only half done and the truth that they revealed was becoming more and more unpleasant?  Paula Vennells was surely involved in that decision to fire them.  If the truth hurts so much why on earth has Paula Vennells accepted an award that will only have to be returned in disgrace?

 

Post Office Trial. What is the truth?

It is fair to say I think that the coverage of this trial in the mainstream press as well as social media has been a bit one sided.   Nick Wallis’s live coverage of the trial via a twitter feed plus the fact that the evidential documents he has obtained have been published for all to see, has allowed commentators like myself to establish and communicate opinions that are not entirely unbiased.  I make no bones about the fact that while I want the Post Office network to eventually flourish, that has to be under new management and a new ethos regarding the relationship between the company and the subpostmaster community.  I believe the outcome of this trial will be a catalyst for that change and I am hopeful of a just verdict in favour of the claimants.

Nick Wallis has endeavoured to maintain a neutral reporting stance and in that regard has repeatedly (I am led to believe) encouraged both Post Office Ltd (POL) and the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP) who are broadly supportive of POL’s case in this trial, to respond with comments that he can publish alongside the commentary of others.   Both parties have issued short statements to the effect that they cannot comment while the trial is ongoing but stand by their position with regard to the claims made by the Appellants.

By restricting themselves in this way I believe that POL and the NFSP are doing themselves an injustice because in some instances the documents that have been published can be misconstrued and harm can be done to their side of the argument if these, perhaps misinterpreted, documents and/or published comments on them are not publicly refuted.

So in the interests of fair play can I for once take a contrarian opinion to my more well known stance of criticising the role Paula Vennells (CEO of POL) has played in all of this and provide what I consider a better interpretation of what has become a rather infamous email chain that has been published as evidence for the claimants.  https://www.scribd.com/document/393804483/Bates-v-Post-Office-Paula-Vennells-email-chain

This is the sequence of emails originating from an internal POL email Ms Vennells sent to Mark Davies (then head of marketing) and Lesley Sewell (then chief information officer) where she asked them for assistance with possible replies to potential questions that were likely to come up in a forthcoming Government Select Committee hearing https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/business-innovation-and-skills/news/oral-ev-post-office-mediation-01/

There appears to me, on social media at least, an interpretation of misdemeanour on Ms Vennells’ part in looking for an answer to be provided to her that would enable her to deflect questions from the Select Committee if asked whether or not POL could access Horizon remotely (I think it safe to assume that she was referring, in her email, to accusations made public that POL could remotely interfere with branch accounts and which POL had repeatedly denied).

I don’t think that interpretation is correct.  If anything I take some encouragement from what Ms Vennells actually asked because it serves to explain in a small way perhaps, her attitude to the persistent claims made by subpostmasters that there is definitely a problem with Horizon.

Ms Vennells is the CEO of POL.  She cannot be expected to delve into the minutiae of every complaint that is received by POL and in particular complaints levelled against such a sophisticated system such as Horizon.   She has to be reliant on her subordinates to establish the circumstances and the merits of the complaints and report back to her the significance of their findings.  Having said that, not only must she take ultimate responsibility should her support staff be unable to accurately determine the true circumstances, she is totally responsible for having employed them in to their positions in the first place.

Complaints about Horizon are not new.  Since it was first introduced in 2000 there are ongoing instances of problems with both the hardware and software components of the system.   Ms Vennells must have been aware from an early stage in her career at POL that this was a very important issue and any evidence to suggest Horizon is unreliable would cause an existential threat to the business model that POL currently and historically work under where much of the financial transaction risk is passed to the subpostmaster network.  Ms Vennells’ opinion on the reliability of the system must be significantly influential then on her determination to fight these allegations in court.  I think it is fair to say that she accepts what has been told to her as being the truth by her management colleagues.

My point then, about this chain of emails, starts with her opening question:

1) “Is it possible to access the system remotely? We are told it is”  (the possible question from the select committee)

And Ms Vennells then asks:  “What is the true answer?”

My interpretation of the email chain stops here.  She is asking her colleagues for the truth. Nothing more and nothing less.   What her colleagues did after that in reply is clearly open to interpretation but I leave that for others to do and speculate on.  However, considering the question she has put, surely there is some doubt now in her reliance on what has been told to her in the past.

Ms Vennells joined POL in a senior position, in 2007.  This email chain is from 2015 when she is now the CEO and she is now (8 years later) asking for the truth to be told.  I am sure if the answer she received had not been the one she was expecting she would have been angry, but I am just as certain she would have told the Select Committee the answer she received regardless of any potential personal humiliation she would have encountered.

For me, I think this question of hers “What is the true answer?” is crucial in understanding what has gone wrong inside POL.  The perception of truth is based on who you ask what the truth is.  As Socrates pointed out:

I went to the artisans, for I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought they knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom

Perhaps Ms Vennells, albeit as long ago as 2015, is beginning to realize that while her ‘Artisans’ are supplying her with what they believe to be the truth, the actual truth belongs to the claimants and that she has been misled, not deliberately perhaps, but misled all the same for some considerable time.

 

Does the truth hurt?

When Seema Misra stood in the dock at the Crown Court in Guildford on Monday 11th October 2010, she was expecting justice to be seen, to be heard and to be done, and when that happened she would be found not guilty of theft.   Eleven days later, when the jury returned to deliver their verdict of Guilty, albeit after lengthy deliberations, it was abundantly clear to everyone surely other than the Jury that justice had not been served.   In a criminal case, it must be proven beyond reasonable doubt, that Seema had stolen the amount that was missing.   No evidence was put to the court that proved anything other than a shortage in the accounts of West Byfleet Post Office existed.

Even the Judge in his summing up commented on the fact that despite investigations, with freely provided access to her assets by Seema, there was no evidence of any inexplicable expenditure.  No evidence was provided to support the concept put forward by Post Office Ltd that the missing amount was physical cash.   Yes, it could be said, her defence was extremely weak, but she clearly had no idea where the missing amount was either.  If she could have proven that then she would have had no case to answer.

It is possible, even probable, that the amount that went missing was down to inexperience in running a Post Office and that under the terms of her contract she was liable to pay Post Office the amount of the discrepancy, but the point is that that is a DEBT not THEFT.  The discrepancy could also have been the result of an error in Horizon and the prosecution made a very distinct point to the jury which I am certain eliminated that possibility from their thinking.  They said that if there had been an error in Horizon Ms Misra would have certainly noticed it.   Totally and utterly absurd.   Under what circumstances could Post Office Ltd possibly bring a prosecution for a criminal offence against a subpostmaster whose defence questioned the efficacy of the computer system they were forced to use, when they knew perfectly well that errors had existed in the system from day one of its rollout that the majority of subpostmasters had failed to notice?

And that is the real question this trial needs to answer.

I have really struggled with coming up with possible reasons why this has happened, until recently.

A comment was made about one of the key witnesses in Seema’s trial.  A person who had met him, suggested he found him to be likeable and a man of great integrity.  No possibility then that this witness had deliberately set out to deceive the court, but on the other hand he could only answer the questions that were put to him.  I would add to that a personal opinion, that over the years I have had dealings with Post Office Ltd staff from top to bottom, and with only one exception (mentioned in a previous blog post) I have found them to be really nice people who clearly share the same love of the Post Office network that I do.

I would say that the majority of Post Office Ltd employees don’t just tow the party line; they believe the party line to be true.  I was there in that position too.  I really believed that there were no problems with Horizon and if and when errors occurred POL would fix them and make sure I didn’t lose out too.   The trouble with that scenario is that there is no-one, it seems, within Post Office Ltd that questions the now quite obvious problems with what they perceive to be the truth.

That premise though leads to a conundrum that I have only just remembered exists (I am a bit slow on the uptake sometimes) and it came to me after I inadvertently tweeted about it yesterday.  If everybody in POL, from Tim Parker down, really believes in the fallacy that Horizon and POL are perfect in every way, and 500+ claimants are guilty as sin then:

WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR STOPPING THE SECOND SIGHT INVESTIGATION AND WHY DID THEY DO SO?

IN LIGHT OF EVIDENCE SUBMITTED TO COURT WHY HAVE SECOND SIGHT NOT BEEN ASKED TO CONTINUE WHERE THEY LEFT OFF?

Does the truth hurt?

Answers on a postcard for those questions, hopefully the Judge will wonder this too, but I am not sure if or how the answers could be revealed in court.  Perhaps now would be a very prudent time for at least one of these ‘really nice people’ to start questioning the truth as they perceive it and shed a little light on what is actually happening in the murky waters surrounding Horizon and the desperately  unfair treatment dished out to Subpostmasters.