Friday 16 November 2018

Bates v Post Office: The NFSP

A seagull's thoughts on the NFSP sign outside their Shoreham-by-Sea HQ

Some comment on an ongoing issue which was highlighted on Day 6 of Bates v Post Office (see the write-up here).

If ever there has been an organisation which has utterly failed its members, it is the National Federation of Subpostmasters, the only "union" the Post Office will recognise.

I remember years ago talking to a Private Eye journalist (in the context of the Post Office's Horizon IT system) about the IT cock-up stories they have run down the years. I asked where they got their information about these public- sector IT disasters. He said, "the unions."

The journalist told me it was never whistleblowers within the IT companies who delivered these programmes, it was membership organisations, who, hearing the complaints of their frontline staff, got these stories into the public domain.

For as long as I can remember, the NFSP's position has always been that when it comes to Horizon, the Post Office can do no wrong. The moment any Subpostmaster claims something has gone screwy, the NFSP hangs them out to dry. That is a matter of policy. And that was before the NFSP was thrown out of the trades union movement and legally stopped from calling itself a union.

Why, though? To be fair, George Thomson, General Secretary of the NFSP when he gave evidence to the parliamentary select committee back in 2015, was pretty transparent. He told MPs:
"We have to be careful that we are not creating a cottage industry that damages the brand and makes clients like the DWP and the DVLA think twice. We do £350 million a week. We pay out £18 billion a year for the DWP in Government benefits. The DWP would not have re-awarded the Post Office card account contract, which pays out £18 billion a year, in the last month if they thought for a minute that this computer system was not reliable. 
"I understand that Mark [Baker the CWU rep for Subpostmasters], for the right reasons, has genuine feelings about it, and Andy [Furey also from the CWU] has as well. But if we are not careful, we damage the brand, we damage the franchise and we cost my members’ ability to sell the franchise. If we lose big contracts, Andy’s members lose their jobs as well. So we have to be careful that we do not create a cottage industry that is built on supposition."
George Thomson's argument is self-evident. If we start querying the effectiveness of Horizon, how do his members, when they want to retire or move on, sell their business to the next Subpostmaster who wants to take over? Public doubt over the integrity of Horizon devalues the value of the entire business.

But the logic is...  if a few Subpostmasters get suspended, sacked and lose their livelihoods because of what they are saying is problems with the Horizon system... it is a price the NFSP are prepared to pay to retain the value of a branch Post Office for the majority of Subpostmasters who haven't tripped up yet.

This is really important because the Post Office are always keen to draw attention to the fact that the "independent" NFSP supports the Post Office on Horizon. And it has made this explicit in it's opening submission to court on Day 1 of the trial:
"it should be noted that the National Federation of Subpostmasters (“NFSP”), which is the organisation which represents SPMs and their interests nationwide, does not support this action and does not endorse the factual premises of the Claims."
If you are in any doubt about the nature of the relationship between the NFSP and the Post Office, take a look at this - it is the current Grant Funding agreement between the NFSP and the Post Office signed in 2015, which sets out the way in which the Post Office will fund pays for the NFSP's existence and gives it a £1m special projects slush fund to boot.

This agreement is posted on the NFSP website, and was drafted by the same firm representing the Post Office in court today:

5.3  The NFSP shall not engage in the following activities or behaviours:
  1. 5.3.1  undertaking any public activity which may prevent POL from implementing any of its initiatives, policies or strategies;
  2. 5.3.2  undertaking or inducing a third party to undertake media or political campaigns against POL;
  3. 5.3.3  organising or inducing a third party to organise public demonstrations, protests or petitions against POL;
  4. 5.3.4  organising or inducing a third party to organise boycotts of POL's business;
  5. 5.3.5  funding or inducing any third party litigation against POL; and
  6. 5.3.6  other activities or behaviour the effect of which may be materially detrimental to POL.

I would suggest that if you are a Subpostmaster, and you read that, and you still expect the NFSP to represent your interests, you are fool.

If you want some kind of idea about how important Horizon is to the Post Office's business model, take a read of this document, which was discussed in court on Monday.

It is a chain of emails from 2010 about Pam Stubbs, the second Lead Claimant to take the stand in this trial. Mrs Stubbs, a Subpostmaster who didn't have any problems with Horizon until her terminal was moved to a temporary cabin, is being held liable for sudden, inexplicable negative discrepancies showing up on her terminal.

Look at the language in these emails. From Mrs Stubbs' testimony, no one at the Post Office has given a monkeys about the problems she is having. But now, it seems, from their own documents, they do, because she is questioning the integrity of Horizon.

Mrs Stubbs didn't see any of this until it was disclosed to court. Here are a few select quotes:

"This branch has a very large loss which the spmr is attributing to Horizon. We have already had one Flag case on this and this will remain high profile so the data does need to be retrieved."

"What we're trying to determine here is whether there is any discrepancy between the information sent in to the Live Service team by the spmr, Mrs Stubbs, and what the Horizon system is showing. She is alleging that her losses of £28k+ are due to problems with the Horizon system after it was relocated into a portacabin last October whilst the branch was being renovated."

"This is quickly turning into a bit of a problem.
This is a potential fraud where losses occurred when a spmr moved into a portacabin, but ceased the moment she was suspended and somebody else run the office. She did have a clerk, so it could transpire she has nothing to do with the losses. We are talking about £28k, a potential flag case, with MP's involved. The spmr is questioning the integrity of Horizon.
It looks like contracts/Chesterfield dealt with this themselves, although did speak to investigations. Once I received the paper work from Nigel, it looks like there are numerous activities that have taken place, including somebody sending in an auditor who sat with the spmr for half a day which clearly made matters worse.
I don't know why we were never approached to deal with this as a criminal investigation in the first instance, perhaps it was felt that it wasn't at the time. The auditor supposedly witness all transactions for half a day and witness Horizon being short, thereby corroborating her account and also now a potential witness for her... this is high profile. She has also joined the spmr's fight to question the integrity of Horizon. As it stands no investigation has taken place by us, various intervention has probably complicated this, yet because it is a question of Horizon integrity we can't simply ignore it, or drop it, but probably have some difficult questions ahead of us in terms of why has it taken so long for us to consider this criminal if this is the course of action we take."

It's all here if you want to read the original:

On Horizon, the NFSP and the Post Office are one and the same. It is their business model.

Once a Subpostmaster takes on a Post Office, their entire exit strategy is dependent on the belief that  Horizon works and the Post Office will do the right thing by them.

And let's be clear, Horizon works for most Subpostmasters most of the time.

The problems arise when someone has a problem with Horizon. That's when they allege they are pushed over the battlements into a crocodile-infested moat. With all the shocks to the system that entails.

I have asked the NFSP for their comments. I will let you know what they say when they respond.