Thursday, January 3, 2019

A union man writes: '"Be careful", he said to me as he left.'

As part of a series of guest blog posts (all submissions gratefully received - go to the bottom of this post for more details), please have a read of this from Mark Baker, a union organiser and postmaster in Wiltshire. Mark has been campaigning for decades, but this is his first ever blog post, so be gentle on him!

The Union man's view

Mark Baker
"Despite the title this is not an official CWU blog post, its just my own views on what I have witnessed, first hand, in my role as a trade union representative for Subpostmasters, over the years that the whole sorry Horizon saga has played out.

I have worked in the postal industry now for 41 years. I started as a postman in 1978 in Worthing (my home town) but quickly became a Postal Officer and worked at the Crown Post Office Counter in Worthing.

I joined the CWU (UPW in those days) as soon as I started working as a postman and stayed a member during my time working at the Crown Post Office. I served as the Branch Secretary for the clerical grades.

In 1988 I left employment by the Crown Post Office and with my wife (who I met whilst working on the Counter at Worthing Post Office) purchased our own Sub Post Office in Larkhill on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. 

Our branch is the closest Post Office to Stonehenge. Larkhill is the home of the Royal School of Artillery and supporting regiments. We are to receive many more regiments during 2019 as the troops based in Germany all return to the UK. Larkhill will end up being the third largest Garrison in the UK. In fact Mrs Wallis (Nick’s Mum) was a schoolteacher at the local school and a regular customer of ours. [Ed's note: she was! I only found this out years later...]

31 years on my wife and I still run Larkhill Post Office and although we have witnessed many changes in the Post Office world we still love running the branch. But for the first time in those 31 years I have grave concerns about the future of the Post Office as one of Britain's great institutions.

How did we get in such a state?

Primary blame has to lie with the government. Over the decades the government has slowly lost interest in the Post Office and viewed it as an expensive irrelevance, but successive administrations have been scared of the affection the public had for the traditions post office. So began a slow weaning-off process which has taken the last 30 years to complete. The government has now reached a point where it has successfully shifted the cost of providing a network of 11,500 branches away from public subsidy and onto the backs of the Subpostmasters that make up the network.

The government has taken away most of the work it once provided for the network to perform, separated the network from the Royal Mail and sold the latter off. This has left the network with a decrepit Horizon system which has not been kept updated. It is only in the last couple of years that the network was moved off Windows NT as an operating system, an OS Microsoft stopped supporting decades ago!!

New software and hardware upgrades have arrived but not without problems, and these problems have, without question, caused some Postmasters losses in their accounts.

Now the whole sorry saga is about to blow up in all our faces and it will fall to ministers to provide the solution to what is, currently, a corporate basket-case.

A large slice of the blame also has to lie with the Post Office themselves along with the National Federation of Sub Postmasters [NFSP]. Within the Postmaster community these two organisations are known as POLFed - they have become one in the eyes of most Postmasters and therein lies the biggest reason why the Post Office finds itself in the High Court.

Lack of Sub Postmaster representation!

Throughout my post office career I have always played a role in representing my fellow Postmasters when trouble occurred.

When I first became a Postmaster in 1988 I was urged to join the NFSP. This was not a problem for me - it was a registered Trade Union just like the CWU (which I had recently left).

The NFSP functioned well in those days. It had very few non-members within the Postmaster community as the NFSP was very effective in representing its members with the Post Office when contractual discipline was brought to bear. 

The NFSP also was relatively successful in securing pay increases for Postmasters, it was highly regarded by MPs and recognised as the voice of Postmasters (sadly this bit is still the case today).

I became a Branch Secretary for the Salisbury Branch of the NFSP in 1996 and then I was elected as the national representative for the South West Region and took up my place on the Executive Council of the NFSP in 2000.

It was upon joining the exec I sensed things were not right. The NFSP looked like a trade union, it has rules like a trade union but there was this relationship between the executive of the NFSP and the Post Office that didn’t seem to sit well. 

It certainly wasn’t the kind of relationship I had experienced when I was a member of the CWU. There was a reluctance to challenge the Post Office. Conference motions to seek change brought by members were watered down by the exec if this meant rising up against the Post Office. I tried to change this conduct and became very unpopular with other exec members. In particular the then General Secretary made no secret of his feelings for my approach to representation.

A new digital dawn

I remember the day the exec were informed that the way in which our members prepared their cash accounts and sold the Post Office products and services was to change for ever. Gone was our handwritten ledgers in which we recorded our sales etc and in came a computer system called Horizon. Nothing would be the same ever again.

I remember complaining to the exec that by moving control of our cash ledger onto a computer meant that we were no longer in control of our accounts and that a new contract would have to be drawn up to reflect these new ways of working. This was quickly poo-poohed by my fellow exec members - encouraged by the General Secretary. There was a kind of “we must not look a gift horse in the mouth” euphoria about this new piece of kit. It was the future.

The reports of mis-balancing and Postmaster suspensions soon started. I admit I was ill-equipped to deal with a member who swore blind that they had not lost the Post Office’s money and that it must have been the Horizon system.

This was a new experience for me in my representational role. My other exec members just shrugged their collective shoulders and scoffed, how could it be the computer? Computers don’t make mistakes. The Postmaster must have made a mistake, or worse - they or their staff had stolen the "missing" money.

I couldn’t accept that attitude. I had friends in the military who worked in the IT field. I was also at that time elected as a County Councillor for Wiltshire and was appointed a cabinet member. One of my portfolios was IT. This put me in contact with all the county IT experts. They explained the various ways in which a computer could lose data and mis-report. A military officer friend of mine came to have a look at Horizon in my branch soon after it was installed to see it for himself. He was underwhelmed.

He told me it was just a networked collection of computer terminals, albeit on a national scale, and as such the network would have a series of administrators, all of whom will have certain powers of access to my personal branch terminal. 

"Be careful" he said to me as he left.  He had confirmed my fear that my cash account was no longer in my control.

Horizon heresy

The years rolled on, and the suspensions and dismissals from service of Postmasters who claimed that they had not been the cause of the shortages found in their branch grew and grew. It was getting routine.

To criticise Horizon had become heresy. People who did were rounded on, laughed at or worse, branded as thieves.

I became the only exec member who would put up a defence for a fellow Subpostmaster rather than defending Horizon. But I was flogging a dead horse. The Contracts Managers I dealt with didn’t understand Horizon. Most had never operated the system, so when i started to explain how it might be possible for the system to have caused a shortage their eyes would glaze over.

They were trained to read the contract literally and the contract said the Postmaster was responsible to pay back losses so pay back losses they must (and be sacked for losing the money in the first place). However I did have some successes defending members and the more I leaned about Horizon the more doubt I was able to throw on its infallibility.

I think some Contract Managers by then had heard of Horizons failings but were too scared to speak out. The problem was and is: the Subpostmaster contract was never written to reflect a computerised accounting system.

In the late 2000s, Horizon changed from an in-branch computer system performing and calculating all the transactions on its hard drive and uploading the accounts once a week, to an online system where transactions were performed in real time and stored on a remote data centre. We know this system today as HOL. Horizon Online.

This change has created even more discrepancies for Postmasters. Transactional data got lost or destroyed as it travelled over this vast network of ADSL lines and data centres.

I have spent years studying the science of SDC (Silent Data Corruption). I am not an IT expert nor do I hold any IT qualifications but I have spoken to enough qualified people and read numerous articles that all show that SDC is a known phenomena within the Data Storage Industry. If you do not maintain and protect your communication infrastructure from the beginning to the end of the journey you expect data to travel over then you should not be surprised if data gets lost or destroyed.

Most of the cases I have defended I can pin down to SDC. This is not to say these are the only issues with Horizon. There are coding issues (ie bad code inserted over the years). There is also the appalling training and support regime and the shoddy way in which the front-end of Horizon is laid out with icons in poor locations etc. 

There is no one single source of losses being caused to Postmasters and I will include theft by the Postmaster himself (or by his staff), but in my experience theft cases are infrequent. The biggest cause of losses are attributable to the Horizon system and the many different things that can go wrong with it.

The Great Betrayal

In 2010 the Network Transformation programme was announced. The great betrayal of the NFSP's members was about to commence. I could write another blog on what actually happened but suffice to say I would have no part in this once proud and well-respected organisation, betraying its members and selling them out for self-enrichment. I resigned.

I approached my old union, the CWU, and asked the then General Secretary Billy Hayes if he would agree to form a section within the Union for Postmasters to join. Billy agreed and I have spent the last 8 years building up the membership of the CWU Postmasters Branch against fierce resistance from both the Post Office and the NFSP. 

The Post Office and the NFSP have been very successful in poisoning the minds of Postmasters against joining the CWU. But in recent months alongside the advent of the High Court litigation the lightbulbs are slowly beginning to flicker on in the minds of Postmasters. They realise that they have been hoodwinked over where their interests were best served when it comes to representation.

It is now common knowledge that the Post Office fully funds the NFSP following the NFSP being struck off as a trade union in 2013. The legality of the manner in which the Post Office funds the NFSP is questionable. The funding is set at £2.5 million per annum over the next 15 years by way of a Public Authority Grant. The Government heavily regulates how grants are given within the public sector, and in my opinion the Post Office are in breach of these regulations. Something that has attracted the attention of Mr Justice Fraser.

A feature of the grant funding agreement between the Post Office and the NFSP is a condition that the NFSP must not do anything which undermines the policies of the Post Office.

The pretence is no longer disguised. The NFSP is bought and paid for by the Post Office and is being used to protect the Post Office as evidenced in the NFSP support for the Post Office position in the High Court litigation. [Ed: I think they've clarified their position to say the NFSP is neutral.]

What now?

I have every confidence in the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance [JFSA] being successful in their litigation. Alan Bates and the entire JFSA group are modern-day heroes

They have never given up, despite facing deep resistance and the even deeper pockets of the taxpayer-funded Post Office. They have done all this alone, with no Union supporting them, and no NFSP supporting them. Just a small group of innocent Postmasters determined to have their say in court.

There will be justice for them. But what next for the Post Office?

One thing that has to change is the removal of the NFSP from any form of Postmaster representational role. Their funding must be stopped. This is where I see a role for the CWU to play. As I said at the beginning of this post, this litigation would have never have happened if a proper trade union was allowed to represent Postmasters.

The Post Office have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that Postmasters do not receive independent trade union representation. The Post Office have banned the CWU from representing Postmasters.

In my opinion what is required to move forward is something like the truth and reconciliation forum rather like we saw in South Africa following the collapse of the Apartheid regime. The guilty must be removed, and where appropriate criminally prosecuted. Then a new purpose must be found for the Post Office with a new system running it.

I would advocate a form of mutualisation with Postmasters and front-line personnel playing a meaningful role in the management of a new organisation fit for the future. And I see the CWU being the facilitator for such a recovery.

Conclusion

David Cavender QC, lead counsel for the Post Office in the Bates and others vs Post Office common issues trial declared to the court that the JFSA litigation represented an existential threat to the Post Office business model.

Well I have a view on this. What this litigation does represent an existential threat to is the careers of the people who make up the corporate structure of both the Post Office and the NFSP. These people have acted in a draconian way and have given no thought whatsoever to the lives they have ruined and in some cases ended. These people must be singled out and removed. As for the Post Office business model yes the litigation does represent an existential threat to it. But that’s a good thing. 

Thank you for reading this.

Mark Baker"

What an epic post! I hope you enjoyed it. Many thanks to Mark for writing it. Mark says if any Subpostmasters want to join the Postmasters branch of the CWU, click on this link:  https://www.cwu.org/join-us/join-online/  and select the Subpostmaster EMP option when asked.

If you have a view and/or an interest in the Horizon story or the ongoing group litigation and would like to write a post for this blog (don't worry - it doesn't have to be as long as Mark's), please get in touch using the message form on the right hand column of this PostOfficeTrial website.

In fact - if you'd like to get in touch about anything - it doesn't have a to be a blog post - please use the messaging form. The messages go direct to my phone and computer and I read every single one.

Many thanks

Nick