|NFSP HQ, Shoreham-by-Sea
Comedy Subpostmaster "union" the National Federation of Subpostmasters has revealed its latest wheeze to Better Retailing magazine.
According to an article published on 2 Jan, the NFSP (which is funded by, and therefore effectively a department of, the Post Office) has recruited 15 retailers to run post offices through its Buy a Post Office service, and it is looking to step up this sort of activity in 2019.
Now - I would tell anyone thinking of taking on a Post Office that:
1) by doing so they are agreeing to become legally responsible for an accounting system (Horizon) they have no control over, exposing them to potentially limitless risk.
2) if things go wrong with Horizon and a financial discrepancy is reported they will have to pay it from their own pocket unless they can unequivocally prove it is the fault of an IT system they have no access to.
3) the Post Office assumes in all circumstances Horizon is infallible on the basis it is usually robust.
4) failure to make good any discrepancy could lead to termination without compensation for any lost investment or remuneration.
Obviously any organisation with a passing concern for the interests of any potential Subpostmaster would spell this out as part of their recruitment campaign.
So, a week ago, I sent the following email to the NFSP's Head of Policy and Research, Peter Hall:
Happy New Year.
I note from this story in Better Retaiing: https://www.betterretailing.com/retailers-invited-to-buy-post-offices you are helping potential new Subpostmasters buy post offices and wish to increase your marketing of this service in 2019.
The article states the NFSP gives advice on how to successfully put forward a case for taking over a branch or vacant site. It says your support includes help on writing a business plan and interview tips.
It also quotes David Gold, your retail consultant, as saying:
“We want to help retailers increase the likelihood of being able to take over a post office from a retailer who might be selling their business or retiring. One of the NFSP’s aims next year is to increase marketing of the service to raise awareness of the service to more potential retailers.”I would be grateful if you could let me know exactly how much the NFSP tells potential purchasers about the known problems with Horizon, and the risks they are exposed to once they have signed the relevant Subpostmaster contract.
Do you also make them aware they have no contractual right to an investigation of Horizon by the Post Office if things go wrong at their branch?
Explaining these risks would help the Subpostmasters when they seek legal advice about signing the contract and help them write their business plan.
Is there a specific script or written piece of advice you give them? Or is it informal? Are the problems people claim to have suffered with Horizon underplayed by Mr Gold, not mentioned at all, or discussed in great detail? Do you suggest or recommend or insist they seek legal advice before signing up?
Also - have you taken legal advice on what you should or shouldn’t tell potential Subpostmasters about the ongoing court case and the potential scale of risk they are exposing themselves to? There is no information that I can see about either of these rather important subjects on your website.
I would be most grateful if you could put me in touch with Mr Gold to find out what he is saying to potential recruits and, if they are willing, I’d be most grateful if you could pass on the numbers of the three Subpostmasters you have successfuly helped recruit so I can find out what they have been told and warned about by the NFSP (and the Post Office) before they took on their respective branches.
Please reply in the next seven days so I can publish this email and your response on postofficetrial.com
Surprisingly, I did not even receive an acknowledgement to the above email, let alone substantive a reply.
I worry the NFSP is potentially opening itself up to a legal claim if it is actively helping potential Subpostmasters write business plans without coming clean about the risks.
And I worry that potential Subpostmasters are being sold a business opportunity without being told about the potentially catastrophic effect it could have on their lives if things go wrong.
I know Mr Hall's email works because when I last posted a piece on the NFSP he issued me with a veiled threat about using the NFSP logo. He refused to comment on the actual article, but insisted I remove the NFSP logo, claiming I was in breach of copyright. This forced me to ask someone to go and take photos of the poo-splattered plaque outside the NFSP HQ in Shoreham-by-Sea and use that instead.
It's tempting to see the NFSP as a joke organisation, but it's not. Its failure to deal with the Horizon issue the way a proper representative organisation should makes it at least partially culpable for what has happened to hundreds of its former members over the last 20 years.
If it is helping recruit Subpostmasters without spelling out the risks, it is acting immorally and potentially illegally.