Saturday, May 25, 2019

Pete Murray Part 4: "You'd better get yourself a lawyer"

Pete outside his Hope Farm Road branch
This is part four of Pete Murray's story. It brings us up to May 2019. Pete has been Subpostmaster of Grove Road Post Office in Wallasey since 2013 and Hope Farm Road in Great Sutton since 2014. Hope Farm Road's previous incumbent sadly killed himself after being hounded by the Post Office for inexplicable discrepancies which kept appearing at his branch.

Pete was suspended in November 2018 after auditors discovered a £35,000 discrepancy at Hope Farm Road branch. He had been asking for help for the best part of two years leading up to their visit.  Pete's contract manager is Paul Williams, and it was Mr Williams who suspended Pete in November.

Part one of Pete's story was written in Dec 2018 ("The Post Office claim I owe them £35,000, despite never showing or telling me what I have done wrong.")

Part two was written on 29 January 2019 ("What kind of games are you playing with human beings' lives?").

Part three was written on 30 January 2019: ("Post Office Ltd see fit and well to treat me like this, pending an 'investigation' which appears not to be taking place.")

To summarise, when we met him last in part three, Pete was desperate. Suspended without pay for three months, losing retail and counter income over Christmas, the recipient of legal threats from the Post Office's lawyers and an unforgivable lack of communication from the Post Office itself. This is part 4 of Pete's story in his own words:

"After my email to Paul Williams dated 29 Jan demanding to know what was going on, and why things were taking so long, I still didn’t get a meaningful reply, just an acknowledgment from Paula Vennells' office.

But on Friday 15 February, I received a phone call from a man whose name I forget, but I think his first name was Dave. Dave was a Post Office auditor.

He was very pleasant, and completely understanding of the choice words I used about how I had been treated and ignored by Post Office.

Dave told me that he would be coming to Grove Road the following Wednesday 20 Feb to get us open again.

He was also able to tell me that Hope Farm Road would be opened the following week, on Thursday 28 Feb. I was being unsuspended!

On the Mon 18 Feb I received a call out of the blue from Paul Williams.

He seemed all jovial and friendly, and said he was pleased to inform me that I was to be reinstated at both offices, starting at Grove Road this coming Wednesday.

I thanked him for this, and said that I knew this already, as I had already heard from the auditor who was coming to Grove Road last Friday.

He seemed quite put out when he said that he had only just been informed that morning.

I went to see the property manager of the shopping precinct at Hope Farm Road to tell him the good news.

He confided in me that his bosses, the directors of the company that owns the precinct, instructed him to start proceedings to evict me from their property, and that the reason that he did not was because a good friend of his wife is a JFSA [Justice for Subpostmasters' Alliance] member and one of the Postmasters currently embroiled in the legal action against the Post Office. If that has not been the case, I would also have been kicked out and have legal expenses there too.

Wed 20 Feb came around and I spent the day in Grove Road with ‘Dave’ stocking me back in. By the end of the day we were good to go.

Everything went fine after Dave left, except for when I tried to open the Health Lottery function on Horizon. It didn't work. A pop-up notice said to call the helpline. So I did. The helpline told me to contact the Health Lottery. I contacted the Health Lottery, and the guy went on hold for ten minutes.

When he came back he said "all I can find out is that your Health Lottery terminals have been shut down. It says they have been disabled at both your offices".

The famous Post Office Horizon training regime

My wife went back into Grove Road on Thursday 21 Feb and I was preparing to re-open Hope Farm Road.

At my review meeting in January Paul Williams and Mark Baker (the CWU Subpostmasters national organiser) agreed I should receive a week of proper extra training on Horizon before going back into the branch to make up for my initial lack of training.

Shortly after telling me I was to be reinstated, the Post Office informed me that two days training would be enough.

A few days before my training started I got a call from an auditor. Let's call her Sara. It was Sara's job to get me trained up, re-stocked, audited and ready to re-open at Hope Farm Road.

During the call Sara told me on the two days I was booked in for training, she should be on annual leave. She had hair and MOT appointments to deal with - could she come late and go early?

So my week of intense re-training was shortened to just two days by the Post Office and each of those two days shortened to under 4 hours by the auditor.

Sara came, did the training, and on the day we reopened she did a stock count, remming the Christmas Stamps in and out again (we’d received Christmas stock the day before my suspension back in November 2018, so it had never been remmed in).

"You'd better get yourself a lawyer."

Whilst chatting in the branch that morning, a few things came up. I pointed out how the lady from the Post Office who sat in on my review meeting had told me it was Post Office policy not to send people out to help Subpostmasters when they were having problems with Horizon.

Sara said "well, that’s a load of rubbish, it’s what I do every day. I go into branches to help them find problems".

I said "I have been asking for help and it hasn’t come yet in any shape or form."

I didn’t hold back on how I felt about everything, and how I blame the Post Office and Paul Williams for causing me to suffer a stroke.
Not a happy Subpostmaster

Sara put on a sarcastic voice, and said "Well, you’d better get yourself a lawyer then, hadn’t you?"

This irked me just as much as the auditor who closed me down in November, who, when I pointed out that my predecessor had killed himself, snorted and said "Well I hope you don’t do that too!".

A week after Sara did the bagging up of the Christmas stock to send back, being a Wednesday and the first Wednesday since getting back in branch, I made sure to do a proper Balance Period to get my return-to-work back on the right footing. Bear in mind, after four months off without income, and being treated like a numpty by the auditors, my confidence was pretty much in tatters.

I printed off a balance snapshot and noticed that there appeared to be 1000 books of 2nd Class Christmas Stamps on my stock unit. This was just before the price increase in December, so they were worth 1,000 x £6.96 - £40 shy of £7000.

The rem bags were due to leave the next morning, so I reversed them and checked them, and the 1000 books of stamps were in there. If I hadn’t checked, a bag of stock would have gone back to bullion centre with £7000 of stock which the system thought was still part of my branch stock. Thanks Sara.

It was an easy mistake to make, but if a postmaster made it, he would held liable.

But of course, if an auditor makes a mistake, like Sara did here, the Subpostmaster has to hope he or she finds it before the inevitable happens.

I have been reliably informed by that the Christmas returns at bullion centre never get counted, as the volumes are just too great – so if I hadn’t found that stamp foul-up, I would have been a further £7k in the hole. They just don’t do ‘fair’, do they, the Post Office?

Sabotage

Whilst I was away from work, it came to light that despite having administrator rights on Google Maps to my post office locations, someone had managed to edit my Post Office listing at Hope Farm Road on Google Maps as ‘Permanently Closed’, which I fixed.

Then someone changed it back to 'Permanently Closed'. I had to log in and change them back again.

Once I returned to work, I received a call from a Google canvasser. I asked them how someone else could mark my business as permanently closed, but they had no idea.

Worse than that, after I was suspended someone at the Post Office COMPLETELY REMOVED both of my post offices from the Post Office, Royal Mail and Parcel Force websites. It goes without saying that since reopening, both of my businesses are now performing at a fraction of the rate that they did before I was shut down.

My Health Lottery buttons still don't work. I also have no Pay Station. I asked the auditor to supply me with an adaptor to connect it to the Post Office line, since my private phone line for internet, which I had the Pay Station on, had been cut due to non-payment. Pay Station also refused to send out an adaptor, so I have no Pay Station anymore. I am turning away even more customers each day. The business is completely decimated, and I just do not want to be there!

My customers are asking me ‘Why are the Post Office trying to shut you down?” and I have to say it really does look like that.

Road to nowhere

I got new passports for my children at the end of last year. We should have been in Vietnam during the Easter holidays, to visit their grandparents. It would be their first time back since we moved to UK in 2011.

Of course, having your pay removed and your retail business killed, whilst having to pay rent and rates put paid to that trip. They had been telling their friends they were going to Vietnam, and then we didn’t go – not fair to them either, is it?

My wife and I have invested tens of thousands of pounds and work hours into these two businesses. I recently was offered another job, but I couldn't take it because I am saddled with this Post Office. During my review meeting in January, Paul Williams told me that if I were to try to sell or transfer Grove Road Post Office, it would be downgraded from a mains to a local because transactions have fallen below 1000 per week. This would make my branch worthless.

It gets me down, and I really don’t want to come here every morning (well, ever again, actually) but I have no choice as I have to generate income to pay the bills.

The creeping suspicion that Mr Williams may not be very good at his job

Paul Williams has suspended me twice, once when he was an auditor and last November as my contract manager. Both times it has been shown to have been wrong.

The first time, it was overturned by my (then) contract manager when it became clear mistakes I was making with my ATM was down to a lack of training.

This second time my suspension was overturned by someone senior to Mr Williams (I have never been told who) but the Post Office is still withholding my pay, not to mention the fact that we were closed down over Christmas, having already bought Christmas stock to sell in our retail sections, so all that income was denied us too, whilst still paying rent and rates on two properties.

When Justice Fraser announced that the contract the Post Office have with us is illegal and unfair [see exactly which parts of the contract he considers unlawful here], I contacted HR by telephone, asking that all my illegally deducted pay would be now paid to me, since the judge has spoken.

The people there said that this would have to go to Mr Williams. Three weeks passed and finally a letter came from Mr Williams dated 18 April, saying that they were looking into my case and would get back to me, notifying me "no further deductions from fees [ie Pete's pay] will be taken during the investigation".

That was over a month ago and I have heard nothing more since. It seems that the Post Office culture is to just divert blame until it sticks on a postmaster, then go for the jugular.

The Post Office also still say I owe them £35,000. I don't know how that's going to get sorted, but I know who really should be in prison, and it isn’t any Postmaster!"

The Post Office tell me they do not comment on individual cases.

You can read part 1 of Pete's story here: "The Post Office claim I owe them £35,000, despite never showing or telling me what I have done wrong."
You can read part 2 of Pete's story here: "What kind of games are you playing with human beings' lives?"
You can read part 3 of Pete's story here: "Post Office Ltd see fit and well to treat me like this, pending an 'investigation' which appears not to be taking place."

*******************
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"Post Office Ltd see fit and well to treat me like this, pending an 'investigation' which appears not to be taking place."

Pete Murray outside Hope Farm Road Post Office
This is part three of what I am currently calling the Pete Murray trilogy. It takes us up to 30 Jan 2019.

Pete is Subpostmaster of Grove Road Post Office in Wallasey since 2013 and Hope Farm Road in Great Sutton since 2014. He was suspended in November 2018 after a £35,000 cash discrepancy was found at Hope Farm Road. 

Hope Farm Road's previous incumbent sadly killed himself after being hounded by the Post Office for inexplicable discrepancies which kept appearing at his branch.

Part two was written on 29 January 2019 ("What kind of games are you playing with human beings' lives?"). It is an email sent by Pete in desperation. Not just to Mr Williams, but to John Breeden*, the Head of Agency Contracts Deployment (Paul Williams' boss) and the then-Chief Executive of the Post Office, Paula Vennells.

Neither Mr Williams or Mr Breeden troubled themselves to reply, but Pete did get a response from Mrs Vennells' office, the very next day. It read:

"Dear Mr Murray,

Thank you for your email of 29 January to Paula Vennells, Chief Executive, Post Office Limited. I have been asked to reply on Ms Vennells’ behalf.


The issues you have raised are currently receiving our attention and we will be back in touch once those enquiries are completed.

Yours sincerely

Kelly Innes 
Office of the Group Chief Executive"

At last! Something to cling onto. Pete responds immediately: 

"Dear Kelly,

Thank you for your reply. I should be grateful, since it is more than I have ever had from Paul Williams by way of reply in the last 4+ years. I wonder though, how long is this going to take to reach a conclusion? It is grossly unfair, and is affecting my health and family life, not to mention I have landlords to pay rent for two currently closed Post offices, a mortgage and bills to pay for my home, and a wife and three children to feed.

This is surely not a way to find answers for problems in Horizon, after I have come to Post Office to seek help with these discrepancies, been ignored time and again by EVERY department that I have tried to contact in order to try to find the source of the problems, and as a result have been suspended and basically treated like Post Office Ltd believes that I am in some way a criminal.

For example, are you actually aware that I have had letters from the FORMER Agents' Accounting Team, and DAC Beechcroft Solicitors (headed 'Post Office Ltd vs Peter James Murray')? These came BEFORE I even got to have the meeting with Mr Williams, four weeks ago. Furthermore, I am absolutely astounded that a contract manager is allowed to take a holiday when he has several branches closed and the sub-postmasters of those branches not being paid?

This is no way to run a business, and I truly believe that I have tried every possible way to co-operate with Post Office Ltd to get answers to these issues, which, even Mr Williams said in the meeting - have only happened in one of my offices, not both - and it should also be brought to your attention that this is the very same office in which the sub-postmaster took his own life about 6 years ago, after Post Office chased him for similar mystery discrepancies.

I have already had a national newspaper making enquiries for a story - they are all too aware of the former postmaster's suicide - and the longer POL drags out this surely illegal(?) suspension, the more tempted I am feeling towards blowing the whole thing wide open and sharing the truth of this bully-boy method of management. I didn't invest tens of thousands of pounds into a business to be suspended by someone who has shown zero interest in day to day operations ever. I thought I was buying a Post Office to work WITH Post Office Ltd, but your line managers are very clearly operating in a 'them and us' mode, and treat Postmasters like absolute dirt, quite frankly.

The very fact that I have not taken a single penny from Post Office, and the fact that I have asked for help to sort it out, should have alerted Post Office Ltd to answer my cries for help and to co-operate, rather than to completely ignore all contact and demand when I am going to pay it back?

The fact that Mr Williams said some of them missing figures had been spotted on their search in Horizon would indicate, I believe, that there are entry errors, or there are data losses down the phone line, this sort of thing, which would actually indicate that the figure that Horizon is looking for is wrong, and that in turn, would actually mean that there isn't actually missing cash, and certainly not anything near the numbers that POL are demanding back from me, even if there were.

You may be aware that Wirral Conservatives, Angela Eagle, MP for Wallasey, and Justin Madders, MP for Ellesmere Port as well as well over 1000 members of the public who have signed a petition are all aware that this - now 3 month - extended closure of two very important community post offices is a completely unfair and immoral way of dealing with an administration problem.

I have made sure to tell anyone who asks that this is a problem clearly caused by Horizon, but that Post Office Ltd see fit and well to treat me like this, pending an 'investigation' which appears not to be taking place.

I would appreciate your most urgent action to re-open my offices, please, since Mr Williams doesn't seem to be remotely concerned with the urgent need to reopen them - otherwise, he would maybe have done something about it before going on holiday - something I can only dream of, due to the dire situation in which I have been put by him.

Thank you, and kind regards,

Peter Murray"

Did Mr Williams ever get in touch? Has Pete been able to reopen his branches? Are the Post Office still continuing legal action against him? Is this any way to run a business?

Find out in Part 4. Coming soon.

You can read part 2 of Pete's story here: "What kind of games are you playing with human beings' lives?"

The Post Office tell me they do not comment on individual cases.

* Just as an aside, but also as a further insight into Post Office management culture, John Breeden was a witness at the common issues trial at the High Court. His approach was found by the judge to be "PR-driven". The judge added Mr Breeden's evidence "was presented in terms obviously designed to put the best possible gloss for the Post Office on matters, and some of his statements simply did not stand scrutiny."

*******************
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If you want to find out a little bit more about the underlying story, click here.

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