Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Subpostmasters take on the government!

Alan Bates, veteran campaigner and founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance
The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance has launched a crowdfunding campaign with a view to making a complaint to the parliamentary ombudsman about the behaviour of the government in essentially letting the Post Office go rogue for the last two decades.

In a circular to JFSA members, founder Alan Bates says:
"As you know, due to the terms of the Settlement Agreement we are not able to take further civil litigation action against the Post Office; however our focus presently is on the Post Office's only shareholder, the Government."
Bates says the JFSA got advice from a "specialist QC" about taking the government to court:
"His advice was that it might be possible, but it would be very expensive and we would be looking at years again, so realistically that wasn’t looking to be a practicable option.  However... he suggested that there might be a better, quicker and cheaper route to follow, a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman."
The parliamentary ombudsman was established by an act of parliament in 1967. S/he can investigate complaints from members of the public who believe that they have suffered "injustice" because of "maladministration" by government departments or certain public bodies.

Maladministration, according to a Commons briefing paper, can be defined as a public body not having acted properly or fairly, or having given a poor service and not put things right. At the time the office of the ombudsmand was established in 1967, the Leader of the House of Commons,defined maladministration as including “bias, neglect, inattention, delay, incompetence, inaptitude, perversity, turpitude, arbitrariness and so on”.

The ombudsman has the right to:
"summon persons and papers, (i.e. to require the attendance of witnesses and to have access to information), and absolute privilege to protect his or her reports. These powers are analogous to the powers of a judge of the High Court."
It all sounds good for aggrieved Subpostmasters so far, doesn't it? But...
"If the Ombudsman finds in favour of the complainant, and against a department, the Ombudsman has no executive powers to alter a department’s decision or award compensation."
Oh.

Nonetheless the ombudsman can suggest a remedy, which might include financial compensation. In 2009, a former ombudsman, Ann Abraham, published her "principles for remedy", which state:
"our underlying principle is to ensure that the public body restores the complainant to the position they would have been in if the maladministration or poor service had not occurred. If that is not possible, the public body should compensate them appropriately."
But the ombudsman has no power to enforce a remedy and the government can ignore its recommendations. If the government chooses to ignore the ombudsman, the ombudsman has the power to lay a special report before parliament. This the government can also ignore, although backbench MPs would be entitled to jump up and down about it.

One other thing to note is that it is free to complain to the ombudsman - so why does the JFSA want to raise £98,000?

Mr Bates says preparing the relevant documents won't come cheap:
"the reason we will be incurring costs is for preparing the submission to the Ombudsman to ensure our documents focus on our strongest points in our claim of maladministration by BEIS, and in order to do that, we need to use a QC experienced in such matters.  But the costs involved are nowhere near the cost or time involved of bringing another civil litigation action against Post Office’s shareholder.

"I am sure you will agree that during the civil action the Post Office threw everything it could at us, including four legal teams, the Court of Appeal and trying to sack the judge.  Be absolutely certain that the Government will try every trick in the book to have our submission dismissed.  We will only have one chance of following this route and we need experienced legal representation."
Mr Bates says the crowdfunding platform is already set up and accepting pledges. He says that if the full target of £98,000 isn't raised, money will not be taken from anyone's accounts and no complaint to the ombudsman will be made, by the JFSA, at least.

Is this tilting at windmills? At the very best it is a long shot, but then so was taking on the Post Office at the High Court. I've learned not to underestimate Alan Bates.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Credit where due

The following piece outlines my understanding of the way the Post Office Horizon scandal has been documented in the media. It is necessarily incomplete, but it hopefully apportions credit where due. If I have missed someone or something important, or got anything wrong, please get in touch with me via the contact form (which should be visible in the right hand navigation bar on the desktop version of this website) and I will gladly make a correction.

Computer Weekly

The Post Office Horizon scandal was broken in Computer Weekly on 11 May 2009. The magazine had first been contacted in 2004 by Alan Bates (later to become founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance) and later by Bridlington Subpostmaster Lee Castleton.

Alan and Lee featured as case studies in the investigation, as did Jo Hamilton, the former Postmaster at South Warnborough in Hampshire. The investigation also featured Noel Thomas, the Gaerwen Subpostmaster who was sent to prison after pleading guilty to false accounting.

The investigation took six months before it was ready to be published and was written by Rebecca Thomson. The investigation was commissioned by Computer Weekly's then editor Tony Collins.

Tony Collins is an influential figure in this story - he wrote a series of articles for Computer Weekly about the 1994 Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre and he has long recognised that complex IT systems can be prone to throw up occasional catastrophic errors. He currently co-edits the Campaign 4 Change website where he writes about the Horizon scandal.

Computer Weekly, under the editorship of Bryan Glick, has continued to follow the story - building an impressive body of work over the last decade, much of it written by Karl Flinders, who has assiduously documented each new development. Karl and I spent many days in court during the Bates v Post Office litigation and he regularly scoops me, the swine.

Taro Naw

In May 2009 a BBC Wales reporter, Sion Tecwyn, was quick to spot Noel Thomas’s name in Rebecca Thomson’s investigation. Sion and Noel knew each other from Noel’s time as a councillor. Sion ran a short TV news piece on BBC Wales Today which noted Noel’s appearance in Computer Weekly’s pages. It was framed in the context of an investigation by a respected technical journal which appeared to be calling into question the integrity of the Post Office Horizon system.

The camera operator working with Sion on that piece contacted Anna Marie Robinson and Bryn Jones at Taro Naw - a weekly half hour of Welsh-language current affairs, made by BBC journalists for S4C - and suggested it might make a good documentary.

Anna Marie and Bryn got to work. Their resultant investigation, broadcast on 8 September 2009 focused on Noel Thomas, Jo Hamilton and Alan Bates, but it also uncovered a further twenty-nine Subpostmasters claiming problems with Horizon.

BBC Surrey and BBC Inside Out

The first English-language broadcast investigation into Horizon took place on 7 Feb 2011. I took the story to my boss, Nicci Holliday, at BBC Surrey after I had spoken to Davinder Misra in November 2010. It didn't take long to find the Computer Weekly article or Alan Bates' website chronicling the launch of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance. Alan also told me about the S4C investigation.

Nicci put me in touch with Jane French at Inside Out South. Under her guidance I worked with Jenny Craddock and Jon Valters to put out a radio piece on my BBC Surrey breakfast show and a BBC1 South Inside Out investigation on the same day.

The Inside Out broadcast was seen by former Fujitsu employee Richard Roll and in 2015 he told me it was this which prompted him to come forward and tell his story to the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, and, later, Panorama.

Private Eye

After making my first BBC investigation, I took the story to Private Eye where it was picked up by the Eye staffer Richard Brooks. Richard wrote his first piece in September 2011 (see left) and we have collaborated ever since. This culminated in our co-authored investigation for the Eye - Justice Lost in the Post - published on 1 April 2020, commissioned by Ian Hislop.

The Daily Mail

A number of newspapers have written stories on the scandal over the last eight years with both the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times, Financial Times and the Mirror all taking a keen interest, but the most consistent coverage has come via the Daily Mail. Neil Tweedie wrote a superb article in 2015, and since 2018, chief reporter Sam Greenhill and business editor Tom Witherow have captured almost every twist and turn of this story.

The wider BBC

The Today Programme, PM, File on 4, BBC TV News, BBC online, the One Show, BBC Wales, local BBC TV and radio and Panorama have all covered this story since 2012. I have particular reason to be grateful to Jane French and Jane Goddard at Inside Out; Scott Solder, who allowed me to pitch the story to the One Show in 2014, and Andy Head, who was instrumental in getting both Panoramas commissioned in 2015 and 2020. Inside Out has continued to follow this story, with my most recent piece commissioned by Ingrid Kelly in January this year. A special mention needs to be made of Matt Bardo and Tim Robinson who put together both Panoramas. Tim also worked closely with me on a number of One Show investigations. Tim and Matt are exceptional journalists.

Finally, Bob Nicholson and David Prest at Whistledown Productions deserve a huge amount of credit. I took the story to David at Whistledown in May last year. His enthusiasm eventually led to Radio 4 commissioning The Great Post Office Trial earlier this year. Bob's brilliance as a producer and journalist is largely why the series sounds as good as it does.

Apologies if I missed some outlets, publications or people out. The main purpose of this piece is to credit Rebecca and Tony at Computer Weekly for breaking this story and those publications and outlets (mainly, I would say, CW, Private Eye, the BBC and latterly the Daily Mail) who have followed it closely.

To the best of my knowledge it is only the Today programme which has managed to interview any Post Office executive on the scandal in ten years - a collective failure of journalism, and an indictment of the publicly-owned Post Office's commitment to transparency and openness.

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Thursday, 28 May 2020

Post Office CEO Nick Read commits to inquiry

Nick Read's letter date 20 May 2020
In response to a request to back a judge-led inquiry into the activities of the Post Office, the organisation's chief executive Nick Read has stated his position as follows:
"the Post Office will cooperate fully with any inquiry which Government ultimately determines appropriate. It is as much in the interests of Post Office as it is in the interests of postmasters to ensure that issues of the past are ventilated and resolved."
The commitment comes in a letter to a recent prospective parliamentary candidate, Ross George, who has a relative who was both a Subpostmaster and claimant in the Bates and others v Post Office group litigation.

Mr Read's response would be more newsworthy had he stated the Post Office is not intending to cooperate with any inquiry, but the indication he has no preference for the format of any inquiry will now focus attention on the Postal Services minister at BEIS, Paul Scully. Mr Scully has committed to an independent "review" rather than inquiry, something many MPs and peers within his own party feel won't go far enough.

Mr George's request comes in a letter to written to Mr Read on 2 May. Another one of Mr George's key concerns is the relatively tiny amount of compensation the litigation claimants received in relation to what they lost.

Mr George makes the point that many claimants in the litigation felt "bitterly disappointed" with the financial aspect to the settlement agreement on 11 Dec last year.

Mr Read's reply, dated 20 May, states he is "extremely sorry to hear that there are some claimants who are disappointed with the individual payments they received."

But he adds the way the settlement was divvied up is "a matter between the claimants and their legal representatives and is not something which Post Office has any power to interfere with."

Keeping things in suspense

Mr George's letter also raises questions about the Post Office's infamous suspense accounts (accounts which they apparently initially suggested to Second Sight didn't exist).

He asks:
"All monies that were paid to Post Office Ltd from claimants for debts that didn't exist went into a 'Suspense Account'. Where is this money now? Was it included in the Post Office's P & L [profit and loss] Accounts when reporting figures to Government as a 100% shareholder?"
Mr George goes on to say:
"An estimate from a 2015 report from Second Sight unallocated money in the 2014 financial year stood at around £96m in respect of Bank of Ireland ATM's and around £66m in respect of Santander. Although now surely different figures this shows the great extent of unallocated money in the Post Office's coffers."
"Could this money" he wonders "be used to properly recompense litigation claimants?"

Mr Read does not provide a response.

Second Sight's Ron Warmington broke his six year silence last December to raise queries about this very subject. Some believe the Post Office has erroneously taken money from Subpostmasters into its suspense accounts. The money was then (allegedly without any proper audit) moved onto the balance sheet where it was used to boost the Post Office's profits.

Jo Hamilton had to pay the Post Office £36,000 to avoid a theft prosecution. Bal Gil had to find £108,000. Given we now know the Post Office prosecuted 900 people over a 15 year period - how many of them also acceded to demands for cash? And where did it go?

This could be one of the next big battlegrounds in the story, and almost certainly a strand to any judge-led inquiry. I suspect a government "review" won't want to go near it with a bargepole.

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Monday, 25 May 2020

Post Office reviewing 900 prosecutions since 1999


These figures are new and off the scale. The Post Office is reviewing around 900 prosecutions since the rollout of Horizon "which may have relied on Horizon data".

From the limited information which was publicly available we knew the Post Office had prosecuted dozens of people a year from 2005 to 2013. No one outside the Post Office had any idea, until now, it had prosecuted 900 Subpostmasters and counter staff since 1999.

This is one of the single biggest developments in the entire Post Office story and I think it will lend weight to the voices of those who are demanding a full independent inquiry into this scandal.

Furthermore, I have been given information by the Post Office which reveals for the first time that there is a significant difference in the number of prosecutions and convictions of Subpostmasters in the pre and post-Horizon years.

The new information about the 900 prosecutions appears to have been prompted by a Freedom of Information request I made on 9 April this year (the Post Office links to it in their press statement). I asked for the total number of prosecutions by the Post Office and subsequent convictions since 1990.

My FOI request came on the back of the revelation, made to me on 3 April 2020 and published in the Daily Mail on 11 April, that the Post Office was reviewing 500 convictions on top of the 61 cases being examined by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (39 of which have already gone to the Court of Appeal).

As well as being staggered by this number, I realised it meant the information previously made public by the Post Office in response to other FOI requests was incomplete.

In August 2016, someone called Nic de Gaia asked the Post Office:

"How many subpostmasters have had charges filed against them for false accounting and inflating figures and or theft? Since 2010."

The response came on 26 September 2016:

2010/2011 - 31
2011/2012 - 38 
2012/2013 - 42 
2013/2014 - 2 
2014/2015 - 0
2015/2016 - 1
2016/2017 - 0

I am enormously grateful to Ms/Mr de Gaia for asking for these figures. They clearly show that around the time of the Second Sight investigation into Horizon, someone, somewhere realised the Post Office might be massively over-prosecuting dozens of people every year. The above figures were used in court during the Bates v Post Office group litigation and have proved enormously valuable journalistically, but they don't tell the full story.

A month after the de Gaia FOI another request, this time from a Tony Williams, was put to the Post Office requesting: "the number of Subpostmaster suspensions, reinstatements and prosecutions between 1990 to 2010."

This is a crucial question, as it would show whether or not there was an uplift in prosecutions after the advent of Horizon. The Post Office's response, on 12 October 2016, was incomplete, and, as we will see, incorrect.

The table supplied stated the following:


The prosecution column allows us to add to M de Gaia's request and look across the total number of prosecutions of Subpostmasters from 2004/5 to 2016/7. That total is 251.

I realise 251 prosecutions over a twelve year period is a huge amount, and perhaps it should have been flagged up by people like me sooner, however the figures most journalists fixed on were the 35 cases being reviewed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission in the years between 2015 and 2019 and the 550 claimants who subsequently took the Post Office to the High Court (of whom only 74 were criminally prosecuted).

The crucial thing to note about the above figures is that they only relate to prosecutions, not convictions. Of course, any prosecution is deadly serious. It has been made quite plain to me by Sue Knight, Sarah Burgess Boyde, Nicki Arch and many other Subpostmasters that even without a conviction a criminal prosecution can completely ruin your life. And with regard to the figures above, you would assume that the majority of prosecutions would result in convictions. I have no idea what I'm making that assumption on - perhaps the idea that the CPS, or the Post Office would only prosecute on strong evidence.

This is why the figure which was given to me on 3 April is so staggering - because it related to convictions - "around" 500 of them since 1999.

Doing the number-crunching, if we assume every single prosecution between 2004/5 and 2016/7 - 251 - resulted in a conviction (which we know it didn't), that meant between 1999 and 2003/4 the Post Office secured the conviction of at least 249 Subpostmasters over a four year period. Wow. More than one a week.

This is either uncovering criminality on an industrial scale, or the criminalisation of a significant number of people without, as far as I can see any audit, scrutiny, independent oversight or review.

The latest revelation - currently going out on the Today programme as I write - that the Post Office is now reviewing "around" NINE HUNDRED criminal prosecutions... blows the doors off. Of course there will be guilty people among them. But if there is even one innocent soul among that 900 (and the evidence so far suggests there is a great deal more than one), the Post Office should be on its knees apologising to them and their families for the damage they have done.

The Horizon effect

Many years ago, when I was first looking at this story, a number of sensible editors would ask if I knew whether there was a significant uplift in the number of Subpostmasters prosecuted after the arrival of Horizon. Journalistically it was a key questions. If there was no uplift, then maybe Horizon wasn't the problem all the Subpostmasters were saying it was.

If there was an uplift, well... it might. Of course the Post Office would be able to explain it by saying it meant Horizon was instrumental in helping them identify the supposed criminality which was already out there, but it might also point to the start of where things started to go very wrong.

Finally, the answer to that decade-old question came on Friday.

For the first time the pre and post-Horizon prosecution figures are now public.

They look like this:

The answer to the question is yes, there was a significant uplift in prosecutions of Subpostmasters after the advent of Horizon. It went from an average of 3.6 Subpostmasters a year in the six years of available figures up to and including 1998 to an average of 29.8 a year in the six years after the introduction of Horizon in 1999. That is an eight-fold increase - or if you prefer it in percentage terms - 827%.

The only rational explanation for this is that the Post Office must have assumed that large numbers of its Subpostmasters were criminals, and at last, Horizon was helping catch them.

This perception that Subpostmasters are easily tempted criminals, combined with stupidity, a belief in the infallibility of computers, massively over-developed prosecutorial powers and a lack of independent scrutiny or oversight has resulted in a scandal you can now see from space.

I hope you are able to listen to The Great Post Office Trial, which starts on BBC Radio 4 today at 1.45pm and runs for ten episodes across two weeks. If you are reading this after the event, you can find all the episodes here after they have been broadcast.

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This blog is entirely funded by donation. You can donate any amount through the secure payment portal I have set up for this purpose. If you contribute £20 or more you will be added to the secret email list. This alerts you to the latest developments on this story before they happen, as well as links to new articles and stories, whether posted here on this blog or elsewhere. Thank you for your support.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Previews in the Times and Guardian

The Great Post Office Trial begins on BBC Radio 4 at 1.45pm on Monday 25 May. It is a ten-part series and each episode is 15 minutes long with two hour long omnibus editions going out on the next two Friday nights. You can listen to the series as it goes out, on ten consecutive weekdays at 1.45pm, or online after it's been broadcast. See below for a couple of press previews: 

Saturday's Times:

Saturday's Guardian:

These are the epsiode titles - you can click on them and listen to them shortly after transmission if you miss them going out live:
The Imaginary Heist, The Bloodiest Mind in Wales, I Love My Post Office, Navigating the Matrix, Follow the Money, War of Attrition, A Call for Help, The Big Green Button, Extremely Aggressive Litigation, and What the Hell Had Happened.

Monday, 18 May 2020

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Tuesday, 12 May 2020

BBC Radio 4 series: The Great Post Office Trial


On 25 May 2020 at 1.45pm, a new ten-part series looking into the Post Office Horizon Scandal will begin on BBC Radio 4.

Here's the relevant link to the BBC website where the episodes will appear after broadcast for your listening "pleasure".

It's quite difficult making a landmark Radio 4 series under lockdown. I hope you will think we have gone somewhere towards doing the subject justice. 

I would be most grateful if you could spread the word. It would be very special if this story reached the number of people it deserves.

Private Eye Special Report free pdf download

The favoured investigation of the discerning reader
That Lord Gnome is a public-spirited proprietor after all. He has made the Private Eye Special Report, "Justice Lost in the Post" available for you to download here as a free pdf!

What a man.

Profound thanks to Eye staffer Richard Brooks who was first among equals on this project. I've been working with Richard on the Post Office story since 2011 and his nose for the telling detail and killer fact is second to none. It would be less than half the piece it is without him and the brilliant designers who made it look so good on the page.

I am deeply grateful to everyone who supplied information to me for the piece, especially those who told their own, very painful stories. "Enjoy".

Chances of inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal diminishing

Subpostmasters celebrate victory at the High Court, Dec 2019
The coronavirus outbreak has been useful to the government and the Post Office in taking the heat out of demands for a public inquiry into the Horizon scandal. The campaign to secure a proper investigation into what has been going on over the last 20 years reached a high point during Prime Minister's Questions on 26 February 2020, when Boris Johnson told Kate Osbourne MP he was:
"indeed aware of the scandal to which the hon. Lady alludes and the disaster that has befallen many Post Office workers—I have met some of them myself. I am happy to commit to getting to the bottom of the matter in the way that she recommends." 
Since then there have been odd noises. One former Subpostmaster wrote to the Cabinet Office and received an interesting missive from the chief executive of the civil service, Sir John Manzoni.

Sir John told the former Subpostmaster:
"Since you sent your letter the Prime Minister has announced a public inquiry into the Post Office and Horizon, and the House of Commons’ Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee has been looking into this matter also. We must now allow those inquiries to take their course."
That letter was dated 4 April. Unfortunately since 10 March, the BEIS select committee inquiry website wears all the hallmarks of a post-apocalyptic village suddenly abandoned by its residents. Rachel Reeves, former chair of the select committee who set the inquiry up, is no longer in post, having accepted an invitation to join Sir Keir Starmer's shadow cabinet.

As for the "public inquiry" Sir John seems to think is coming, the minister who could actually announce it clearly has no intention of doing so. Worse, he's already in "lessons will be learned" mode.

On 7 May, Paul Scully, the minister for Postal Services at BEIS wrote to Siobhan Baillie MP, who contacted him on behalf of her constituent, Nicki Arch. Mr Scully wrote:
"The Government is... committed to establishing an independent review [my italics] to ensure lessons are learned from this case, so that these issues do not happen again. Further details will be announced in due course. It is of the utmost importance that the Post Office deals with postmasters openly and transparently, and ensures that they are adequately listened to, supported and remunerated so that they can thrive."
The last sentence is telling. It looks as if the "review" will be about making sure everything is tickety-boo now, rather than holding anyone to account. Indeed, earlier this year, a serving Subpostmaster, John O'Sullivan, wrote to BEIS with a list of concerns, not least why the Post Office's directors have escaped censure for their part in this scandal.

On 2 April, Mr O'Sullivan received a response from Lauren Wood at the BEIS Ministerial Correspondence Unit stating:
"Given the major programme of work the Post Office is implementing, the Government will not be taking further action at this time. The Horizon IT system was put in place in 1999, with the first issues being raised by postmasters in the early 2000s. Over an almost 20-year period decisions were made by many people, including in relation to the prosecution of postmasters. There is therefore no single person accountable for what has taken place."
For Tony Collins, the journalist who commissioned the first ever investigation into the Post Office Horizon scandal, whilst editor-in-chief of Computer Weekly, eleven years ago, this is not enough.

Today Mr Collins published a direct appeal to Mr Scully and his boss Alok Sharma, calling on them to put themselves on the right side of history. It will be interesting to see if it gets any traction.

To BEIS or not to BEIS

Other MPs have tried to circumvent BEIS. Lee Castleton's MP, Sir Greg Knight, wrote to the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier, asking what action she proposed to take over the scandal.

Ms Hillier wrote to the Comptroller and Auditor General of the National Audit Committee, Gareth Davies. On 4 March Mr Davies told Ms Hillier his powers were limited, as the Post Office does not fall under the NAO's remit, however he proposes asking his team to prepare:
"a short briefing which could support a PAC [Public Accounts Committee] evidence session... setting out the governance exercised by BEIS, as shareholder, and UK Government Investments, as shareholder representative, over Post Office Ltd... this would also have the benefit of holding the relevant individuals to account without the delay of a long investigation."
Holding the relevant individuals to account? We'll see.

Incidentally, after Eleanor Shaikh's incendiary report (on this website) detailing the government's failure to properly scrutinise the Post Office, there has been a change.

Last year Ms Shaikh was able to reveal that six years after the Post Office was hived off from Royal Mail, there was still no formal arrangement between the Post Office and its shareholder (the government) laying out how Post Office directors should be held to account for their actions.

That was rectified in a document dated March 2020, but as Ms Shaikh says, the new Post Office Shareholder Relationship Framework:
"reads like a catalogue of all the mistakes, all the measures of oversight which SHOULD have been deployed all along."
Inspector Knacker and the CCRC

There are other lines of enquiry outside parliament. The judge in the recent litigation was so concerned about the veracity of evidence supplied by Fujitsu employees to Post Office prosecutions he passed a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions who handed it to the Met Police to investigate. I have seen correspondence from the investigating officer at the Met who is contacting relevant people and asking for information, whilst being keen to stress no criminal investigation has begun.

There is also an ongoing investigation into the actions of Post Office prosecutors over the Seema Misra case, which is being carried out by Surrey Police.

Finally, the Criminal Cases Review Commission has indicated it will issue a Statement of Reasons explaining why it referred the cases of 39 prosecuted Subpostmasters to the Court of Appeal.

The CCRC has also stated its commissioners are intending to meet before the end of May to see if any more Subpostmaster cases can be referred.

There are 21 applicants waiting to see if they are in the next batch and I am in direct contact with three of them. I cannot begin to tell you how much a referral would mean to these people.

You'll hear about any further movement here first. Or second, if the mighty Karl Flinders at Computer Weekly beats me to it again.

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Monday, 4 May 2020

Historical Shortfall Scheme announced and more CCRC action


The Post Office has launched its Historical Shortfall Scheme for "current and former postmasters who believe they have experienced shortfalls related to previous versions of its computer system Horizon."

The Post Office press release fails to mention that the scheme is not open to claimants who were part the recent High Court litigation, despite being prompted by it.

The Post Office's new-ish CEO Nick Read said:
“We are resolving past events fairly where we got things wrong. The launch of this scheme is an important milestone that demonstrates a more open and transparent relationship with postmasters and offers redress for those who may have experienced shortfalls related to previous versions of the computer system Horizon.”
The press release goes on to state:
"this is a Post Office scheme - [but] all claims will be assessed by an independent advisory panel... A dispute resolution procedure is available for applicants not satisfied with the assessment outcome, providing further review stages and independent mediation.   
The independent mediation provider will be Wandsworth Mediation Service, a charitable community mediation service chaired by Stephen Ruttle QC who co-mediated the resolution of the group litigation."
There's more information here. It seems legit, but then so did the complaint and mediation scheme launched in August 2013 which was later described by MPs as a "sham". There's nothing to stop this scheme being a sham either.

The Post Office says the scheme has been set up in "good faith", a concept it was until recently (as Lord Coulson noted in his now famous Paragraph 11) explicitly denying it had to show its Subpostmasters in any circumstance.

I suspect this scheme has been set up to forestall or mitigate an avalanche of legal claims from Subpostmasters who weren't claimants in the recent group litigation. Given the Post Office is reviewing the 500 criminal convictions it pulled off over the first 15 years of this century, you wonder just how many hundreds, or even thousands of Postmasters have faced unlawful demands for cash (see the ruling on Common Issue 8) based on Horizon discrepancies.

If enough people take it up, this Historical Shortfall Scheme could save the Post Office a lot of money.

Statement of Reasons

The Criminal Cases Review Commission has written to the 39 applicants whose cases have been referred to the Court of Appeal, telling them their Statement of Reasons should be with them by the end of May.

The statement of reasons is an important document as it lays out exactly why the CCRC thinks each applicant should be referred.

Right now, all we know is that the CCRC commissioners thought the Post Office's prosecution frenzy between 1999 and 2014 was an "abuse of process."

The statement of reasons will flesh out exactly what that "abuse of process" is believed to be, and its contents will be of particular interest to the law firm Peters and Peters who have been engaged by the Post Office to look at the further five hundred prosecutions outside of the 61 which are/were being reviewed by the CCRC. The Post Office has already said it is taking into account the CCRC's statements with regard to any action it might pursue over the Peters and Peters review.

I have also been contacted by a claimant in the group litigation who only applied to the CCRC after the settlement was announced in December last year. He has received a letter telling him the CCRC's commissioners are aiming to meet at the end of May to discuss his case, which suggests a further round of referrals to the Court of Appeal may be coming through before long.

The legal baton

The law firm Hudgells appears to have struck a deal with the Justice for Subpostmasters' Alliance.  Hudgells were very quick out of the blocks in seeking to represent Subpostmasters who feel they have been unfairly prosecuted, and the firm's MD Neil Hudgell has already put up a useful blog post noting his concerns about the Post Office's Historical Shortfall Scheme.

Hudgells relationship with the JFSA was revealed by JFSA founder Alan Bates, who, in a circular to members, said:
"Under the terms of the December 2019 Settlement Agreement the JFSA and Freeths [the solicitors who represented the JFSA at the High Court] are legally restrained from organising and taking a further Group Action and legal claims against Post Office Limited.  
However that restraint does not extend to assisting those who were criminally prosecuted by Post Office, in particular helping them to determine whether their convictions might be overturned. To that end, and with the assistance of Freeths, the JFSA is supporting these cases being taken forward by Hudgells solicitors, the firm that the MP Karl Turner has discussed a number of these cases with."
I've spoken to Neil Hudgell, the firm's MD, a couple of times. He seems like a switched-on cookie, with a good understanding of the issues at stake, though please don't take that as a recommendation. Other law firms are available. It's interesting, though, that Hudgells are the firm Freeths and the JFSA are choosing to work with on this issue.

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Disquiet and anger as final payments for claimants land


Over the last week final payments from the settlement reached in the Bates v Post Office group litigation began to land in the 555 claimants' accounts.

Some were delighted: "Still trying to process. Thank you!" said one claimant who got nearly £40,000.

Others weren't so happy. One former Subpostmaster who got £23,000 told me:
"the actual amount I have received does not even cover the debt I am still paying off... like everyone else I feel it is a bitter pill to swallow, better than nothing but less than 2.5 percent of my losses..."
Nicki Arch, who suffered for nearly twenty years after being prosecuted for theft, tweeted:

"My total recompense for two decades of hell is £5,059.70. How soul destroying is that?......Truly devastated."

The compensation payments date back to a settlement to the litigation announced on 11 Dec 2019 after nearly two weeks of mediation, alongside an apology from the Post Office for past mistakes. It was a confidential agreement, which the Post Office broke in less than an hour to reveal the total sum payable to claimants would be £57.75m.

The relative paucity of this settlement, and the glee with which the Post Office revealed it led to a piece I wrote the same day asking who the winner in this litigation actually was. I guesstimated that of the £58m pot the claimants could see as little as £26m, an average of £46,846 each.

We found out the following week it was only going to be about £12m, an average of £21,621 each.

At the time there was joy and satisfaction. One claimant wrote:
"This is the best news I have ever heard. Still in disbelief that they would actually acknowledge let alone apologise for their behaviour."
"This has just given me the biggest lift!!!" emailed another.

But one expert saw it differently. "I hope to Christ that figure is wrong," he said. And another claimant put it into perspective:
"This is nothing but a great win for the Post Office. My losses alone came to £200,000. This compensation will not cover the fraudulent claims that the Post Office took from me. I am 75 and still work to live and pay my mortgage. There will be no celebrating this decision."
The Great Apportioning

Since December, Freeths, the claimants solicitors, have been calculating the sums due to each individual. The exercise appears to have been complex, and given it took four months, lengthy.

I have been forwarded the seven page rationale sent to each claimant by Freeths. Titled "Post Office Group Litigation: Methodology Underpinning Preparation of the Claim Proceeds Account", it states:
"This document provides further detail on the methodology that the legal team, together with their Steering Committee [on which Alan Bates and Kay Linnell sit], have followed to prepare the Claim Proceeds Account and to calculate each Claimant’s proportionate share of the available settlement monies."
That calculation takes into account fifteen different categories of loss, namely:

Shortfalls, Loss of Appointment, Loss of Earnings during suspension, Contractual Notice Losses, Handicap on the open labour market, Stigma/Reputational Damage, Personal Injury, Bankruptcy expenses, Harassment, Legal Fees for civil proceedings, Legal Fees incurred, Professional fees, Staff redundancy costs (for Subpostmasters who were terminated or forced to resign), Loss of value in the business premises, Loss of residential home (for example, where repossessed, Loss of value in any other personal/tangible property.

The rationale document says the value applied to each category was based on information each claimant provided to Freeths via their initial statement, a detailed questionnaire and any additional information provided to Freeths during the litigation.

However, the methodology document was not accompanied by any working out. No claimant, as far as I am aware, has received a breakdown of how their individual total was calculated.

The mystery as to how the methodology was applied to each claimant, and the wildly disparate payments have caused anger and confusion. One claimant who wasn't even suspended received tens of thousands in compensation. Janet Skinner, who went to prison, received £8,500.

Another who suffered appallingly wrote:
"After speaking to other claimants I realised that there is not much difference in the payments ie claimants with lesser losses also had a similar payment.  I am not happy. And as a group we need to know the breakdown of the payments to all claimants."
This anger appears to have caught both Freeths and the JFSA on the back foot. Some claimants believe the money from the settlement should have been shared equally, matching the one for all and all for one mentality which typified the claimants' mindset at the outset. Others want to sue Freeths and the JFSA. Some are wondering if the the apportioning exercise was influenced by those who stood to get the most from the way it was eventually designed. Where there is a lack of transparency, there is suspicion.

Alan Bates, founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, moved to address claimants' concerns on Friday.

"we know, many of you are disappointed with what you have received." he said "But hopefully by now you are clearer on why the available sums are at the level which they are."

He went on to suggest a legal claim against Freeths or the JFSA to recover more money would be "a complete waste of time and money and would go nowhere."

Nonetheless Freeths have actually held back some of the final settlement to cover ongoing litigation-related costs including "any legal challenge which is being considered against the apportionment."

Mr Bates says he is not in a position to offer legal advice about the wisdom of any claimants doing this, but noted:
"Don’t forget you saw the terms of the group action before you signed up to it, and if you attempt to challenge it, all you are doing is spending more money with lawyers instead of giving it to claimants. But it is your decision."
The other £46m

Rather than argue the toss about the apportionment, Alan Bates now has his eyes on a bigger prize. We know £46m of the £58m settlement went in legal fees and success fees. Mr Bates feels this £46m should be covered by the government:
"it would seem on average that every single person who took part in this action has been penalised £85,000 for having dared to expose the lies and cover up by Post Office in court. An action we had to take because BIS, then BEIS or in other words Government, failed to do its statutory duty."
The wording of this is very interesting. If the government has failed in a "statutory duty" it is laying itself open to possible legal action. Up till now ministers and mandarins alike have made it very clear the government has no intention of covering the claimants' legal fees. I wonder if there is another legal fight brewing and wouldn't be surprised if Alan Bates finds himself in the High Court once more - this time taking on HMG. We'll see.

ADDENDUM:

Since publishing this piece I have received quite a bit of correspondence. One conversation was very worrying - a claimant who sounded right on the edge. He admitted to me that the sum he had received had knocked his self-esteem and mental health right back, just when he thought he was beginning to turn the corner. He sounded broken and I felt desperately sorry for him. It's easy to forget that so many people have suffered very dark moments through their experience with the Post Office, and a sum of money, landing with finality and deemed to be a dispassionate reckoning of damage done, might be a triggering experience.

One Subpostmaster wrote to me, saying:
"Speaking for myself, and having largely given up the ghost anyway, I was very pleased with my apportionment. Having regard to those poor devils who have suffered so much, I completely understand their anguish, sense of disappointment and frustration. They have, for it is worth, my complete sympathy."
Another email read:
"We are not comfortable with all the criticism that is going on at the moment, with out Alan, Kay [Linell, advisor to the JFSA], and Freeths we would have not even received an apology from the Post Office. We will always be so grateful for that. Yes we are all down on money but come on guys did we ever really think we were going to get anything at all."
And a final email which read:
"I hear the cries of those upset at the settlement values but had Alan not put his head above the parapet, had Freeths legal team not given their all, had Judge Fraser given in to all the B****S spouted by Paula Vennells and her Mafia friends the payout would be ZERO. We won and have the law on our side, so we can fight another day without having to prove anything. The Post Office have been seen for what they are: bullies with no regard for its employees or working partners. My losses are north of £700,000 and my payout near zero but I can hold my head up once again knowing that my penniless retirement was not my fault."
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Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Chirag's story

Chirag Sidphura in Nov 2018
The Farncombe Post Office provides a service to thousands of residents of this village. During the infamous Christmas floods and power cuts in 2013, it was the only shop that stayed open for miles, it was a life-line and kept us all in batteries, candles and firelighters. The Sidhpura family did not desert us in that time of trial and we must not desert them now. We urge the Post Office to consider his appeal.” - Cllr Penny Rivers, Godalming North.

It appears to me to be grossly unfair and unjust.” - Jeremy Hunt, South West Surrey MP

This is the story of Chirag Sidhpura. After four years of successful trading as a Subpostmaster in Farncombe, Surrey, Chirag's world was turned upside down. A Post Office auditor alleged there was a £57,000 discrepancy at Chirag's branch.

Na├»vely, Chirag handed over £57,000 in the hope he would be allowed to continue trading whilst the Post Office investigated the source of the discrepancy.

Having pocketed Chirag's cash, the Post Office was not obliged to seek the source of Chirag's discrepancy. They decided not to pursue him through the criminal courts and instead, sacked him over alleged breach of contract.

Chirag was aghast. He lost his money and his job and was told there was no review or appeal.

And this is where it gets interesting. Rather than walk away, Chirag refused to let the matter drop. Since 2017 he has been fighting, at extreme personal cost, to hold the Post Office to account. He has been assiduously requesting and checking paperwork. He wants to know how £57,000 could go missing (if it did) and if the Post Office can't tell him how, he wants his money and his job back. And he has made some progress.

Chirag's story - and, of course, it is only Chirag's side of the story - exposes what appear to be well-worn tropes of behaviour within the Post Office.

Also it's interesting to note that instead of Post Office investigators telling people they're the only ones having problems with Horizon (which they used to), Chirag tells me when he suggested the IT system might be at fault, the investigator replied: "Everyone says that."

Chirag's physical and mental health and his family life has suffered as he has gone about trying to get his world back on its axis. Do have a read.

Chirag's story

"My name is Chirag Sidhpura, but people call me Sid. I am thirty-six years old and married, with three small children. I have a degree in computing.

Before I worked in the Post Office I was an engineer - servicing and maintaining thirty government IT infrastructure sites across the UK.

In January 2013 I took over Farncombe post office in Surrey after working in my father-in-law’s branch in Reigate for two years.

When we took over at Farncombe, we made a few changes. Our customers were much happier and we got busier. We had an audit in June 2013 and everything was perfect - there were no issues.

The previous postmaster had asked to have an external cash machine (ATM) fitted. It arrived in August 2013. Immediately afterwards things started going wrong. Sometimes I had massive losses, sometimes massive gains.  I contacted the Post Office's NBSC [the National Business Support Centre] and requested someone come and sort the problems out. I was contacted by a Post Office member of staff who came out to help and assist. 

I was now, I thought, properly trained on the accounting of the ATM. I followed all the procedures I was trained to do. Week in, week out, all was ok.

In August 2015 we closed for two weeks to go through the Network Transformation programme. I took a pay cut of £12,000 per annum but I knew if I pushed the business I would bring it up, which I successfully did. From August 2013 to October 2017, over four years, I did not have an audit nor did I see any problems with what I was doing. The Post Office never brought any issue to my attention. No phone calls, letters, emails, nothing.
Chirag outside Farncombe PO
Everything goes wrong

On 10 October 2017 I had an unannounced visit from a Post Office auditor, which I welcomed open-heartedly because I thought everything was fine. At the end of the audit I was hit with a shocking alleged loss of over £57,000. My heart hit the ground. I had only done a trading period rollover a week before and everything was ok.

The auditors counted everything twice over before locking it away in the safe and sealing it. I spoke to Anita Bravata, a Post Office Contracts Advisor, on the phone. She suspended me pending further investigation. I offered a cheque for the full value on the spot to allow me to continue trading while an investigation took place. This option was rejected by Ms Bravata. I also asked for an immediate temp to re-open the branch. This option was also rejected.

I completely broke down. I felt sick to my stomach. I called the National Federation of Subpostmasters [NFSP] as directed by the lead auditor. I was passed from one person to the next.

The day after I was suspended I had a phone call from Matt Mowbray, one of the Post Office's Security and Investigations Managers.

He asked how the loss occurred. My response was: "Your guess is as good as mine. I didn’t even know there was a loss." I suggested it might be a Horizon error. He replied: "Everyone says that."  

Mr Mowbray gave me two options:

1: Pay the money back immediately.

2: Be prosecuted and face the prospect of a 2 year prison sentence.

At this point I was scared to the bones. I have never been in any situation like this in my life. I have always assisted the police and the law rather than ever be on the other side, or be threatened to be on the other side. 

My father-in-law said he would bail me out by settling the discrepancy.

Two days after my suspension, on 12 October (my ninth wedding anniversary) £57, 543. 92 was paid over the phone via debit card to the Post Office's "former postmasters accounts". I should have realised then that the Post Office had already made up their minds about the next step.

Interview under caution

Mr Mowbray called to tell me a decision would be made by his senior security lead as to whether an investigation would be needed to clarify how the "loss" occurred. This would take the form of a recorded interview under police caution.

I have since been told the Post Office can no longer interview Subpostmasters under caution. They apparently lost this right when they split from Royal Mail in 2013. When I subsequently asked the Post Office what gave them the right to interview me under police caution no one could provide me with proof. I asked on several occasions.
Campaigners' logo
Whilst I was waiting to find out if I would be interviewed, two local residents launched a petition to have me reinstated while the Post Office continued their investigation. This petition got hundreds of signatures within 48 hours, which makes me proud. One local lady wrote: “I would put my life on the line for the honesty and integrity of Chirag.”

On 18 October 2017 I had an email from Mr Mowbray inviting me to interview.

I contact the NFSP for help. The nearest person they could find was called Andrew Gillimore. He was based 260 miles away in Newcastle. 

I travelled to Newcastle to meet with Mr Gillimore to request some advice and guidance. I was given the following options:

1: Resign as Subpostmaster and get someone else to apply. You will never work in a Post Office again.

2: As your contract was in a limited company's name, sack yourself and pass the Subpostmaster-ship to another named director of your company. You will never work in a Post Office again.

3: Continue to battle the Post Office but the NFSP will not intervene.

Mr Gillimore advised me to get a criminal solicitor but would not assist me any further. 

I was not in a position to get legal aid so I turned to the National Federation of Independent Retailers [NFRN]. Within 12 hours of contacting the NFRN I was appointed a criminal solicitor, Michelle George, from Blackfords. 

The interview under police caution was arranged for 26 October 2017. I had only 45 minutes before the interview to explain what had happened to my solicitor.

Ms George gave me three options:

1: Say "no comment" to all questions, which if it went to court could count against you.

2: Stay silent throughout the whole interview.

3: Answer all questions to the best of your ability.

We settled on option three as I had nothing to hide. I was very anxious, scared, nervous and depressed, but I had Michelle with me to ensure everything went smoothly.

I was told there were going to be police present, to read me my rights of caution. This was not the case. No police were present, just Mr Mowbray and a colleague. Mr Mowbray read the caution rights to me. At the end of the interview, the audio recording device malfunctioned and the CD would not eject.

I was later told a copy would be sent to me. Mr Mowbray was hoping I was going to admit to the knowledge of the loss so he could have an open and closed case but I had made it very clear I was not going to admit to something I had not actually done.

We were advised a decision would be made within 7-14 days as to whether the Post Office would take the matter further. It took eight weeks of chasing to find out what was going on.

It also took four months of arguing with the Post Office's Information Rights Team for a transcript, recording or a written report of my interview. The report they eventually provided was not a transcript. It wasn't even a proper summary. You would have thought that for such an important interview where the recording device malfunctioned, a full detailed report would have been written and provided.

So far the Post Office have hidden behind the Data Protection Act and what they decide is ‘legally privileged’. I would definitely question the Head of Information Rights as to where their team get their notions about disclosure from. That’s not a company that wants to be transparent and co-operate, especially with the people who have kept them in their jobs.

Review number one

Chirag in November last year
Whilst I was waiting to find out if I would be prosecuted, I was assigned a new Contracts Advisor, Paul Southin, as Ms Bravata was too busy with other cases. Mr Southin was based in Norwich. I tried to contact him on a number of occasions without success.

Finally I received a letter saying I could go to meet him for "an informal discussion". The letter stated I could bring a friend or colleague with me, so I brought my brother-in-law, Shamil. I also brought an NFSP rep along, Nilesh Joshi. When we arrived at the meeting on 5 Dec 2017 Mr Southin denied all knowledge of the contents of the letter and refused to let Shamil attend the meeting, though he did let Nilesh join us.

During the meeting I was very open and honest but Mr Southin had nothing to really say.

I presented him with documents showing I had a strong business and was well-supported in the community. He wasn't interested. At the end of the meeting Mr Southin requested I photocopy all my ATM receipts dating back to 1 August 2015. The receipts were printed slips from the ATM machine and Horizon entries. This process took me approximately 60 working hours with the help of a family member.

I also appointed an accountant who helped me put together a spreadsheet so I could track my losses and gains against the ATM and Horizon receipts.

I went to see Mr Southin again on 5 December 2017 in Norwich. I showed him my receipts and the spreadsheet which my accountant helped put together. It clearly showed how the discrepancies, which all came from the ATM machine, developed from August 2015 to the date I was suspended. Mr Southin took my documents away with him.

On 20 December 2017 an email arrived from Mr Mowbray stating that the Post Office were taking no further legal action against me and the matter of my continuing employment with the Post Office was a matter for my Contracts Advisor.

With Christmas coming up I wondered how long this was all going to take. I tried to call Mr Southin. I sent emails, text messages and left voicemails on his mobile. All I got in return was two text messages early January 2018 saying “I’ll be in touch when I’m in a position to do so.”

I kept calling as my staff were getting high levels of abuse from customers because their local post office was closed at the main period of the year, without me being able to put a temporary Subpostmaster in. This was my livelihood - I was suspended with no pay when I had a family to feed and bills mounting up. 

On 5 February 2018 (my daughter’s fifth birthday) a letter arrived from the Post Office containing a Notice of Termination with immediate effect.

I tried to call Mr Southin, but he refused to answer my calls so I called Ms Bravata who said to me: "That’s the final decision. Under the Network Transformation contract you have no right to appeal. That’s the end."

I felt as if a ton of bricks had fallen on my chest.

I had no supporting documentation from Post Office, no detailed explanation, just a letter alleging I had breached my contract and I was being terminated with immediate effect. 

At this point I was angry, upset, devastated and every emotion you can think of. I wanted answers to but I had no one to answer them.

Two days later Rebecca Morris, a Post Office operations manager for my area, met me at the shop to list and arrange for all the Post Office equipment to be taken off site.

Review number two

I decided to contact Paula Vennells [Post Office CEO] via email, enclosing the petition raised by my customers. She responded straight away and said she would ask Alisdair Cameron, Chief Financial Officer, to review my case. 

A week later I received an email from a Post Office Flag Case Advisor telling me that reinstating me as Subpostmaster would pose a risk to the Post Office because there was no explanation for the alleged loss of £57, 543. 92. I also had a high volume of failed cash declarations and apparently did not send money back when requested to do so, which put government funds at risk. 

I was shocked as this had never been brought to my attention before. I had never received a phone call, letter or a pop-up message on Horizon saying "x" had not been done. A as far as I was concerned I was doing everything right. I asked for more details but the Flag Case Advisor refused to release them to me.

I was advised by a friend to request a copy of my case file from the Post Office, under the Data Protection Act. I filled the form out and enclosed a cheque for £10, sending it out as special delivery to Post Office HQ. I can't believe I had to pay for this.

Three weeks later I received the case file which identified Paul Southin as the person behind the decision which led the Post Office to terminate my contract and refuse my reinstatement.

Let me address the two issues brought up by Paul Southin and communicated to me by the Flag Case advisor:

Failed cash declarations - my understanding of a failed cash declaration is when a cash declaration has not been carried out at all. When I asked the question to my NFSP rep he agreed. He said it is when the cash declaration has not been carried out before the end of day. I had been carrying out cash declarations at the end of every day and had printouts to demonstrate this.

It was only by asking around among other Subpostmasters that I discovered the Horizon system has a polling time of 7pm. This was news to me. When I called my auditor, it was news to him. Any cash declaration after 7pm is, according to the Post Office a "failed" cash declaration. Yet after going through Network Transformation I was forced to extend my branch opening hours from 8am to 7pm, which meant I was cashing up after 7pm every day. Nothing and no one gave me any indication this was a problem.

Unreturned cash holdings - The Horizon system calculates how much cash I ought to have on site but in actual, practical terms it doesn't relate to actual business needs. If I had ever gone by the technology and formulation of Horizon’s cash holdings and planned orders, I would not be able to serve my community as I wouldn’t have enough money to serve and give to my customers. 

The requests were not ignored. I made my own cash holding calculations to sustain the business in the real world. No one has been able to elaborate the nature of my alleged breaches in this regard or provide any evidence about this. If the amount of cash I was holding in branch was a long-standing concern should it not have been bought to my attention?

In his rationale Mr Southin wrote that that reinstating me would damage the Post Office's brand. How? With the correct support and guidance from Post Office it would be upholding the brand. Without any evidence whatsoever Mr Southin also reported that my retail business was struggling, and that this posed a risk to the Post Office. Where did this information come from? I challenged him on this directly. He did not comment.

Mr Southin's report was based on assumptions and lies. The assumptions he made showed me in a very bad light. I am not painting a picture to say I am perfect. In every business and person there is always room for improvement, but this can only be addressed if something is bought to your attention of wrong doing. 

I showed my case file to my NFSP rep.  All he kept saying was "Where has this money gone?" I told him the structure in my office, what I had done and how I was doing it in great detail. He just told me the Horizon system is 100% intelligent and picks up anomalies. The system works in simple maths format, 2+2=4 and is never wrong.

In our branch we operated with a manager and two part-time staff. The NFSP rep was adamant someone in our branch had taken the cash. I said if someone walked out with £57,000 surely I would notice it had gone missing. Even if it was being taken in small chunks I would see money missing when cashing up and balancing on a weekly basis. But we balanced perfectly. 

The rep said if it wasn't me "then it has to be your branch manager as you two were the only two with access to all areas".

I didn't think my staff were robbing me, but I went away and had a look at everything again. After doing some nosing around I confirmed my original conclusion - it wasn't any of my staff. I trusted them, and there's nothing to suggest they had been doing anything untoward.

At this stage the Post Office and the NFSP had made me feel so incompetent, stupid, and careless. I didn't trust myself or anyone around me, including all my family members. I doubted everyone. I knew the money had not physically been taken. It wasn't a small amount of money especially when the Post Office were telling me it had happened in the six months leading up to my October 2017 audit.

As far as I was concerned everything was fine. So how did £57,000 in cash "disappear"?

When looking closer at the paperwork provided to me by the auditor on 10 October 2017, the loss had occurred from the ATM machine stock unit/till and that’s what I was told by the original auditor on the day. I had followed the same procedure for over 4 years of having the cash machine operational, week in, week out, month in, month out. Nothing had changed and the system never showed me any different.

I later learned the training I had been provided with by Post Office Ltd was incorrect. I was not told to check the figures on the printed slips, or to cross reference figures between Horizon and the ATM machine as they both work independently. I was told to follow the blue and white sheet (the ATM balancing sheet) and you will not go wrong. As far as I was aware, what I was doing was just fine. The Post Office did not tell me otherwise, just to take the printed figures and enter them into Horizon.

As a result of my suspension in October 2017, my branch was closed during the busiest time of the year. I had to spend approximately £6,000 of my own money to buy stamps from another local post office to sell to the less abled and older customers who couldn't travel to other branches. Did I make a profit? No - I had to buy and sell them for the same price.

My feelings and emotions were all over the place, I have three young kids to feed and house, bills to pay, and I was the only one with any income.

I arranged a meeting with my local MP, Jeremy Hunt. I brought my local councillor Penny Rivers. Mr Hunt took the information I gave him and called Paula Vennells. She agreed to another review.

Review number three

The review was going to be led by Angela Van den Bogerd, the Post Office's People Services Director. She asked to meet up. A date was arranged but the NFSP representative could not make it so I asked if my solicitor could attend. Ms Van den Bogerd said it would be inappropriate for a solicitor to attend.

I met with Angela van den Bogerd at Post Office HQ in London, taking an NFSP rep.

Ms van den Bogerd asked what control measures I had in place in my branch, what checks I had done and how I was running my office. I answered all the questions I was asked to the full. My NFSP rep had already made me feel as if the money had definitely been taken, so did Angela Van Den Bogerd. They both agreed money can’t disappear into thin air. It has to go somewhere. 

I knew for a fact I didn’t take it, so who did? That’s the million dollar question.

Both the NFSP and Angela Van Den Bogerd drummed into my head that the money had been stolen and syphoned from the ATM. My question was how?

After explaining to Angela Van Den Bogerd that the training was insufficient with the ATM, I would feel reinstatement with higher control measures and monitoring would mitigate all risks, including getting rid of the current staff and replacing them with myself and my wife only. I demonstrated that I operate a very good retail business working every hour god sends and the figures speak for themselves.
Angela van den Bogerd

Ms van den Bogerd decided to uphold the decision to terminate me.

This brought stress onto my marriage, family life, to the point where my wife said to me it’s either the business or your family, but I could not walk away from either as I had done nothing wrong. I was not going to throw away everything I have worked hard for. I had, without the help and assistance of the Post Office, increased income by 10% within 2 years, and the key was service and knowledge.

Early in 2018 I had a mental breakdown. My family life was suffering, and my interaction with my children was getting worse. After talking to my doctor I was prescribed Sertraline anti-depressants which has helped.

I decided to give Ms van den Bogerd another call. She said to stop looking back at what has happened and look at the future. Concentrate on your retail business and how to get the Post Office opened again. She advised me to get a family member to apply for the position.

So I mentored my brother-in-law, Shamil, through the process and the Post Office agreed to get him in as a temp and let him apply for a permanent position.

One of the conditions of my brother-in-law's appointment as Subpostmaster was that I had to carry out works at my own cost which was to separate the retail counter from the Post Office counter and also have a dedicated secure area in the back stock room with a secure locking system. This was not a problem as I was doing this for my community. 

On 18 June 2018 a Post Office auditor arrived on site without prior appointment, saying he was there to reopen the branch counter.

I had no knowledge of this, nor did my brother-in-law, who was coming in as a temp. At this time my brother-in-law was working at another branch, he could not just up and leave.

We rescheduled the actual reopening date for 22 June. The auditor left to go home. About an hour later he came back and said he has been told to do a transfer audit. I was happy for him to do that. I did tell him that the safe is covered by CCTV with HD cameras and I wanted him to check the seals on the safe before opening it. Everything was fine. He was happy that the seals had not been tampered with and were all intact from the images he had been sent.

More discrepancies

He then logged onto Horizon where there were Transaction Acknowledgments [TAs - Subpostmasters have to accept these] and Transaction Corrections [TCs - which can be disputed so long as the Subpostmaster agrees to abide by the Post Office's decision] waiting to be accepted.

The auditor went through them. Many of theses were transaction corrections in my favour, which meant that the Post Office owed me money. He did not give me any cash.

After printing various slips off Horizon he took out his note and coin counting machine etc, and found a system loss of £5,050.00

He was shocked and didn’t know what to say, except that I was liable for this loss.

He then phoned the original auditor who confirmed that I was liable for the shortage as I had signed off the accounts and documents on the day of audit, which I had not. The system had not been functional for 8 months, the safe was not opened since the last auditor sealed it, so where did this alleged shortfall come from?

I refused to pay the Post Office a single penny.

The auditor then changed the figures on Horizon to show 0.00 balance at first, then to show the £5,050.00 loss, which if a Postmaster had done it the Post Office would call false accounting as he has not physically put this money in.

I then rang Angela Van Den Bogard to explain the situation. She spoke to the auditor, then told me not to worry about it - she would take care of the new ‘shortfall’.

I was asked to sign the Official Secrets Act by the auditor and trainer who reopened the branch, which I refused. When I requested a copy of this document to send to my solicitor for advice he would not allow me to copy it. Why?

On 22nd June the auditor returned to open the branch. Due to high volumes of old Christmas stock etc, the branch did not open for trade until 4pm as he had great difficulty getting cash and stock to balance on Horizon. 

But finally I had managed to get the branch re-opened for my community.

What did I have to sacrifice for this to happen?

- being £57,000 in debt to my father-in-law
- 9 months of being closed without pay.
- lost my Post Office counter income.

A couple of weeks later I filled out a P250 employment and clearance form (to be employed by my brother-in-law, now in my position) - filled out with honest information outlining my previous position and stance with the Post Office. In response to which I was then cleared and am now branch manager with access to all areas at the same branch where the Post Office accused me of losing/stealing/taking/not managing government/Post Office money of the value of £57,000. How ironic.

But... my income has been drastically reduced. I have to do 2 evening jobs till late at night to supplement my lower pay despite often being in work at 5.30am every day to do the papers.

The auditor returned on 27 June to oversee my trading period roll-over. He told me to keep an eye on the ATM as Bank of Ireland had carried out an update on the system which throws the figures out.

The auditor loaded the cash machine on 18 June when he came in and turned it on for the community to use. When it came to do the balancing on 27 June - surprise, surprise - there was a discrepancy between the Dispensed Since Load figure to the Withdrawals Value. 

Shortly after, Post Office Chesterfield Postmasters Accounts sent the new Postmaster (my brother-in-law) an invoice for the alleged shortfall of £5,050.00 to pay immediately. To a postmaster who was not even on site or anywhere near this post office at the time on 18 June 2018, how can this be? To date no one has been able to answer the question. 

My family worked hard and sacrificed our social life to serve our community. Under the old contract, our branch was open 9am-5.30pm Monday to Friday and 9am-12.30pm on Saturday, closed on Sunday. That’s 46 hours working. Under Network Transformation we changed that to working 71 hours per week for less money. 

All I have done is work hard and given 100% all the way with pride, passion and dignity. We developed the business, not only the retail but the post office side. We took it to a high level, serving approximately 1400 customers per week, nearly double the numbers from when I took the business over in 2013.

We invested thousands into the business with a small loan, and we get accused of taking £57,000 from the Post Office.

Overnight I lost everything. My dignity, respect and everything which I built over the course of four years - the Post Office took it all away without a proper investigation and explanation, with no care in the world of how a man would support his family without pay or financial assistance.

I was angry and felt betrayed from the very company that claims that the postmasters are the backbone of their organisation. I agree. Without us, the Post Office would not exist or have the Network they brag about today.

I am still angry and frustrated and I still have not been given answers to my questions without any real factual evidence. 

I decided to contact Ms Vennells again outlining my concerns and thoughts. She was very helpful and assigned to me Julie Thomas, the Post Office Operations Director whilst Angela van den Bogerd concentrated on the High Court litigation.

Review number four?

Julie emailed me in July 2019 with a plan of action to do a further review and investigation, and to do so in greater detail step by step.

By the time of Julie's email the High Court litigation was well underway. I had read the first judgment and was following the Horizon trial with interest.

In March 2020 I sent my documents to Julie Thomas as requested. She replied on 6 April telling me that the Post Office is in the process of launching a "detailed and user-friendly scheme aimed at addressing outstanding issues in respect of historical shortfalls" and that it is "no longer appropriate" for her to carry out an investigation into my case.

After 3 investigations and reviews, the Post Office has not been able to establish facts of the alleged loss. They have provided me with some information, but not information that is actually helpful."

Chirag has very kindly shared some of the paperwork around his case, including Paul Southin's report, which resulted in Chirag's termination.

Mr Southin reports meeting Chirag and examining his possible explanations for the discrepancy. As part of this investigation, Chirag's information was shared with the Support Services Resolution Team (SSRT) who provided Mr Southin with transaction data from Chirags branch.

Mr Southin reports Chirag "indicated his business was struggling financially" and states Chirag gave no plausible explanation for the £57,000 discrepancy. His suggestions that it arose during the 2015 refurbishment or because of the way he was recording ATM figures "have both been proved to be false". He also notes that Chirag stated "the loss was not an issue with the Horizon system." Mr Southin also notes that SSRT transaction data gives "clear evidence" that "branch stock units were being manipulated in an attempt to show a zero discrepancy" (the sort of thing that in the bad old days may have got him charged with false accounting).

Mr Southin decides that despite Chirag handing £57,000 to the Post Office on demand, he should be sacked on the basis that reinstatement would present a "continued ongoing risk to Post Office funds, as there has been no satisfactory explanation for the loss."

I put these points to Chirag and he was adamant: "Never once did I say my business or my branch were struggling financially." He says altering figures to zero was only done after "putting the shortage in the till so it balanced" ie what he had been told to do in his training - and his two differing explanations for the discrepancy were not him changing his story, but two theories that might give Mr Southin a lead on his investigation.

Finally, with regard to the part of Mr Southin's report in which he claims Chirag said: "the loss is not an issue with the Horizon system", this too, is disputed. Chirag says the way he phrased it (in a written statement to Mr Southin) was: "it’s an accounting error somewhere within the Horizon system, where an incorrect button may have been pressed or incorrect figures entered somewhere."

I have tried to contact Mr Southin for his thoughts. I am told he is no longer with the Post Office.

The Post Office itself says: "We do not comment on individual cases. We are launching a scheme which will independently assess applications from current and former postmasters who believe they have experienced shortfalls related to previous versions of Horizon. We are working with determination to leave no stone unturned in addressing all the issues arising out of the group litigation and the events which led to it.”

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NW adds: Chirag first contacted me back in 2018 to tell me his story. I would like to apologise to him for sitting on it for so long. We had a chat the other day which prompted me to get this post published.

Chirag told me during the current lockdown, Farncombe Post Office is trying to step up. He and his colleagues have been working all hours to provide a branch counter service to everyone in and around Farncombe whilst also trying to keep the retail side of the business fully stocked for their customers.

Chirag is running a free delivery service to local customers who are self-isolating, and I have been told by one of his supporters he spent Easter weekend delivering complimentary eggs to doorsteps of local children, the Meath Epilepsy Charity and a local nursing home, which is very public-spirited of him.

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