|Chirag Sidphura in Nov 2018|
“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.
Naïvely, 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.
Before I worked in the Post Office I was an engineer - servicing and maintaining thirty government IT infrastructure sites across the UK.
|Chirag outside Farncombe PO|
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."
Interview under caution
Mr Gillimore advised me to get a criminal solicitor but would not assist me any further.
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.
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|
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 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.
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.
I felt as if a ton of bricks had fallen on my chest.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Review number three
|Angela van den Bogerd|
Ms van den Bogerd decided to uphold the decision to terminate me.
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.
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
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?
- 9 months of being closed without pay.
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.
We invested thousands into the business with a small loan, and we get accused of taking £57,000 from the Post Office.
Review number four?
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.”
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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