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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