Wednesday, 9 February 2011

What's up at the Post Office?

This story has been updated: 14 Aug 2013



In November last year, whilst on air, I got a random tweet from a man called Davinder Misra who wanted to know if I might use his West Byfleet-based taxi service.

I replied, possibly a bit flippantly, that it depended on whether he had any good stories to tell.

Davinder said something like "oh I've got a story to tell alright".

I took his number, we spoke on the phone and I went to see him.

I also spoke to Alan Bates, the man who runs the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, then I took the story to my boss at BBC Surrey and my colleagues at Inside Out South. Nearly three months later on Mon 7 Feb 2011, we broadcast the above piece on BBC 1 South.

If you can't view it, a transcript of the film can be found here.

On the same day the television piece went out we broadcast a radio programme focussing on the story on the BBC Surrey Breakfast Show. Have a listen...



The above 28 minute piece features a longer conversation with Davinder Misra and three live guests - Jo Hamilton (who features in the TV piece), her lawyer Issy Hogg, and Seema Misra's MP, Jonathan Lord.

In it Jonathan Lord MP calls for

"a full investigation... we need absolutely independent double-checking of the Horizon computer system... but I think also... if discrepancies are shown up within a subpostmaster systems - I think that needs looking into. I think our postmasters need to be able to contact the Post Office in the knowledge that things will be looked at in a fair, balanced and compassionate way. Peoples' livelihoods are on the line here.

"They... almost certainly have invested thousands, if not tens of thousands of pounds in their businesses and if they don't feel secure in going to the Post Office and saying, look, there's a discrepancy here, I need help... rather than thinking the Post Office, because of the contract they've signed is going to pounce on them, and potentially take them out of the business they've worked so hard to build up and put so much money into, then you can understand why they feel worried and why that side of things needs looking at."

In the radio broadcast Jo Hamilton's MP, James Arbuthnot, says:

"I find it very difficult to believe that all these subpostmasters and subpostmistresses are suddenly found to be dishonest, if the alternative is that it may be a public sector computer system which has gone wrong. We've heard of that before."

We invited the Post Office and the Minister for Postal Affairs, Ed Davey, to be interviewed for the television piece and the radio discussion. They declined. To paraphrase their statements, the Post Office says everything about the computer system is fine, and the Minister for Postal Affairs says he's asked the Post Office and it says everything is fine, so he's not going to intervene.

I asked Jonathan Lord MP if he was happy that the Minister was "sitting on his hands." Mr Lord said:

"I suspect there's a little bit more going on behind the scenes than perhaps the Minister is willing to let on. I hope that is the case."

Two days after the above broadcasts I asked Ben Goldacre (I worked with Ben on this) and Richard Wilson to have a look into what I'd managed to put together so far.
 
A follower of Ben's called Melissa Wilde sent me a link to an almost identical story in the Manchester Evening News I wasn't previously aware of.
 
Richard did some digging himself and found this.
 
Since the broadcast went out on BBC1 South, Jon Cuthill, the Inside Out South presenter, has been forwarding me some of the emails he's received. These are all genuine, with certain names and locations changed to protect serving postmasters/mistresses. Some of the people below have had their livelihoods and reputations destroyed. They still cannot understand why.

1) Paul: "I have just seen Inside Out South on BBC iPlayer after a friend told me about the episode transmitted on 7/2/2011.

"I myself was taken to court by the Post Office and sentenced to 15 months in prison for false accounting. The amount owing to the Post Office changed at every court hearing, but the last amount was £51,000.

"In court the judge asked if the money was stolen. The Post Office did not say yes I stole the money but when I said money was in the Post Office when it was not was false accounting. One day I lost £6,000 according to the system.

"I do think the Horizon system has lots of flaws, and find it hard to understand why they can accuse people, but don't look into the system.

"They have ruined many peoples lives including my own. I'm sure there are many more subpostmasters like myself out there."

2) Steve in Northumberland: "Many thanks for reporting on the theft allegations of Post Office Ltd. I am a serving subpostmaster and was obliged to "pay back" just over £4,000 last October. Keep up the good work and don't let go of the scandal of the Post Office Horizon system."

3) Simon in Norfolk: "It was good to see your program last night exposing the shameful issues that the Post Office are subjecting their subpostmasters to.

"My wife Allison took over an ran the small Sub Post Office in our village of Worstead, Norfolk in June 1997. All ran well until three years ago when unexplained losses started appearing in her weekly balance.

"Like the others featured in your film she believed that it was a system error and it would correct itself. A few weeks went by and the system did not rectify itself, so, like she was told to do previously, the figures were inputted incorrectly to make the system balance.

"(At training sessions for the older "ledger" accounting system they were told that large sums do not go missing, these are down to errors so put incorrect figures in the ledger and correct them when a correction notice is received from central accounting).

"Time went on and the losses mounted until they reached £12,000. Allison received little assistance from the "helpline" and did not know where to turn.

"Surprise, surprise, an auditor suddenly arrived and after a short inspection told her that she was some £18,000 adrift in the accounts. This he whittled down to £12,000 after some 10 minutes of looking. Allison was suspended without pay.

"Some nine months later she was charged with theft and summoned to the Norwich Magistrates Court, and then sent for trial at the Crown Court. At the Crown Court a second charge of false accounting was levelled at her.

"She intended to plead not guilty to all charges but the barrister told her that the Post Office would look for a custodial sentence if she was found guilty. This if course frightened her and she decided to plead guilty to false accounting.

"The sentence was 200 hours of community service plus £1400 cost to the Post Office. She has also had to pay back the £12,000 of supposed losses.

"The sad part of all this is that due to the bullying of the barristers into accepting the charge of false accounting the Post Office did not have to produce any evidence to support their claim of losses. Also, at no time during this sad debacle did the Post Office ever try to show where they thought the losses were in the books or try to assist a long-serving member of their staff.

"They hid behind the clause that says postmasters make good losses however caused and basically hung her out to dry.

"Our local community, however, was, and still is, very supportive of Allison but the stigma and the criminal record will not go away for a long time.

"I look forward to seeing updates in your future programmes."

4) Pam in Barkham: "I have just watched your item on Inside Out concerning the Post Office.

"I am a former subpostmistress with 24 years experience who has been at the receiving end of the Horizon System.

"My problems began in October 2009 when my office was relocated into a Portacabin whilst my shop and office were rebuilt. The first balance after moving was short by £388, the next on 6 Dec was short by £3500.

"I telephoned the helpline to query both of these, but paid them, assuming that it was perhaps lost paperwork during the move and the error would manifest itself at a later date, and the money returned.

"However, the next balance on 6 Jan 2010, which followed a period with bad snow conditions, my daughter's wedding, Christmas, New Year and more bad snow, when the Post Office was only open for two and a half weeks, was £9000 short.

"Yet again, I rang the helpline, got no help, so I registered this as a disputed loss and decided that I needed to protect myself by printing out transaction logs of every single transaction performed in the office from 6th December 2009.

"At that point I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I knew that there was never £9000 in the Post Office over that short period which was unaccounted for and which could have been removed.

"February proved no better, £8500 short. At this point I rang Horizon and demanded that they compare their logs with mine since they appeared to differ. I was dismissed with the words:

"Sorry, we've checked the nodes. They're working. This is your problem".

"I have to admit that I was very angry and told Horizon and everyone else at the Post Office that I had printed out the logs and would not accept that my office had lost this money until they had compared the logs they had with mine. I was ignored.

"So we continued. I disputed every loss at each balance, I became paranoid about my part time member of staff. I spent my waking life counting money. I worked my way through the transaction logs, which I had eventually managed to print from 17 Nov 2009, pulling out all cash deposits, all cash withdrawals, any remittances which were made to the cash centre; then comparing these with the overnight cash figure for the office. There were no obvious differences. I continued to ring the helpline, by this stage we were almost on first name terms, but still nothing was done.

"An auditor was sent out to sit and watch me while I worked,to see if I was doing anything wrong. At the end of a morning, the office was £200 short and all he could offer was that I might be keying in items too fast for the computer. However, he did point out that this shortage did help my case.

"I wanted the computer system checked before we were due to move back into the new building in June, since I was convinced that the move out had triggered these errors.

"In the weeks leading up to the move I was required to count the cash 3 times a day and report shortages, which I did each time. They were regularly short.

"Then suddenly, just two weeks before we were going to move, without any checks being done, I was audited for closure and suspension without any notice.

"I only found out a couple of weeks ago, at my preliminary interview with the Post Office Fraud Strand, that the balance on closure showed a surplus of almost £3000, this despite the fact that my regular daily checks showed shortages.

"I am unable to contact anyone at the Post Office management, having been told that I must wait until I am contacted by them. As a suspended employee I have no right to speak to anyone. So, I have been waiting and finally received notification of this interview on 6 Jan 2011, exactly one year to the day since I first flagged up the problems.

"I still have all my evidence, transaction logs from 17 Nov until the day before I was suspended. I am still hopeful that I might get to check the logs at each end of the information highway. The gentleman from the fraud department was trying to get copies of the Horizon logs for me so that I could compare them. It's now a month since I saw him and I am beginning to believe that they will never be released to me. I have found anomalies in the logs which have never been explained by Horizon/Fujitsu.

"Please continue to publicize the plight of the subpostmasters, there are hundreds of us nationwide and the Post Office, a Government-owned business, is hiding behind a technological company which just refusing to even consider that something might be wrong. In fact, when I first mentioned Horizon to a Manager, I was told "A lot of subpostmasters have said that but nobody has been able to prove it yet."

"Surely, someone must be able to investigate this for us?"

5) Anna in Cambridgeshire: "Thank you so much for your Inside Out South report re the Post Office. I am one of the subpostmasters that this has happened to, and you brought out how awful it is, and how we feel. So frustrated and so sick with worry. What really makes me annoyed is that Post Office Ltd. has
evidently bullied these people into giving the monies that Post Office Ltd., say they owe. I have refused to do this, as I am not going to give them any monies, even if I win the lottery I wouldn't because as we all say, we haven't taken it!

"I am emailing as many East radio stations and Look East to see if they could do a programme about it, and hopefully it would help our cause."

6) Clare in Dorset: "Reference your piece about the Post Office. How I sympathise with those people who have been wrongly prosecuted. Dreadful.

"I worked at a Post Office but left after six months because Horizon and Post Office audit staff were not able to detect what I had done wrong with a transaction which resulted in a deficit which I knew I had not stolen but looked suspicious as it was a round figure.

"On a day I had been left on my own, the subpostmaster was taking a lunch break and a customer wished to withdraw £200 from a savings account.

"I scanned the passbook and the computer allowed me to follow through the process of a withdrawal transaction.

"However, the transaction should NOT have been processed as I later found out, several weeks later, the customer should have applied for a letter of authority from Head Office and this letter would have a barcode to be scanned at the post office, NOT the passbook.

"Consequently I gave the customer the £200 but because the correct barcode had not been registered with Horizon this in turn resulted in a deficit at our end-of-day balance. The subpostmaster spoke with the Help Desk but nothing came of their investigations (if they did any at all).

"The Sub-Postmaster was not exactly believing and I just could not take the pressure of him thinking that I had taken the money. I handed in my notice.

"It was only after I left that the other clerk at the post office told me that the same lady came in again to withdraw another sum of money; this clerk was more experienced and asked her for the letter of authority. She said she had withdrawn the money previously against the passbook but luckily my initials were in the passbook and so the clerk realised this was how I'd made the error.

"On many transactions Horizon asks you whether you have performed checks but it failed on this occasion.

"What I found most alarming is that nothing came of the conversations with the Help Desk. This deficit was a rare occurence at our post office. I suppose it was too small amount of money and it would come out the the Sub postmaster wages, the post office would not lose.

"Horizon is not foolproof and certainly when you are new to counter work, it is a minefield. You cannot know everything all the time."

7) Gurinder: "My question for the Post Office is, if they constantly supervise every transaction we make is monitored how can they allow these error figures to grow up to five figures?

"At least in once in six weeks their professional supervisors check our accounts. How can they overlook them?

"Why were we not given the proper help or advice which is in the contract under their obligations."

8) Linda in Surrey: "I am an ex subpostmistress, who was also prosecuted for false accounting, and have been through hell, debt and disbelief for almost 6 years.

"I would very much like to talk to the people involved, and my heart goes out to the others, as I know what they are going through.

"Several postmasters joke about the black hole that money seems to disappear into, and leave you having to make good unexplained shortages!

"I even had ex-employers standing up for me in court, that couldn't believe what was happening, the Post Office was the worst company I have ever worked for.

"The training is abysmal, and the support non-existent. When my father was dying in intensive care, and I received a telephone call from the hospital asking me to get there as quickly as possible, I asked the post office if I could close early and explained the circumstances, the only reply I got, was" get someone else to cover", which as a single-handed office is nigh impossible.

"I knew I was innocent of dishonesty, and I never stole any money, but I now have a conviction for false accounting, debts, a destroyed reputation ,a wrecked family, asthma, and a long recovery from emotional trauma. Even now I still find it difficult.

"I hope you can pass my details on to the people investigating, and hope to hear from someone. 55 of us can't all be wrong. I thought I was the only one."

------------------------

The Post Office has its own trainers, auditors and prosecutors. It says the Horizon system has been tested against "independently-assured" standards.

This is a computer system that has been in place for 10 years, which, to my untrained eye has all the user-friendliness (and interface speed) of a ZX81. But the Post Office holds the line - everything is fine.

Subpostmasters get full training, says the Post Office, they also get access to a helpline, so any discrepancies that can't be resolved must be the subpostmaster/subpostmisstresses' fault. Ones they need to make good.

The subpostmasters/subpostmistresses can dispute them, of course, but the Post Office can decide, without giving any evidence, that they are wrong, and that they need to pay back what the Post Offices says they owe them.

Or be prosecuted, suspended or sacked.

At the time of writing there are three subpostmistresses in jail. No one has ever found the money they are supposed to have stolen/falsely accounted.

As Ben Goldacre said on twitter a couple of days ago: "really you need some computer security / accountant ninjas now".

If you are an investigative journalist/programme editor/newspaper editor/blogger/computer security/accountant ninja and want to pursue this story, call me.

8 comments:

  1. A friend of mine is a subpostmaster who has had her contract terminated by the Post Office because of a supposed shortage which connot be explained. Her contract was terminated before any investigations were done - contrary to what Ms Vennells assures is the procedure.

    I am so incensed by the injustice of this - my friend has been absolutely devastated and she is one of the most honest and decent people I have ever met.

    I have done my own research on the internet and have a file of articles I have found. There are certain more cases than anyone could imagine. My friend's case has never appeared on the internet and that does suggest that there are MANY more cases out there.

    I would really like someone to challenge Ms Vennells on what "robust" actually means....if she means that it is infallible then any computer expert would challenge on those ground....if she means it is a "good" system but not infallible then she needs to asking what it is that sometimes goes wrong and looking to put it right.

    I firmly believe that the subpostmaster contract acts as a disincentive to rigorous investigate in these matters - and that is NOT justice!

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  2. joanne from bolton i have just read your account about post office and i to am in court over alledgedly taking 3545 pounds i am not a postmistress but a counter clerk who worked on their own behind the counter i was accoused of 3 differrent amounts and now they have settled on a figure which is accountable for the problems of this figure started when my horizon system whent down and the new system was ready to be installed.
    for 10 years i have done this job and never had a problem i have followed the post office ways and suddenly i am accussed .
    the good thing about this item is i dont feel alone and i no others can relate to what is happening to me but it is staff as well that can be accussed and not just postmasters/mistresses espesially if the post master /mistress leaves there bussiness to your running.

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  3. And: http://www.computerweekly.com/Articles/2011/02/08/245313/Post-Office-faces-legal-action-over-alleged-accounting-system.htm

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  4. I thought I was the only one too.

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  5. The whole thing is a big nightmare. Your engineers recive little or no training. They are forced to work through an umbrella company called intelligent umbrella who is specified by a company called Touch Logistics. If you look at the directors of these companies and Provincial logistic and others, they are all a con and tax dodge. The whole Post Office has been sold down the line

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  6. Been there done that and got the bloody t shirt!! Pleaded guilty to theft and two counts of false accounting on advice of barrister to avoid custodial sentance. Lost the business and home, had two years unemployment and only finally got a job on a much lower salary through a friend of a friend. Still paying the fine and compensation. Will be til im dead i guess. Living in rented house, no chance of a morgtage! Wife and family stuck by me which is the most important thing, despite our child being relentlesly harassed and bullied at school. About time post office admitted there must be something wrong with Horizon!!!! We cant all be theives.

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  7. Like many software programmes they are invariably prone to glitches as per Microsoft has an ever lasting service patches and crashes, unless of course the HORIZON (Fujitsu) is written in a open source programme like LINUX with JAVA etc Then again Post Office Ltd (POL)is beyond reproach like any public undertakings while itself bleeds taxpayer’s money in the region of £40Million+ annually without any impunity of course, most absurd. What a sick joke to public purse under incompetent POL

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  8. It happened to us 2 years ago - we were audited and found to be £2700 down, suspended without pay for 5 weeks. We eventually got the Post Office back but only after agreeing to pay them the £2700 which had disappeared into Cyber space !! They weren't interested in anything other than getting the money, I spent hours trawling through paperwork and felt sure it was down to cash withdrawals - the system was forever going down and when people came into withdraw money we had to keep trying until it was successful - but how could I prove it ?? Without intensive knowledge of the Horizon system and the way the system 'talks' to other banks when transactions are made, you don't stand a chance. We now find ourselves in a situation again - £2600 short on scratchcards !! There appears to be some issue between Camelot and the Post Office - Camelot people take back packs of scratchcards, which are supposed to then come off the Post Office system - but is this working ? We can find no explanation for this loss, and I cannot see how they could have been stolen. This time we have refused to pay the money until a proper investigation takes place. We would be very interested to hear from other subpost masters who have experienced similar issues with Camelot scratch cards - it was apparent from talking to the Post Office that there are other Post masters out there experiencing the same problems !

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