Saturday, 17 December 2011

Lee Castleton - bankrupt and bitter

In the light of the recent article in Private Eye, I got an email from Lee Castleton, whose situation was highlighted back in 2009, by Computer Weekly.

Lee has given me permission to publish his email which has been edited slightly for clarity.

"Hi Nick,

"My name is Lee Castleton. I am a former subpostmaster. I am writing to give you my sorrowful experience of dealings with Post Office Ltd. I believe I am the only person to have defended a civil case (and lost) for losses in my branch - Marine Drive Bridlington. Case number HQ05X02706 in the High Court London. I was taken there in Dec 2006 by Post Office Ltd.

"In Jan 2004 My Post Office branch started to accrue losses. The first of which was £1103.68. This I paid. But I telephoned helpline and explained that I lost £1103.68. They told me to pay it and it would no doubt turn up the following week as a mistake on my part. The following week we again misbalanced. I was £4300 short. Again I made the phone call to helpline but I was given no help. 

"I explained I had paid in a large amount the week prior and I could not afford to pay. I was told they would look in to it. Over the following 10 weeks we misbalanced every week. Sometimes we had too much money but more often we had too little. I was frantic. I received no help and even though I never hid any misbalances, no answers we given. 

"After repeatedly voicing my concerns and begged for help (over 91 phone calls in the 12 week period) I asked for an audit. I knew this would stop the never helping attitude and force some action. I am naive. On the 23rd March 2004 I was audited. I was found to be exactly where I had told Post Office I was with respect to the misbalances (-£25000). 

"I did not expect what happened next. I was suspended. I was told the deficit was against my contract and that I needed to pay the money there and then. I explained that I had told Post Office repeatedly and that I felt the Horizon system was at fault. 

"I was taken through a procedure where my suspension became a termination yet still despite my pointing out faults in paperwork there was no investigation. Post Office now were not paying me and they then started proceedings to recover the supposed missing money. I was able to get representation through a legal insurance. 

"Post Office delayed and delayed with letters back and forth. All the time eating up the insurance money. 

"Finally we went to court in Dec 06. The Post office offered little evidence other than my signed accounts. I lost. From Jan 07 to this day my family and I have suffered far beyond anything I could explain. 

"I had to declare myself bankrupt because the Judge order costs against me to the value of £321000. The Judge told the Post Office that it was unlikely I would be able to pay prior to the case being heard but Post Office wanted to continue. So Post office Ltd paid £321000 to try to recover £25000. Even though they knew I could not pay.

"What is still painful is even more so when new revelations are revealed by others on a daily basis. I always asked for help and explained and reported any losses. It is not reasonable to think that an average working man can just pay ever more money into a system that clearly is flawed. 

"I have documents that prove the system does not work. One of which is the one Shoosmiths refer to - the Horizon records transactions whilst the person whom the Horizon says is operating the system is not even logged on to the system. This is one of the faults from my office.

"Post Office's case against me was argued on the basis that an account stated is an account owned. They argued that I signed of the accounts as a true reflection of the the accounts. Firstly over the 12 week period I made 91 phone calls asking why the system was showing shortages or gains. 

"Secondly I have now found out that Horizon has 3rd party access. Which Post Office deny. How can I own an account that a third party can change?

"Lee Castleton"

Since emailing this letter, Lee has asked Humberside Police to investigate his situation. He is alleging the Post Office:

"withheld the fact that the system has had and continues to have balance problems where transactions are lost. They withheld information during disclosure and still deny that the system has serious flaws with balancing. 

"They have financially gained from the non-disclosure and continue to deny they have a problem with the system. They have sought to criminalise people where possible whilst withholding this information. 

"They have profited from withholding this information. Because they are able to prosecute people without any form of checks with the CPS they have been able to continue to withhold this information to their own benefit in such cases."

Lee tells me the investigating officer at Humberside Police:

"has confirmed to me that he will be investigating the Post Office. He explained that he felt there is clearly a problem that needs to be looked into. 

"Whilst he also felt that it will be particularly difficult to do so he feels that it is certainly something that needs to be investigated."

I ought to point out, just in case any of the Post Office's lawyers are reading this, that the Post Office believes its Horizon interface to be "robust", and no one has ever offered any testable proof that the Horizon system has any faults whatsoever.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Namechecked in the House

I know exactly why Jeremy Hunt MP did this, and so do his sniggering colleagues.

 Jeremy Hunt loves BBC Surrey by nickwallis 

But that doesn't mean it isn't strange and wonderful to have your name mentioned by a Secretary of State in the House of Commons.

He said: "There are numerous examples which we've heard this afternoon, across the country, of where BBC Local Radio has filled a gap that would not have been filled by anything else, and I think in line with what other Hon. Members have said I do need to mention the excellent work done by BBC Surrey, which I visited recently, including the excellent Nick Wallis breakfast show." - Jeremy Hunt MP, Thu 1 Dec, 2011.

The mention, whilst extremely welcome, was gratuitous. Members of Parliament know that if they namecheck a specific local newspaper in the House of Commons there is a 99.9% chance they will appear in the paper they have mentioned (probably with a photo), and the coverage of their mention will almost certainly be favourable. 

I haven't heard the full debate on BBC Local Radio that led to Jeremy Hunt mentioning my name, but as he infers in the above clip, his parliamentary colleagues were almost certainly queuing up to mention their local radio station because they knew by doing so, they would make the bulletins on the radio stations they mentioned. Hence the knowing laughs in the background when Jeremy Hunt mentioned BBC Surrey.

It's not a conscious or pre-meditated "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours", nor does the extended coverage of the mention come from any pathetic sense of gratefulness on behalf of the publication or media outlet which gets its brief moment in the spotlight. It's just the way these things work. 

If someone who has a high profile endorses your work it is likely that people who already like you will be interested in it. Report it. Make a trail using it. Put it on the cover of your book or your billboard, RT it on twitter. Write an article about it. Anyone in this situation who gets all bashful is a fool.

The important thing to note is why my name was mentioned by a Secretary of State in the House of Commons. Although it may have been done for cynical reasons, it didn't happen spontaneously.

The debate in the chamber was about the future of BBC Local Radio, and it was called by the veteran Labour MP Austin Mitchell. He has concerns about the scale of cuts an internal BBC review (called Delivering Quality First or DQF) is going to impose on BBC Local Radio. Where did his concerns come from? Not out of thin air.

Since I started doing my show, I have been in regular contact with an extraordinarily committed listener who goes by the name of Darcy Sarto. He is passionate, articulate and very funny, and he cares an awful lot about BBC Local Radio. In his spare time he is involved with a group called the BBC Local Radio Forum, which has lobbied incessantly to get all the people who say they care about BBC Local Radio to do something about it. He is very well aware of the potential implications of DQF for local radio, and he sees it as his business, as a licence-fee payer and listener, to be an advocate for BBC Local Radio.

Whilst chatting (off air) with Darcy about DQF, I suggested the biggest problem that BBC Local Radio had was not enough movers and shakers listen to it. For many and varied reasons, a lot of influential people listen to BBC Radio 4 and/or 5live.

If there were a "Listen to BBC Local Radio Day", which simply asked everyone to try their local BBC station for a few moments, whether it be MPs, local councillors, charity bigwigs, NHS chief executives, police chiefs, business owners, shop workers, commuters, schoolteachers, mums, kids, celebrities, whoever - then it would raise the profile of BBC Local Radio, prove to people who'd never listened what a vital job BBC Local Radio does and it might even get us a few more regular listeners. It would also be something that the BBC hierarchy could get behind - why wouldn't they support a listener-generated campaign to ask everyone to tune in to BBC Local Radio?

Darcy agreed and suggested the date - Thu 1 Dec - the birthdate of the founder of BBC Local Radio, Frank Gillard. Poetically resonant and conveniently within the timescale of the current BBC Trust consultation into DQF. Perfect.

I am ashamed to say I did very little thereafter. Darcy and his friends did all the running - they got to enough MPs to get the debate called, and they ensured that the biggest news story coming out of DQF was the effect it may have on local radio. It won some significant public statements from people within the BBC, not least Mark Thompson, the Director General, and Caroline Thomson, the Chief Operating Officer who told the Voice of the Listener and Viewer group that the BBC had been "surprised" by the response to the Local Radio proposals.

Before we go any further, I need to state, for the record, that I have no opinion on DQF, nor on the way the BBC chooses to go about setting its budgets. I know that if there is a reprieve for BBC Local Radio, some other department will lose out. It's not my place to pontificate even if I did have an opinion.

If, however, you have a view on BBC Local Radio, and you want that view to count, please contact the BBC Trust. They are reviewing the proposals in DQF, and as a licence-fee payer, what you have to say will make a difference.

Here's the link. You have until 21 Dec 2011 to make your contribution. Please spread the word.

In the event, not many MPs attended today's debate, but the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, given his brief, was more or less obliged to do so. I have no idea of his real feelings on BBC Local Radio. Although he says I'm "excellent", I have no idea how many hours (minutes? seconds?) of my show he has listened to.

But he knew he would hear lots of other MPs talk passionately about their radio station, and so he made sure, at the very least, that he knew my name. 

And please be in no doubt that however cynical I may seem, it was rather thrilling to hear it said in such a rarified setting.