Sunday, April 26, 2015

Decent lives destroyed by the British Post Office: The monstrous injustice of scores of sub-postmasters driven to ruin or suicide when computers were really to blame

Julie Carter’s great mistake was to become a sub-postmistress, operating a branch of the Post Office out of the store she and her husband once owned in South Shields in Tyneside. For them, that decision has been a disaster.

While some bigger post offices are run by direct employees of the Post Office, the vast majority are run by private business people — sub-postmasters. These are the people running the smaller outlets, away from city-centre branches. They’re the friendly faces greeting elderly neighbours coming to collect their pension, the glue holding their communities together.

Anyone thinking of using their life savings to join their ranks, say the Carters, should take heed of their story.

Since 2009, Mrs Carter has faced the possibility of being prosecuted by the Post Office for the disappearance of almost £60,000 from her business. She has been accused of fraud by Post Office investigators apparently convinced that the losses — recorded by the organisation’s nationwide computer system Horizon — must in some way be attributable to her.

Some 150 former sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have faced similar accusations, resulting in prison, bankruptcy and — it is suspected in one case — suicide.

All this despite claims that it is the IT system which is to blame for the cash shortfalls.

The scandal surrounding Horizon quite likely represents one of the most widespread miscarriages of justice in the UK this century. Reputations of people selected for a job that demands they be of good character have been shredded in an effort to prove that an antique computer network — unfit for use by any self-respecting private firm — can do no wrong.

Yet, the Post Office — one of the last bastions of nationalisation — has used millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to pursue people through the courts and silence criticism via an army of expensive lawyers, while continuing to deny to Parliament that there was ever anything amiss.

‘Dealing with the Post Office is like being in a nightmare,’ says Mr Carter. ‘They are right and they can never, ever be wrong.’

‘I can’t explain what they do to you — the bullying, the harassment,’ says Sarah Burgess-Boyde, a former sub-postmistress who lost everything after being accused of theft. ‘The investigators threaten you with prison unless you admit to something. It’s just awful.’

‘You think it is about honourable public service but I wouldn’t put anything past these people,’ says Jim Withers, a former member of the Royal Air Force and another sub-postmaster ruined by his encounter with the Post Office.

There are 11,500 sub-post offices in the UK, and buying into one is often seen as an attractive option for couples entering later life.

Horizon is the computer system through which the Post Office carries out and records transactions — from withdrawals from accounts, to road-tax payments and Premium Bond purchases. It works in tandem with a banking system used by the Post Office, through which debit and credit card transactions take place.

But if these two systems get out of sync, because of a power or telecoms connection failure, transactions might be repeated or not go through.

The result can be unexplained losses or gains which are hard to investigate because Horizon — which is being operated by people with little expertise in IT — is just about the opposite of user-friendly. It is also extremely difficult to spot and correct human errors — even involving thousands of pounds.

And it isn’t just the computer system. The cash machine system used in the Post Office network has also produced errors, which have then been logged in Horizon.

Miss Burgess-Boyde, 51, initially made a great success of her business, also in Newcastle, tripling her salary through commission to £60,000. ‘I felt like I was a key part of the community, respected and liked,’ she says. ‘People liked my staff and me, and we felt as if we were at the heart of things.’

Yet she experienced problems with Horizon from early on — during a thunderstorm the system malfunctioned and credited her branch with £250,000-worth of stamps it didn’t have.

But her real nemesis was the branch cashpoint machine. In the past, cashpoints in sub-post offices were filled by bank security staff. But then the Post Office insisted that sub-postmasters become responsible for that task — and accounting for the cash in the machines. This meant the Post Office had no incentive to launch an inquiry into shortfalls.

‘As soon as I knew there was a problem I told them [the Post Office helpdesk],’ says Miss Burgess-Boyde. ‘The ATM was producing really odd figures. I ended up with a £40,000 anomaly.’

Following an audit in November 2009, she was suspended.

‘I was absolutely distraught,’ she says. ‘But I still thought they would sort it out. Then my contract was terminated and I was prosecuted for theft.’

Her trial in December 2011 at Newcastle Crown Court collapsed on the second day after lawyers for the Post Office offered no evidence. But the damage was done. Miss Burgess-Boyde, who has not worked since, required counselling for depression.

‘My partner and I have lost all our savings because we put them into the business,’ she says. ‘I have lost my income, my reputation, my confidence. My life will never be the same again.’

She has yet to receive an apology. ‘The truth is, the people running the Post Office are terrified that their brand will become toxic if they admit something is wrong.’

In fact — amazingly — this public enterprise is using its legal muscle to attack the very firm of forensic accountants it called in to prove that its computer system and cashpoints are ‘innocent’, and its former sub-postmasters guilty.

The Post Office this week disowned a report by Second Sight, specialists in fraud investigation, which it recruited in 2013 to investigate the cash shortfalls. The Post Office has even issued a 83-page report, carefully crafted by its lawyers, rebutting the findings of its own investigators.

Second Sight’s crime has been to turn on its erstwhile client, accusing the Post Office of failing to investigate adequately losses before rushing into court. The accountants also accuse the Post Office’s management of withholding documents needed to establish the truth about where millions of pounds of lost money has gone.

The report by Second Sight suggests that errors in Horizon — which it describes as not fully fit for purpose — possibly combined with raids on Post Office cashpoint machines by criminals using malicious software, are responsible for most of the losses, and that the vast majority of the 150 sub-postmasters involved are innocent.

‘Bad things happen with computerised transactions — this is a fact of life,’ says the source. ‘This is why we have seen an upswing in mysterious disappearances of money since Horizon replaced paperwork. Where has the money gone? Probably into the pockets of customers, who benefited unwittingly from a glitch, or criminals who rifled cashpoints.’

Crucially, when a bank ATM loses money, the bank will immediately send out a team to investigate. The Post Office, however, does not have to shoulder the loss — the contract means the sub-postmaster is responsible — and so many ATM shortfalls were never actually investigated.

While Horizon has now been updated, it is still vulnerable to errors. ‘Any company with an error-prone computer system learns over time that the system is costing it money and improves it,’ says the source. ‘The Post Office has no incentive to do this because it doesn’t suffer any loss.’

Crucially, the Post Office has the power to bring its own prosecutions rather than submit allegations to independent scrutiny by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Of the 150 sub-postmasters convicted or investigated, it appears only a handful have acted in a truly dishonest manner. Worse, staff were encouraged to gloss over losses by the Post Office’s own helpdesk, which routinely promised worried callers that errors would iron out over time. Many had little idea they were committing an offence in balancing their books to keep their business functioning.

Jim Withers, 52, ran a busy branch in the Norfolk seaside town of Cromer. His problems started almost immediately after he took up his new post in 2006 and ran into problems using the Horizon computer system. ‘The figures were not right from week one,’ he says.

As his losses escalated, he raided his savings and sold his car in a doomed effort to balance his books. He told his wife nothing of his nightmare so as not to worry her.

‘I rang the helpline and they said: "Don’t worry, it will sort itself out" — that was always the reaction,’ he says. ‘One time, the woman at the call centre told us what to do, we did it and it doubled the loss! The woman said: "Don’t worry about it" again and put the phone down.’

Mr Withers lost his business and home, and now lives with his wife in rented accommodation.

There are worse stories. The strain of being pursued for losses is believed to have contributed to the suicide of Martin Griffiths, a sub-postmaster from Chester, who deliberately stepped in front of a bus one morning in September 2011. An inquest heard that Mr Griffiths, 57, was being pursued by the Post Office over an alleged £61,000 shortfall.

The Post Office has reached a settlement with his widow, but has insisted on keeping the terms of it secret.

Critics of the Post Office, left behind in public hands after the privatisation of the Royal Mail delivery arm in 2013, say the heavy-handed tactics have helped it hide its own culpability.

‘The modus operandi of the Post Office is sheer and utter bullying,’ says the source. ‘There is nothing wrong with the local operations of Post Office — it’s the headquarters.’

The Post Office has offered to take part in mediation with those of the 150 not convicted of an offence. But many of those eligible believe the future lies in a class action in court.

‘These people have a good case,’ says the source. ‘But the Post Office has more money than them — and more money than sense. It’s got my money and your money and that is what will fund their lawyers.

‘And that is the most outrageous thing of all. They are so hell-bent on denial that they are not prepared to give an inch.’

Responding to these claims, the Post Office says: ‘Investigations over three years have found that Horizon works as it should and, despite the complaints in the scheme, investigations have found that the majority of losses were caused by human errors at the counter.

‘No evidence has been found which shows that Horizon did not accurately record the transactions entered in a branch.

Mr Withers, now back working on aircraft for a living, has a simple message for those thinking of going into the sub-post office sector: ‘Don’t even think about it.’

Original report here

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