By Tony Collins
In the House of Commons in December Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen spoke about his constituent Michael Rudkin, a former Post Office subpostmaster.
Rudkin was a magistrate. He also served as the most senior member on the national executive of the National Federation of SubPostmasters. He was chairman of the Federation’s negotiating committee, responsible for negotiations with Post Office Ltd and Royal Mail Group.
In 2008, after Post Office accounts showed a loss of £44,000 at his local branch office, Rudkin lost his business, his reputation, his position as a magistrate, some property and his good name, and he has been unable to work since.
Bridgen claimed in the House of Commons on 17 December 2014 that a Post Office auditor told Rudkin of the £44,000 loss the day after Rudkin had visited the Fujitsu/Post Office Ltd offices at Bracknell.
Campaign4Change put the whole of Bridgen’s speech to the Post Office. It declined to comment on the specifics but gave a strongly-worded statement (below).
Like other MPs, including Labour MPs, who spoke at the debate, Bridgen began by paying tribute to Conservative MP James Arbuthnot who has been leading a Parliamentary campaign for justice for more than 150 subpostmasters, some of whom have been jailed, made bankrupt and have had their lives ruined after the Post Office’s Horizon system showed shortfalls on local branch accounts.
Arbuthnot had secured the “adjournment” debate on the Post Office’s mediation scheme that was set up to resolve disputes between subpostmasters and the PO over discrepancies shown on the Horizon system. Arbuthnot said it was the first time in his 28 years in Parliament he had sought an adjournment debate (a debate that ends with no vote).
“In 28 years in the House, I have never needed to apply for an adjournment debate, but the way in which the Post Office has treated sub-postmasters and members of parliament who have expressed concern about the matter is so worrying, and to my mind shocking, that in my final few months in Parliament it has become necessary for me to apply for an adjournment debate,” said Arbuthnot.
Bridgen said in the debate (the names he mentioned are not included here):
“The issue first came to my attention because of the plight of a constituent, Mr Michael Rudkin. For 15 years, he was a sub-postmaster… He was responsible for negotiations with Post Office Ltd and Royal Mail Group, so he is an experienced sub-postmaster.
“I would like to share with members his experience of the problems with the Horizon system, which demonstrates that significant questions need to be asked of the Post Office, although it is reluctant to answer them.
“Mr Rudkin’s story starts on Tuesday 19 August 2008. In his official capacity as a negotiator on behalf of sub-postmasters, he was invited to a meeting at the Fujitsu/Post Office Ltd offices in Bracknell to discuss problems with the Horizon system.
“If Mr Rudkin is telling the truth, which I have no doubt he is, this sequence of events raises questions about the system, which the Post Office must answer.
“On arrival that morning, my constituent signed the visitors’ book in reception and waited for his chaperone, a Mr R.
“Mr R took him to the second/third floor, and they entered a suite where Mr Rudkin recognised Horizon equipment on the benches.
“There was only one other person in the room – a male of approximately 30 to 35 who was reluctant to engage in conversation with Mr Rudkin or Mr R.
“Mr R asked Mr Rudkin to follow him through a number of pass card-protected security doors to some stairs. They went down to the ground floor and then entered the boiler room [an office in the Fujitsu building].
“Mr Rudkin states that a number of men dressed in casual office wear were standing around the doorway. They became very uncomfortable about Mr Rudkin’s presence and left.
“Having entered the boiler room, Mr Rudkin instantly recognised two Horizon terminals. There were data on both screens, and an operative was sitting in front of one of them, on which the pure feed for the Horizon system came into the building.
“Mr Rudkin asked if what he could see were real-time data available on the system. Mr R. said, ‘Yes. I can actually alter a bureau de change figure to demonstrate that this is live’ – he was going to alter a figure in a sub-postmaster’s account.
“He then laughed and said, ‘I’ll have to put it back. Otherwise, the sub-postmaster’s account will be short tonight.’
“Mr Rudkin expressed deep concern, because he had been told that no one had remote access to a sub-postmaster’s account. At that point, he was politely but speedily taken to reception, and he was told to leave the building.
“Mysteriously, the next day, Wednesday 20 August 2008, a Post Office Ltd auditor—a gentleman Mr Rudkin knew, by the name of P.F. – arrived at Mr Rudkin’s sub-post office. He proceeded to tell Mr Rudkin that his branch had a loss of £44,000.
“Interestingly, Mr Rudkin maintains that the investigator knew the size of the loss before he even entered the premises.
“Mr Rudkin was absolved of all knowledge of the loss by Post Office Ltd, but he was ordered to pay the money back at the rate of £1,000 a month from his salary.
“As we have heard, the sub-postmaster is completely liable under the contract for all losses.
“As Mr Rudkin points out, why would someone steal money from themselves when they know that?
“After Mr Rudkin had paid £13,000 back to Post Office Ltd, the Post Office started proceedings against Mr Rudkin’s wife for false accounting. It also applied for a confiscation order on all his property and had his bank account frozen under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
“Mr Rudkin has since cleared all his debts to Post Office Ltd. In the process, he has lost his business, his reputation, his position as a magistrate, some property and his good name, and he has been unable to work since.
“Second Sight – the team of independent investigators appointed by the Post Office to look into the matter – questioned the Post Office about Mr Rudkin’s allegations and his visit.
” Initially, Post Office Ltd consistently denied the visit had ever taken place – until Mr Rudkin produced an e-mail from Mr R. from the day before the visit, which invited Mr Rudkin to visit and said that Mr R. would meet him in reception, at which point the Post Office did admit that the meeting had taken place.
“Second Sight has repeatedly requested e-mail data from before, during and after Mr Rudkin’s visit, as well as a copy of the visitor’s book, but all those things have been withheld or are, we are told, now missing. That raises serious questions about the Post Office.
“Second Sight told me that it has looked at the contract sub-postmasters are asked to sign and that, in its view, a person would have to be an economic and legal illiterate to be willing to sign it, because it is so slanted in favour of the Post Office.
“As we know, the Horizon system is imposed on sub-postmasters by the Post Office.
“Effectively, the sub-postmasters become the fall guys – they are ultimately liable for all losses – so there is little incentive for the Post Office to ensure that the system or the support for it are robust.
“The way in which Post Office senior management have dealt with our working group of MPs has been extremely high-handed. I share my right hon. friend’s concerns: if Post Office management speak to Cabinet members and senior members of parliament in the way they do, the way they treat their sub-postmasters must be feudal …
“There are many questions to be answered, and I hope that as a result of parliamentary pressure and debates such as this, we will get the Post Office to move to a position where genuine negotiations can take place with aggrieved parties on a level playing field.
“We are some way from that yet, and I honestly think we will need a full clear-out of Post Office management before we get a change of attitude in this important public institution.”
Post Office statement
Questioned by Campaign4Change on the speech in the House of Commons about Rudkin, the Post Office issued this statement:
“There is very selective, misleading and incorrect information being put into the public domain about a number of cases but Post Office cannot and will not breach the privacy of individual applicants by discussing their cases, even though this means it cannot defend itself against unsubstantiated, baseless or malicious allegations. To do so would lead to us being accused of breaching confidentiality and undermining the mediation process.
“Each and every allegation is being reinvestigated and to date there is no evidence of either system-wide computer faults or malicious remote tampering with Post Office branch transaction data in subpostmasters’ accounts. Further, it is not possible for Post Office to alter that transaction data.
“Post Office has retrieved the available records for every case and these have been rigorously investigated and made available for independent review. For cases that are many years old it is not always possible to confirm, for example, every event – such as a meeting – referred to in a complaint. However, Post Office has investigated, as far as it is able, on the information now available, including that provided by the applicants.”
Mediation Scheme – facts and figures
This is a letter written by Sir Anthony Hooper, chair of the Working Group Initial Complaint Review and Mediation Scheme, to Jo Swinson, the Post Office minister – Sir Anthony Hooper letter to PO minister Jo Swinson Dec 2014.
BBC’s The One Show
TV investigative journalist Nick Wallis has covered the Post Office Horizon IT dispute extensively. He has presented reports on the dispute for BBC’s The One Show.
Computer Weekly’s timeline of the problems since 2009.
House of Commons debate on Post Office mediation scheme 17 December 2014`
Second Sight report on Horizon
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