By Tony Collins
“I really have to apologise for not being able to offer the Post Office service the village deserves.
“The worst thing is that I cannot get a full response from the Post Office for their suspension of the service.”
These are the words of Neil Johnson, owner of the village Post Office located inside the Mace convenience store, High Street, Boosbeck, near Skelton, North Yorkshire.
The local Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop says on his website that the reasons for the closure of the Boosbeck post office are unclear but are “connected to a long running and national issue with the computer system and software used by the Post Office called Horizon”.
The closure leaves the village without a post office.
Dozens of subpostmasters have been forced to quit their local post offices over Post Office allegations that they acted criminally following losses shown on the Horizon system.
The Post Office has made no allegations against Neil Johnson.
The Post Office has required more than 150 subpostmasters to repay losses of thousands of pounds and, in some cases, tens of thousands of pounds – money they say was not a genuine loss but an accounting discrepancy shown on the computer system.
Many of the 150 were made bankrupt, jailed, or had their lives ruined because of what they say are unexplained faults related to the Horizon system.
No evidence has yet emerged that the subpostmasters in question received any of the money they are alleged to have taken. In some cases village communities have pulled together to raise money for the Post Office to be paid the “losses”.
Blenkinsop said of the temporary closure of the Boosbeck Post Office,
It just isn’t good enough and leads to an honest shopkeeper being possibly branded with an unfair image or tarnished by rumours…
“I did write on Mr Johnson’s behalf to the Post Office’s parliamentary liaison office, but all I have had back so far is the standard response that this is ‘being looked at’, and advice as to where the nearest other offices are – which I know anyway!”
Interviewed by The Northern Echo, a Post Office spokeswoman did not elaborate on the reason for the temporary closure. She apologised for any inconvenience caused to local residents.
“We would like to reassure customers that we will restore the service to the community as soon as possible and are committed to maintaining services in the area.
“In the meantime, customers can access Post Office services at Lingdale, North Skelton or Skelton in Cleveland.”
The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance is taking a group legal action against the Post Office on behalf of the subpostmasters who say their lives have been affected by losses shown on the Horizon system.
An initial High Court hearing is expected to take place in January 2017.
One of the campaigners for justice is Tim McCormack, who worked in IT and later became a subpostmaster.
Although he did not personally have experience of unexplained losses, he believes strongly that problems with Horizon could explain the complaints of the accused subpostmasters.
He has written a fascinating analysis of the Seema Misra crown court case.
A subpostmaster has – unsuccessfully – made an anonymous FOI request to the Post Office for its Horizon “known errors” log.
The subpostmaster wrote,
“I am a subpostmaster with a big problem. Over the last few months my branch has run up a huge loss and I am at my wits end trying to find out what has happened.
“I have contacted the NBSC [Post Office’s Network Business Support Centre] when it first started but they said I had to pay the money back but now it is too much and I just don’t have that sort of money.
“I have been looking on the internet for help and I see that there might be problems with Horizon that could have caused it.
“On this site someone has asked for something called the known errors report but you haven’t let them see it. Please could you tell me what these known errors are so I can try and track down what has caused this loss as I haven’t taken any money.
“I can’t report this to you because I read about Seema Misra and how she ended up in prison even though she said she didn’t take any money.
“Please please please let me see the errors so I can find what went wrong… I don’t want to go to prison I would rather kill myself first.
“Thank you to this site for letting me do this anonymously.”
The Post Office’s Gagan Sharma of the Information Rights team replied,
“Firstly, before I turn to your request under the FOIA, I would like to respond to the personal issues raised in your email. I am naturally especially concerned by the final line of your email and urge you to seek professional help via your Doctor or an organisation such as the Samaritans…
“One of the Post Office senior colleagues, Angela Van-Den-Bogerd would be keen to speak with you in complete confidence and anonymously to see whether we can help in any way…” [Gagan Sharma supplied a phone number.]
On the matter of the losses, the reply said,
“Regrettably, there has been some very misleading and inaccurate information about the Horizon computer system reported in the media. It’s important that you please contact the NBSC [Network Business Support Centre] again and ask for your report to be escalated to a Team Leader so that they can look into your concerns.
“The information that you have requested under the FOIA cannot be provided to you for the reasons I set out below …”
The letter confirmed that the “Post Office does hold information related to your request. However we believe that the information is exempt from disclosure”. The letter said disclosure was likely to prejudice commercial interests.
“… software updates for the Horizon system are released on a regular basis to ensure that operational performance is maintained at optimal levels… such updates include, for example, upgrades and improvements to functionality; and the introduction of new business capabilities for products and services and are, therefore, considered to be commercially sensitive…”
But subpostmasters have pointed out that it’s difficult for them to support their claim that the Horizon system was at least partly to blame for apparent losses if they cannot see the known errors log.
As has always been the case, the Post Office owns the system; it has a contractual right to claim from subpostmasters any losses shown on the system; it is the prosecuting authority when it believes that subpostmasters have taken the money shown as losses on the system; it is the investigating authority and it can decide what information to divulge.
What chance do subpostmasters stand – even if innocent – in the face of such overwhelming power?
And how much fun is it to run a village post office when the Post Office could close it suddenly and inexplicably and, in doing so, strike fear into the heart of the local subpostmaster?
Thank you to Tim McCormack for his work and help in relation to the Horizon system.