By Tony Collins
Since complaints of sub-postmasters about the Horizon branch accounting system were first published in 2009, the Post Office has said it is a reliable system used daily by thousands of people and complainants are few.
But, apart from the branch sub-postmasters who have made their concerns about Horizon known to the corporate Post Office, how many others are contented or dissatisfied with Horizon?
The BBC reported yesterday on a former sub-postmistress in Northern Ireland who said she sold her post office after problems with Horizon.
Fiona Elliott ran a branch from 2004 to 2009. It was attached to a convenience store. She told the BBC,
“At the end of the night, it was telling me that I had maybe minus £80, minus £100 or maybe £120 down.”
She put £8,500 of her own money into the post office to balance the books. “If the computer system had been balancing properly, I would not have had to put my own money into it.
“This left the shop side of the business struggling so we ended up selling the whole business.”
The Post Office told the BBC, “We have confidence in our network of 11,500 post office branches and the systems underpinning it.
“The Horizon computer system is operated successfully by thousands of employees, postmasters and their staff to process 47 million transactions every week.”
Another sub-postmaster’s Horizon response
Recently I asked a sub-postmaster about the Horizon system a few days before he and his wife sold their village post office.
The sub-postmaster knew me by sight as a regular customer. His post office had been on the market for several months. I spoke to him a few days before he passed it over to the new owners and asked why he was leaving. He did not look of retiring age. He said he did not like the hours and the opportunities to take short breaks were few and far between. He and his wife were going into a different line of work.
In a tone of voice that invited a positive response, I asked what he thought of the Horizon system. He was passionate in his criticism. He did not stop giving me his views about Horizon and its frequent updates (while shaking his head now and then) until another customer began queuing behind me.
Not a failure
Given that Horizon has been operating in thousands of post office branches for nearly 20 years and has coped with many major changes, the Post Office could say with authority that the Horizon system has not been a failure.
But is it generally reliable? And are sub-postmasters happy with it? In the absence of any published, authoritative and independent survey of sub-postmaster views, it is impossible to answer either question with any authority.
Ex sub-postmistress “wrongly had to repay 16k” – BBC
Thank you for this post, Tony. I have been following Nick Wallis’s reports as best I can but find the whole case most upsetting.
The news is dominated today by a major internet blackout involving O2. “Chaos for millions.”
So, the world is imperfect as are the works of man. The best we can do is to be aware of this reality and manage it.
Successful managers encourage their staff to be vigilant and to spot any problems on the horizon (sorry, had to include that). The earlier a problem is identified, the swifter an investigation can be carried out and therefore the best solution found and applied. Valuable lessons learned and benefited from.
The Horizon system seems to operate most of the time successfully but, like everything else, has its moments that require attention not a denial and attempts at a cover-up.
Unsuccessful institutions pretend that they are perfect. If any problems do arise that they can no longer deny, they blame the victims, the whistle-blowers, someone who is a long distance away or, preferably someone who is dead and can’t defend themselves.
The incompetent manager ensures that there is an impression of a flawless and smooth running system and therefore the flagging up of any problem is a sign of disloyalty or worse. There need be no investigation and consequently no disruption to revenue streams nor concerns as to the security of employment for those responsible for the incompetences.
My impression of the Post Office is of an established, respected, community-based amenity, offering a traditional and trustworthy service.
I imagine the subpostmasters were also influenced by that view, unaware that they needed a top-notch, city-slicker lawyer to forensically examine their contract before they dare to sell a stamp or open their till.
Unfortunately, I have worked for, or had to deal with, too many institutions that deny their responsibilities, cover up their incompetences and then, like all bullies, blame their victims. Therefore, I can’t help recalling the example of Rick Rescorla – responsible for security at Morgan Stanley at the World Trade Centre. He accepted reality and knew inconvenient stuff can sometimes happen. He ensured his staff regularly rehearsed an evacuation drill just in case the worst happened to their otherwise relatively smooth running day. He was resented, particularly by the senior management but even they co-operated. By preparing for a serious ‘problem,’ the staff of Morgan Stanley successfully escaped from the carnage of 9/11 while those who didn’t have that mindset had a more difficult experience – many perishing in the disaster.
Thanks for indulging me.
Thank you Zara for well expressed and important points.I agree with you completely. Tony Collins