Union representing sub-postmasters repeatedly ignored Horizon IT concerns, ITV News reveals

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Union representing sub-postmasters repeatedly ignored Horizon IT concerns, ITV News reveals

Post by TrueBlueTerrier » ... ws-reveals

The former head of the National Federation of Sub-postmasters, George Thompson, has refused all interview requests since standing down from the union in 2017, Nick Wallis reports

Words by ITV News Reporter Nick Wallis

I have been asked a simple question many times whilst covering the Post Office Horizon Scandal - where were the unions?

In any industry, unions act as canaries in the coalmine - spotting problems and raising the alarm. A good union can stop a serious concern becoming an out-and-out disaster.

So, how was it the Post Office were able to go about criminalising hundreds of innocent people for more than a decade without as much as a peep from the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP), which represents the vast majority of self-employed sub-postmasters?

According to its own figures, between 1999 and 2013 the Post Office prosecuted more than 700 people using data from its dodgy Horizon IT system as evidence.

The NFSP (often called “the Federation”) had one job - to look after its members.

In his evidence session to Business Select Committee in 2015, Alan Bates from the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA) told MPs: “The reason why the JFSA was set up was that the Federation refused to support sub-postmasters in any cases about Horizon, it never once supported people in court cases or anything like that.

"That is why the JFSA came about. Every one of our members wants their dues back from the Federation because of its so-called support - or lack of support - over the years.”

The man sitting next to Mr Bates in parliament that day was George Thomson, General Secretary of the NFSP.

He dismissed Mr Bates’ concerns, telling MPs: “We have to be careful that we are not creating a cottage industry that damages the brand and makes clients like the DWP and the DVLA think twice…I will kick the Post Office up the backside when it deserves it, but on Horizon, they’ve done done nothing wrong.”

By this stage the JFSA had been in existence for six years.

Independent investigators had found bugs in Horizon which affected sub-postmasters’ accounts.

Lee Castleton tried to join the NFSP when he was in dire need but his application form was returned to him without explanation.
Credit: ITV News
MPs were worried that the Post Office might have been responsible for innocent people being sent to prison.

Why did the sub-postmasters’ union - whose members had been prosecuted in their hundreds - tell parliament that the Post Office had done nothing wrong?

ITV News has seen confidential minutes from an NFSP Executive Council meeting from October 2009.

The Executive Council was the NFSP’s national decision-making body. Council members are discussing former East Bridlington sub-postmaster Lee Castleton and problems with Horizon.

According to the minutes, Mr Thomson told his fellow council members that “the Federation had to be very careful” about Horizon.

Mr Thomson was concerned that if the Post Office’s corporate customers "believed the system was error ridden they would be reluctant to do business at a time when the contracts were desperately needed.”

Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey comments on whether those investigating the scandal put too much trust in the Horizon software

In 2013, Helen Baker was elected to the NFSP’s Executive Council. Ms Baker was a sub-postmaster in the town of Battle in East Sussex and had seen media reports about problems with Horizon.

She’d also heard accounts of fellow NFSP members who had been suspended, sacked and sometimes prosecuted after running up mysterious accounting shortfalls using the Horizon IT system.

At her very first council meeting, Ms Baker told me she brought up the subject of Horizon and the problems it was causing.

“I said, what is going on? What do we know about this? What are we gonna do about it? And I was immediately shut down and [told], ‘that's not on the agenda. That's not what we're talking about. It's a whole load of nonsense, just people trying to blame Horizon for mistakes mistakes they've made, or their staff has made.”

I asked Ms Baker who shut her down. “George Thomson,” she replied.

Ms Baker believes Mr Thomson must have had suspicions there were problems with Horizon which might have impacted innocent sub-postmasters. It makes her quite emotional.

In 2013, Helen Baker was elected to the NFSP’s Executive Council.
Credit: ITV News
“He could have stopped it”, she told me. “He knew. He was given information. All he had to do was say stop. All he had to do was investigate.”

Whilst the Post Office was prosecuting its members, the NFSP told journalists it had full confidence in the Horizon IT system and believed it to be robust.

It did not make any statement supporting Mr Bates’ campaigning sub-postmasters until after their High Court victory in 2019.

It now says it was “misled” by the Post Office. Mr Thomson has refused all interview requests since standing down from the NFSP in 2017.

When ITV News approached him, Mr Thomson said, contrary to Mr Bates’ allegations, the NFSP “helped members all the way through Horizon”.

When I asked him why he never publicly criticised Horizon he said: “It didn’t have systemic problems, but we were not aware…it could be entered through the back door by engineers. The Post Office denied that to me on many, many occasions.”

ITV News approached George Thompson for comment after he spent years refusing interview requests since he stepped down from the NFSP

I asked Mr Thomson why he chose to believe reassurances from the Post Office over what his members were telling him about Horizon.

He replied: “The vast majority of members didn’t have problems with it.”

On contacting the NFSP’s current leadership for an interview, we were told that “due to the ongoing public inquiry and the NFSP’s participation in it, we cannot discuss specific cases or evidence which the Inquiry may hear.”

On what the NFSP did during the scandal to help sub-postmasters, the NFSP said: ”The NFSP of today cannot speak directly as to what previous officials did and said.

"While we can’t go back and undo what has been done, we are committed to helping the Inquiry in any way we can to get to the bottom of what happened.”

It adds: “As a result of this scandal, the NFSP is campaigning directly with the UK Government and other key stakeholders for wholesale change in the Post Office structure.

"We can say that the NFSP of today is completely committed to the uncovering of the truth about Horizon, the systematic way the Post Office lied to us and many others, and the impact those lies had on decisions taken.”

The NFSP is also keen to ensure it isn’t singled out when it comes to culpability.

In the conversations I have had with the current Federation representatives in recent years, the role of the Communications Workers Union (CWU) has been raised repeatedly.

The former head of the National Federation of Sub-postmasters, George Thompson, has refused all interviews since standing down in 2017.
Credit: ITV News

Workers in city centre Crown Post Offices are represented by the CWU.

In 2015, the CWU’s Andy Furey, told the Business Select Committee that “no Crown staff have lost their jobs directly as a consequence of Horizon problems.”

According to figures recently submitted to parliament by the Post Office, there were 78 prosecutions of Crown Office staff between 1999 and 2013.

The Post Office states: “we can say with a degree of confidence that Horizon evidence might have featured in prosecutions resulting in 48 convictions.”

That figure is part of the oft-quoted total number of 700 Post Office prosecutions.

When I raised the 48 Crown Office convictions with Andy Furey, he said: “The CWU prides itself in providing first class representation for all members when facing disciplinary charges and we support everyone who asks for help with advice, guidance and tangible representation.

"It is in the DNA of the union to support our members against injustices by the Post Office.

"There has never been any criticism levied at the union by a former member in relation to Horizon.”

Mr Castleton tried to join the NFSP when he was in dire need of help. His application form and membership subs were returned to him without explanation.

In 2009, according to the minutes of the Executive Council meeting that ITV has seen, the Federation leadership “requested that Executive Officers did not respond” to Mr Castleton’s appeals.

When I went to see Mr Castleton in his home town of Scarborough, he told me: “George Thomson and the Federation needs to step up and realise exactly where they failed all of the victims.”

The NFSP said: ”Mr Castleton applied to join the NFSP after his appeal and the termination of his contract by the Post Office.

"The NFSP accepts a fuller explanation as to why his membership application could not be accepted after the termination of his contract should have been given and we are sorry that it was not."

The NFSP and CWU are core participants to the public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal. George Thomson is scheduled to give evidence to the inquiry in London on June 21 this year.
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Re: Union representing sub-postmasters repeatedly ignored Horizon IT concerns, ITV News reveals

Post by NWpostie »

NFSP is completely discredited in particular George Thompson, if I didn't know better I would they were all in cahoots with the management over Horizon, NFSP should be derecognised and unionsed status rescinded with it's role taken over by JFSA who are doing a much better job of fighting for it's members.

There should be a mass resignation by members along with their subs from NFSP and join JFSA as their recognised representive of Sub Postmasters.
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