Written evidence submitted by Mark Baker (POH0008)

 

Post Office and Horizon Inquiry

 

 

This submission is being made in my personal capacity and relates to the time when I was an National Executive Officer of the National Federation of Sub Postmasters. 

However, I should declare an interest as I am currently the Branch Secretary for Postmasters in the Communications Workers Union. The CWU will be making its own submission to the Committee.

I am also a serving Sub Postmaster of 42 years experience in the Post Office Industry.

 

My submission relates to the theme the Committee has set on the role of the NFSP in the Horizon scandal

I was elected to the Executive Council of the NFSP in 2001. Shortly after the introduction of the first Horizon system. I was elected on a ticket of challenging the Executive Council ( EC) for its seemingly cosy relationship it had with the Post Office. This was because Postmasters in my Region were frustrated that their incomes were falling and the Post Office did what they wanted and the NFSP never challenged the Post Office. 

My mandate was to find out why this was and to bring about change that made the NFSP act more like the Trade Union that it was supposed to be.

 

It's fair to say that I failed in this endeavour. 

 

My election to the EC was not well received by my fellow Executive Officers (EO’s) and the then General Secretary Colin Baker CBE was particularly hostile towards me.

 

I survived several attempts to oust me from my position on the EC because of the difficult questions I was asking etc. I was labelled a subversive by my detractors.

It became clear to me that I had disturbed a cosy gentlemen's club. 

 

Things got particularly difficult when the issue of Horizon system failures started to be brought to the attention of the EC.

I represented many members who were put through the Post Office disciplinary system for accounting shortfalls. I did my best to defend those members and I was quite successful in preventing summary terminations because I was demanding evidence that could not be produced.

 

I discussed my case work with the fellow EO’s but they did not seem to go into the same level of detail as I did. Their attitude was that this was clearly theft by either the Postmaster a members of the Postmasters family or staff. They seemed to put up a token defence of the member but in reality just “held their hand” through the disciplinary process with the inevitable consequence that the member was ushered out of the business.

 

Members would ask the EC for legal representation to be supplied and paid for by the NFSP funds. But all requests were turned down by the EC and the General Secretary.   

 

I was told much later, after the incident, that one member a Mr Lee Castleton applied for such help as he had terrible problems with his Horizon system. Without consulting the EC the General Secretary, Colin Baker, simply refunded the membership fees paid by Mr Castleton and sent him on his way and to his fate.

 

The years rolled by and complaints about Horizon continued to be made by members and ignored by the EC. In 2010 a new version of Horizon was introduced. It was called HOL Horizon Online.  All the calculations were done online using a web based system and the data for our cash accounts was held in a data centre. I was very concerned about this as I knew from my research that data flowing from a base unit to a data centre would be subject to data interference if the communication infrastructure was not properly maintained.

Also at this time the Post Office removed the Postmaster ability to place any discrepancy into a locally held suspense account and replaced it with the system we have today of being forced into accepting the discrepancies.

This change was supported the other EC members because the then General Secretary George Thomson told them that it was nothing to worry about and too many Postmasters were absuing the previous suspense account.

 

The constant support given to the Post Office by George Thomson increased particularly during the times that he was trying to talk the Government into Mutualising the Post Office.

 

I was not the only member of the Executive to be turned upon. A colleague, Mike Rudkin the then Chair of the NFSP negotiating committee was also treated very harshly by George Thomson. In my opinion Mr Rudkins troubles started after he raised concerns about what he had witnessed at the Fujitsu HQ in Bracknell. Where he saw Fujitsu software engineers remotely access the Horizon system and in live time alter a Postmasters accounting figures. 

 

I finally left the NFSP in 2010 after several failed attempts to try and get them to change their ways.

 

By then I had worked it out that the Post Office used its money and power to effectively control the NFSP to support Gov policy on Horizon, the Privatisation of the Royal Mail and the Network Transformation program. The latter two projects culminated in the NFSP converting into a company limited by guarantee and a grant funding agreement being set up for 15 years at a cost of £2.5 m per annum. This I believe was the reward to the NFSP for its cooperation in these projects. But it came at a cost to the organisations independence. 

 

I do not recognise the NFSP that I was once proud to play a leading role in. The organisation has descended into a money making machine benefitting only those who form its board of Directors. 

The last thing on their minds is protecting the interests of the very Postmasters they profess to represent. 

 

The current CEO Calum Greenhow has inherited the legacy left to him by George Thomson but he has done nothing to right the wrongs carried out by those who went before him. He has not even issued a public apology for the way in which people have been treated during the life of this scandal. At least the Post Office has gone as far as apologising.

 

He fully supported the Post Office position during the Horizon litigation and had every opportunity to challenge the evidence submitted by the Post Office that the NFSP supports the PO position.

If he thought the NFSP name was being used against his wishes during the trial he could of written to the Judge at the time to state this.  

 

In my opinion the NFSP is part of the Horizon problem.

 

The nature of the grant funding agreement is questionable for its compliance with Gov policy on the issuing of grants by a Public Authority. 

 

Also the formation of the company arrangements of NFSP ltd should be called into question as such a company should be owned and controlled by its members as detailed in their Articles of Association of NFSP Lrd.

I am still in contact with many Postmasters who thought they were such company members but they have all confirmed that they have never been asked to legally take on company membership nor have they ever voted at an AGM or appointed the Directors which is the normal practice for members of a company limited by guarantee.  

Democracy within NFSP Ltd does not appear to exist. 

 

The free membership of the NFSP that the Post Office claims they pay for appears to be nothing more than a sham.

 

I urge the Committee to challenge the Post Office on its continued funding of the NFSP and to recommend that the funding is stopped in its entirety.

 

On the 30th March 2019 I wrote to Sir Alex Chisholm the principle accounting officer for BEIS department. I wrote to him to query the use of what I perceived to be the misuse of tax payers money in funding the NFSP following the Judgement issued in the Common Issues hearing of the Horizon litigation. Sir Alex replied on the 30th April 2019. He informed me that whilst he did not consider that tax payers money had been misused by the Post Office he had been informed by Post Office officials that it was reviewing its relationship with the NFSP following the outcome of the Common Issues Judgement.

 

To date I have not seen any change in the relationship the Post Office has with the NFSP and the funding continues.

 

The NFSP, both past and present versions of their organisation, have been aware of the issues with the Horizon system for many years. I can bear testimony to that fact and would do so in a Court of Law.

 

March 2020