Written evidence submitted by Christine Donnelly (POH0025)
I am concerned about how the NFSP is being represented during and since the recent court cases.
I am now a non executive director of the NFSP, I have only been in this role for just under a year. However I wrote this submission based upon my time as a Branch Secretary and my involvement helping fellow Postmasters.
I have been a Postmaster for 23 years.
I was recommended to join the NFSP by the sub postmaster who sold me my office; and by my Post Office trainer who was with me for my first week; and by my Post Office area manager.
I enjoyed my early days of membership, having come from a large retail environment it could be lonely being the shop owner/postmaster. Meetings meant the chance to mix with fellow postmasters, gain information and tips that helped our business succeed. Gradually I became a committee member and then Branch Secretary.
As Branch Secretary one of my responsibilities was to help colleagues who had problems. However it is important to mention that I could only help members who asked for help and that not all SubPostmasters joined the NFSP and not all those who did attended meetings.
Generally, if for example a postmaster had a bad audit, the auditors would suggest that they phone for an NFSP representative to attend and the subsequent letters inviting a member to attend a disciplinary interview would state that a member of the NFSP could attend as a ‘friend’ - this friend could also be another sub postmaster or a Royal Mail employee. I was able to clarify points made and advocate on behalf of the postmaster if they were struggling to do so themselves. This procedure was detailed in our Contracts with Post Office.
If the loss was significant then the interview could be done under p.a.c.e rules (police and criminal evidence) which meant I was there to see fair play and intervene to suggest breaks or similar but not actively participate.
At the point of our first meeting/call I would ask the postmaster to as urgently as possible make a contemporaneous account of everything that had happened - this was purely for his or her benefit as my experience is that stress affects the memory.
Prior to a contracts/pace meeting I would usually have a conversation with the postmaster about what to expect, and to prepare a file to take along with supporting evidence such as bank statements to show there was no need to steal; letters of support from customers and locals; photos of the shop to show it was well kept; a future plan to avoid recurrences.
Below are a representative selection of cases to illustrate the variety of issues a Branch secretary would deal with. I can provide more detail but am anxious to preserve the anonymity of the people concerned.
Over the years that I have helped NFSP members I can recall one specific instance of a postmaster having a problem with Horizon. A base unit had been swopped because of a fault and the engineer made a comment about a mirror disc. The office then had a loss BUT the postmaster got straight on to me I said declare the losses and between us we made a lot of fuss, the original disc was located and all was made right.
When we changed from one Horizon system to another, all offices were audited as part of the process. An office was found to be short and the Postmaster suspended and a temp put into his office. A staff member admitted to making a mistake on a deposit entry and covering it up. This was presented with evidence and the postmaster reinstated.
Postmaster with unexplained losses called and I agreed to go up and see him and he showed me around his shop and we talked about his procedures for running his office and they were excellent but I noticed a weak point and suggested his problem might relate to one area, he was adamant this wasn’t possible. I made a suggestions about procedure and left. A day or so later he rang me a staff member had admitted to having a problem. The losses stopped.
A postmaster with staff off work paid a sum of money into his own bank account via the Post Office to catch a deadline, intending to go to the building society later in the day and take money out to cover the deposit. He got caught with customers and didn’t make it, auditors arrived the next morning and he was suspended. I was able to help him to present a case to the Contracts Manager showing all the improvements he had done to his office, how well regarded he was locally and successfully argue that this was out of character and he should be given a second chance. He was and is still in office years later.
A sub postmaster had a violent robbery and Post Office said she was culpable for the loss. With plans of the office and recent trading patterns I was able to persuade the Contracts Manager that she was not culpable and Post Office stood the losses.
Postmaster sent notes back to the Cash Centre that were deemed forgeries, I visited the cash centre to see the notes and successfully argued that the forgeries were so good that it was unreasonable to expect the postmaster to have spotted them.
It is not always reasonable to argue for reinstatement, I was once at an office where there had been losses at audit in every category: cash, stock, currency. There is something called a transaction correction that Post Office issue if a clerical error is made, this office had over 600 in a year. On that occasion the best I could achieve was for a new postmaster to be brought in and run the post office on the premises and pay a rent. An arrangement that lasted for 9 years.
A loss at audit was found to be the result of a staff member funding medical treatment for a relative abroad. The postmaster was suspended for lack of control of his office with a threat of termination of contract. We were able to present a plan of controls and procedures to prevent that happening again.
Postmaster in small office rang twice - 10 years apart - with unexplained losses. First time asked for balance snapshots for last 2 trading periods ( summary of stock and transactions ) spotted discrepancies on postage figures that explained the “loss”. Second time went to office and again checked all counts of stock and cash and found loss. Sometimes it’s as simple as a second set of eyes and calm methodical checking.
Saddest of all still bothers me now. Postmaster rang she had huge losses and had rung the auditors herself. She didn’t seek to blame anyone. Her business was struggling and she had started one day using Post Office money to pay the bakery for a delivery, she put the money back later that day, next time took a bit longer and so on and so on. She refused representation, she just wanted to talk to someone. She had not taken a penny for herself she just couldn’t face letting the community down.
I was not unusual as a branch secretary, there were and are many who went above and beyond to help colleagues and I deeply resent the insinuations that have been made about our abilities, motivation and influences.