Some media comments prompted me to write this and put my views and my experience to you, the Committee. My name is Bhavna Desai. I was a postmaster at Newtown Post Office.
My husband and I bought our first post office in Hyde Park, Doncaster in 1986 as my husband always wanted to be a postmaster it being a respectable position and good standing in community where you can do good for people and earn a living. First call I received after a few training days was from a representative of NFSP. I did not know anything about the organisation, but the officer helped/advised not only in post office matters but personal matters too. We made a friend and found a wonderful network of colleagues who taught us more than post office training.
We moved to a bigger post office after selling Hyde Park to Newtown Post Office in Swinton, Manchester in 1989. Without prompting the same thing happened again. Fortunately, the officer whose title was Branch Secretary was a postmaster in my area. He came over, showed us where to find good wholesalers, personal shopping places, workmen we needed to do alteration and more. He gave us lift to the our first NFSP branch meeting as we did not know the area.
In Branch meetings we found all information, reports and negotiations with the “Post Office”. We discussed problems members had and exchanged tips and best practices in work. I learnt the map of the organisation, General Secretary, Executive officer, Regional Officers and Branch officers. I saw how hard they worked and in their own time helped member postmasters voluntarily. What I received from the NFSP I wanted to give back by helping others. I joined Committees, met officers from other regions, went to Conferences and saw the camaraderie.
I put myself in an election and won to be a Branch Secretary as I believed in NFSP. I was the first contact for the members. I dedicated myself to help where needed in whatever problem postmasters had. If I can’t deal with it, I find someone who could. By now I was running several post offices of my own as well as some as a temporary postmaster. I was proud to employ local people, so they get a job and I get time for my voluntary Federation duties.
I progressed to several positions in NFSP by hard work in helping and supporting colleagues and recruiting new members as they saw what NFSP was doing for them. I have been elected Regional President, Regional Treasurer and eventually was elected to the post of Executive Officer in 2007. I could now support all members in the region and nationally. I could take my members views and wishes to the Negotiating Committee and vote in strategic decisions. I then report back to my Region. I was honoured to be elected as the National President of NFSP in year 2012/13.
In my role as an Executive officer from 2007 to 2014 I helped postmasters in smallest of their concerns or queries to the largest of their problem. I cultivated contacts and fair business procedure with Post Office officers in many areas, so it was easier to resolve members’ problems. The problems could be many and diverse when you are talking about running post offices/shops which were all different.
My members always got full attention even at the expense of my own business when they phoned me. After all they had paid their membership fee to receive help. The postmaster enquiry could be “my cash hasn’t arrived, I have a discrepancy, I can’t open my safe, I have a feeling my employee may be dishonest”. It could be a burglary or a robbery. It could be a procedural warning from the Post Office or an Appeal meeting to put your case/defence forward to the Contracts Manager. I was not alone handling queries from members. There was an army of Branch secretaries and committee members also were available to everyone. NFSP Head Quarter in Shoreham was always at hand.
When Post Office went computerised people like me were fine. We were already using an IT system (for the back-office work only) wrote by a postmaster in Doncaster. A big percentage of our postmasters and their staff were used to working a manual system and had never used a computer in their life. They found it hard to change to the new ways. Many mistakes were being made either in using the Horizon or on counter as the concentration was divided. As Federation we spent a lot of time helping postmasters to learn back office end of the day procedures and on balance day guiding them through Horizon.
On the other hand, new postmasters started after Horizon was installed had to learn the post office procedures as well as Horizon computer system. This could be very confusing, and errors can be generated. We tried to help them when asked.
It seems so unfair and frustrating when I hear unfounded accusations, in my opinion, that NFSP did not help members. In the cases of robberies/incidents as soon as I found out from the media or from Post Office helpline I would be calling to see if everyone was well and not harmed. When there was a suspension of a postmaster most of the time, they were encouraged by POL Contracts Managers to call local NFSP reps. There was an unwritten agreement that the Contract Managers would ring me to say they have suspended a postmaster. I would then call them asap. Any postmaster who called after a suspension ALWAYS got my call and/or a visit. I can say with 100% certainty that I have talked to and accompanied every postmaster to their interviews who asked me. Over my time as an Executive Officer I have done hundreds of meetings with Post Office. Many were reinstated and many lost their contracts but never without arguing their case. Even after the contracts were terminated, I have helped most postmasters to allow them to sell their post office. Even after they were no longer a postmaster, I have helped them. This was the NFSP policy.
The way NFSP system worked that the members contact their Branch officers first and if they can’t deal with the issue they go up to the Regional officer and in the end the Executive Officer. Most members joined NFSP as an insurance policy, but they got a way more in return.
When the Appeal meeting was over a discrepancy in the office, I always asked members to look through or helped them to look through Horizon to see if we find an error that caused the shortage. I asked them if we can see a pattern if it happened on a specific day or specific staff. In the early days postmaster did not mention Horizon caused the loss. Later when it was in the media some mentioned it. In the Appeal meetings I would strongly ask Contracts Manager to investigate the Horizon workings where the error causing the shortage could be picked up and every time I was told nothing had shown up. I have always argued in support of the members in these meetings to the best of my abilities and strongly asked POL to look on Horizon behind the scene if an error could be found.
During these times I have also taken part in Horizon User Panels when the system was being changed. I have run a number of offices including my base Newtown Post Office and can say I have not had any unexplained Horizon problems in my office. In fact, I have not seen any unexplained transactions in other offices but that is just my experience. In any situation members got my support when they asked for it but I did not have the access or knowledge to workings of Horizon behind the scene. The Horizon issue has put a great stress on Network in my opinion. Postmasters are finding extremely difficult to retire. Is it a concern whether the users, customers or clients have confidence? If a better understanding and support system by POL is put in we may see a better relationship. POL and NFSP need to work together as partners to support postmasters and help them survive economically.
As far as helping the members go, I have always put NFSP members first even at a cost of my ill husband. I believe the were and are many NFSP officers really doing their best for the members.
I gave up my office under Network Transformation in 2014 due to my husband’s cancer. Due to NFSP new status I am now an Organisation Representative of Newtown Post Office on behalf of my successor. I am so passionate about NFSP and postmasters that I have taken a position of Regional Secretary for North West Region and try to ensure that just like previously every member that ask for help gets the help from NFSP.
Thank you for the opportunity to put my experience and opinions to the Committee.