Photocreo Bednarek - Fotolia

Subpostmaster federation failed its members when they needed it most

A dereliction of duty saw subpostmaster federation ignore its members when IT problems hit and allowed the Post Office destroy their lives

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How the pandemic accelerated tech adoption in hospitality

The National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP) failed its members in their hour of need by ignoring clear warnings that the Post Office’s Horizon IT system had problems early in its operational life, according to victims of the scandal.

At the ongoing public inquiry, the NFSP acknowledged it could have prevented hundreds of ruined lives and saved thousands of businesses from struggle and failure, if it had done the very thing it was set up to do over 100 years before Horizon’s arrival.

A trade union until 2014 before taking its current private business form, the organisation was set up in 1897 by a group of about 90 subpostmasters to improve the conditions for all subpostmasters in the UK. But when its members needed it most, it failed them. 

The NFSP is currently a participant in the statutory public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal – a scandal that saw an abuse of subpostmasters as a result of the Post Office blaming and punishing them for unexplained shortfalls in their accounts, which were actually caused by the computer system from Fujitsu which subpostmasters were made to use in their branches.

Horizon was introduced to Post Office branches in 1999/2000 to automate accounting processes. Soon after it went live, subpostmasters started experiencing accounting shortfalls that they could not explain.

Thousands of subpostmasters were blamed for these shortfalls, which were later proved to have been caused by computer errors – but not before lives had been ruined. Between 2000 and 2015, about 770 were convicted of financial crimes such as theft and false accounting, based on data from the Horizon system. Many were sent to prison and thousands more were ruined financially and had their lives turned upside down. More than 80 former subpostmasters so far have had criminal convictions overturned, with many more expected to follow.

Back in 2009, Computer Weekly told the stories of seven subpostmasters affected by the problems (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles below). From when Computer Weekly told the story of those seven subpostmasters who had suffered the life-changing effects of being wrongly blamed for the losses, a recurring theme was that the NFSP did not help them.

There were many opportunities for the NFSP to make a stand on behalf of its members, but it chose to ignore them. For example, in 2009, when asked by Computer Weekly for comment during its investigation into subpostmaster claims of IT problems in 2009 and faced with the prospect that the Horizon problems could soon be brought to the public’s attention, the NFSP sat on the fence and declined to to comment.

Much later, despite more evidence to the contrary, the NFSP continued to defend the Post Office’s position, rather than challenging it on behalf of its members. During a Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee meeting in 2015, Alan Bates, a member of the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA) pressure group, which was set up to campaign for the subpostmasters affected, criticised former NFSP general secretary George Thomson for siding with the Post Office over the Horizon problems. Thomson refuted this, saying: “I will kick the Post Office up the backside when it does something wrong, but on Horizon it has done nothing wrong,”

Now the NFSP will have to justify its inaction to the public inquiry. In opening statements in phase two of the seven-phase statutory public inquiry, lawyer Catriona Watt, representing the NFSP, said the executives of the federation had trusted the Post Office and Fujitsu when they told it that it could not be Horizon errors causing unexplained losses. By implication, this means it didn’t listen to its members or trust their views.

“NFSP sincerely regrets that its belief in the Post Office, the government, Fujitsu and the justice system was so misplaced,” said Watt. 

She added: “Without the knowledge that, it turns out, Post Office and Fujitsu had, the NFSP was limited in what it could do and it is, of course, with hindsight, with all of the information that is now available to it, that the NFSP and others can look and say ‘well, why did we not know this?’”  

Lack of help

But from early in Horizon’s life, a common theme from subpostmasters’ horror stories is a lack of help from the NFSP. In fact, the organisation went out of its way to avoid the subject. It is not credible to blame a lack of warnings of the Horizon problems as its reason.

Former subpostmaster Lee Castleton was declared bankrupt after he refused to pay the Post Office £27,000 – money it said he owed because his branch accounts showed unexplained deficits over a 12-week period in 2004. The Post Office spent about £300,000 on legal costs to defeat Castleton in court, who believed the shortfall was caused by computer errors.

Castleton never believed he was the only one having trouble balancing the Horizon system and during the time when he was suffering losses, he had been calling other subpostmasters to see if they were also having problems.

In 2004, he contacted the NFSP for help. “I thought I was a member, but when I got in contact for help, they said ‘you are not a member, but if you send a year’s membership fee in one go, we will look into it’,” he told Computer Weekly.

He sent the money, but it was promptly returned. “I was told I couldn’t join because of the issue I was having,” he said. Colin Baker was then general secretary of the NFSP.

Castleton said subpostmaster Mark Baker, who was on the NFSP executive council at the time, asked directors of the federation to help him, but this was rejected.

From the beginning of Castleton’s problems, he believed Horizon was to blame and raised the issue with the NFSP. “I mentioned Horizon from day one,” he said.

Mark Baker confirmed to Computer Weekly that he tried to get help for Castleton through the NFSP executive council, but “they weren’t having any of it”.

He said he was told Castleton could not join the union because he was bringing problems and saying too much about Horizon. “In essence, they were saying to Lee, ‘Horizon is not responsible for your problems, you are not joining the union’.’ Baker said he tried again when George Thomson took over as general secretary, but still couldn’t get help for Castleton.

He even initiated a motion to the executive council to allow Castleton to join and give him financial support to help him fight his case. “I spoke on the motion and asked my colleagues to support my motion,” he said. “George Thomson was on his feet and poured cold water over the idea and frightened the executives to death, saying this will cost a fortune and the Post Office will fight us all the way. I did not even get a seconder to my motion.”

Another former senior executive officer at the NFSP, Michael Rudkin, said that in 2003 he became aware that subpostmasters were having problems with the Horizon system. “People were ringing me up complaining,” he said. “As a branch secretary, I had to escalate these complaints to an executive officer, but invariably they wouldn’t do anything because they didn’t understand it and were encouraged [by the NFSP] not to pursue it. In regional meetings, we would raise the issue, but it was always swept under the carpet.”

In 2008, there was a £44,000 shortfall at Rudkin’s branch in Ibstock, Leicestershire, and he was suspended. He was reinstated three months later, but he said there were problems in balancing the accounts and in 2009, after experiencing unexplained account shortfalls, his wife Susan, who worked at the branch, was prosecuted for theft.

Wrongful conviction

Susan Rudkin was convicted, received a 12-month suspended prison sentence and was ordered to carry out 300 hours of unpaid work and placed on an electronically monitored curfew for six months. She has since had this wrongful conviction overturned.

Because of the NFSP’s inaction, subpostmasters were left to campaign against the Post Office themselves, often during periods when they were trying to save their businesses being destroyed by unexplained losses.

For example, Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who led the 555 subpostmasters who successfully sued the Post Office in the High Court group litigation order (GLO), wrote to NFSP general secretary Colin Baker in 2003.

“I am writing to you with regard to Craig-y-don Post Office further to my previous letters,” he wrote. “The Post Office have now closed the office and I have to tell you I am very, very disappointed with the lack of response to my plea for help and assistance from the National Federation of Subpostmasters.”

His letter continued: “The post office ceased trading on 5 November 2003, and in the weeks prior to that, I made numerous telephone calls to your office, but to no avail, nobody ever responded.  The file I sent you in mid-September about my case highlighted how the issue not only affected me, but also every subpostmaster who runs a post office.  The Horizon system is flawed and Post Office Ltd are trying to hold subpostmasters liable for system losses, without allowing full access to the system to check the data they have input.”

“As the federation were not able to stand up to the Post Office and support its member is this issue, it subsequently allowed the Post Office to just take away our investment, livelihood and life savings in one fell swoop. I have no doubt that Post Office are involved in a major cover-up of the inadequacies of the Horizon system, and I will continue, even as a voice alone, to raise the profile of this issue and to have it investigated at the highest level.”

Colin Baker responded to Bates in January 2004: “In relation to errors which members considered were due to Horizon problems, the Executive Council set up a joint Federation/Post Office group who visit the Horizon helpline site to discuss and resolve issues. It is my understanding that the Post Office can trace the nature of any error, including telephone calls relating to the same, when the Horizon system is in question and, therefore, should be able to produce evidence that all is, in fact, correct from their side.

“We are not in a position to provide information regarding other subpostmasters’ dealings with the Post Office. We are aware that there are some disputes around the time that offices migrated from the manual system to the Horizon system, but we are now of the view that Horizon works well and that there are no real problems in post offices which are operated by the Horizon system.”

Mary McCrory Philip bought a Post Office branch in Fife in 2001 with her mother, Mary Logie Philip, who was the subpostmistress. Her mother was suspended in 2006 after being blamed for an unexplained loss.

She had paid tens of thousands of pounds out of their own money to cover shortfalls over the years and died before the truth about the Horizon system’s problems was revealed and later proved.

McCrory Philip said her mother contacted the NFSP endlessly until they talked to her like she was guilty of something. “They were just as bad as the Post Office,” she said.

During the High Court group litigation Bates and others versus the Post Office in 2018/19, where 555 subpostmasters successfully sued the Post Office and proved that Horizon errors cause unexplained losses, the managing judge criticised the NFSP. 

Judge Peter Fraser said: “It is obvious in my judgment that the NFSP is not remotely independent of the Post Office, nor does it appear to put its members’ interests above its own separate commercial interests.”

In her closing  statement to the public inquiry, Watt said: “The NFSP wants to make it clear that, while it has supported many members over the years in disputes with the Post Office, and noting some of what was said by counsel who spoke this morning, where there were any of the NFSP members who did not receive the help that they considered necessary, that will always be a matter of regret for the NFSP.”

NFSP CEO Calum Greenhow said in a statement to Computer Weekly: “The NFSP will addressing in more detail the points made in the opening statement at subsequent phases of the inquiry.”

Read all Computer Weekly’s articles about the scandal since 2009

Read more on IT for retail and logistics

Data Center
Data Management