STATEMENT – Jo Swinson – Post Office – Horizon System
Can I thank the Minister for advance copy of her statement and for coming to the House today to make the statement.
Mr Speaker, this is a very disturbing affair. At a time when subpostmanters incomes are being squeezed, the last thing that they need is to lose confidence in the system they use to operate their businesses.
The people who work in the post office network across the country are the lifeblood of our communities and they must be supported in every way possible. But it is becoming an extraordinarlily difficult task
A recent National Federation fo sub postmasters survey found that operating costs are rising, while personal drawings (the money subpostmasters take as salary) have fallen by 36% in four years. One in four subpostmasters take no salary from their Post Office income.
Most sub postmasters are earning little or no income from either financial or government services – the two areas which ministers identify as having “real growth potential” for post offices.
That’s what makes these revelations all the more worrying.
I welcome the steps that have been taken by Post Office Ltd in investigating the concerns raised by the Justice for Sub postmasters Alliance – who were established to demonstrate that the Horizon system was causing sub postmasters difficulty and causing hardship and, in some cases, them to lose their businesses and homes. Their website has case after case of sub postmasters who had done nothing wrong but alleged defects in the system had resulted in problems with cash reconciliation and processing of payments.
The BBC is reporting this morning that the Post Office have admitted to these software defects in the Horizon system but the Post office Ltd press release would have you think this was a mere training problem. Second Sight, the independent company employed by the post Office to investigate these issues, said that whilst there was no fundamental problem with horizon there were bugs in the system that resulted in them identifying defects which resulted in a shortfall of up to £9000 at 76 branches.
The Post Office does recognise however, that the report raises questions about the training and support being offered to some sub-postmasters. This raises questions about the current Network transformation programme. These concerns have been consistently raised by this side of the House and the BiS Select Committee in their report last year where it was identified that the move to a “locals” model could result in fewer fully trained serving staff using the Horizon system at the point of sale.
If the post office services are merely being adminstered from the front counter of a newsagent or shop can we guarantee that the servers will be fully trained to ensure that these issues do not ariseint he future? This is a question that the minister has not addressed.
The National Federation of Sub Postamansters has also raised this issue. They have responded today by welcoming the POL report but also said, “We are encouraged to see that Post Office Ltd (POL) concedes that there is scope for improvement in its training and support programmes – issues which the NFSP has raised repeatedly with POL.”
This is all at a time when Crown Post Office staff are in industrial action, the transformation programme is struggling to be delivered, sub postmasters income is dropping, there is a dispute with Royal Mail on the segregation of mail payments, the future of the interbusiness agreement is unclear due to Royal Mail privatisation and POL Ltd senior management awarded themselves bonuses of over £15m.
Can I ask the Minister a series of questions:-
- What process will be put in place to compensate sub postmasters and former sub postmasters who have been disadvantaged, fined, lost their businesses, homes or even jailed as a result of the problems with the Horizon system?
- Post Office Ltd has said it would set-up a working group to investigate further. Will the Government be represented on that group?
- How will she ensure that all staff are adequately trained in the transfer to a locals model?
- Can she confirm that there are talks ongoing to change the voluntary “locals” network transformation model to a compulsory model?