21 Jun 2012

MPs raise concerns over post office payment system

MPs meet with Post Office officials to raise subpostmasters’ concerns over a payment system that they say has caused inaccuracies for which staff are charged and held legally accountable.

A group of MPs led by the Conservative James Arbuthnot presented a number of cases where subpostmasters have been charged with theft and held responsible for false accounting that they say are the fault of the system they use.

The Horizon system was introduced in 2000 and is used to process Royal Mail services by those running a post-office within a shop. But since its introduction, subpostmasters have complained that the system consistently records errors in accounting which they are unable to correct, and that they are held liable for the subsequent recorded losses.

One subpostmaster was charged with theft and told to pay back £36,000, despite calling the system’s support services when she realised that errors were being processed.

At first they took money out of her wages to make up the difference in the accounting errors, and then took her to court after an auditing visit.

“I remortgaged my house, borrowed and was generously given enough money to repay the post office in full in order to get them to drop the theft charge,” she said. “I had to plead guilty to 14 counts of false accounting in (the) Crown Court and only escaped prison because over 70 people turned up to support me.”

MPs are calling for disputed cases to be examined individually through a robust, transparent process. One of the problems raised by the campaign group, Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, is that subpostmasters’ appeals against theft are dealt with solely by the Post Office, with no independent arbitrator.

“It is in the interests of everyone involved – constituents, their MPs, and Post Office Ltd – to get this matter resolved,” said James Arbuthnot MP, who said he was positive about the meeting’s outcome.

Paula Vennells, Post Office Limited’s chief executive said: “The Post Office continues to have absolute confidence in the robustness and integrity of its branch accounting processes. We have no hesitation in agreeing to an external review of these few individual cases that have been raised with us by Mr Arbuthnot and some of his fellow MPs.”

Alan Bates from the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance welcomed that the issue was being raised, “but unfortunately it only seems to be concentrating on one particular area,” he told Channel 4 News. “They’re purely looking at false accounting – it is only one part of what’s wrong with Horizon.”

He lists issues to do with a lack of training, lack of access to the system, subpostmasters’ liability for losses and the failure of the system to produce an audit trail.