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Tim Allen’s Postmaster Ponderings: “Sell Post Office to Amazon for a quid”

Mar 22, 2024 |

This article is the individual ponderings of a postmaster and does not necessarily reflect the views of the NFSP but is the sort of communication we receive or hear that in turn is reflected in our future policies/actions.


Have you become a YouTube addict? I confess I have.


Let’s start with the Horizon Inquiry, this is my go-to background channel on the TV in my home office which, with hundreds of hours available, I can have it on when I’m not having to concentrate too hard.  The latest instalments have been fuelled by former Post Office Ltd (PO) and Fujitsu employees being forensically tested by Mr Jason Beer KC. Often a set of questions and answers will have me reaching for the rewind control and putting whatever I’m doing down so that I can listen in rapt attention.


If you haven’t dipped in, I’d urge you to do so. Start with Jarnail Singh. The need to listen to others will follow. Some of the fog will lift and an understanding of where the Horizon mess came from will begin to form. I feel many of the people I’ve listened to so far can be seen as the pawns, carefully selected to do the dirty work or themselves victims of a grand deceit. 


We haven’t got to the big names yet, the headline participants, the Paula Vennells or her assistants but I’m equally expecting to find no one individual on whom the mess can really be firmly pinned.


It’s the human qualities of the participants that are so interesting. You will hear a twisting, turning, squirming amnesiac, several with Kray brothers’ accents dressed in intimidating 1980s suits, accountants who denied postmasters the use of suspense accounts and at least one area manager who had had compassion surgically extracted at birth.


All of them have one quality in common, they were scared to death of the concept of computers and never asking the right questions. Each of them looked outwards rather than inwards at Horizon, or were they looking upwards at their careers by not asking the difficult questions they probably hadn’t thought of anyway?


Why did no Scandal manager ever appear to ask where the money was that the postmasters had allegedly taken? When 100% of the answers were always that it couldn’t be found either in cash or converted into fancy cars, furniture or talking electrical appliances, surely someone should have said “Maybe they really didn’t take it”.  


Even more gripping has been the latest Post Office Commons Select Committee meeting.  A compelling cast of people appeared on our screens in rapid fire succession including the government, postmasters, PO’s CEO and their former Chairman. 


The former postmasters had been chosen well. Their names are Alan Bates, Tim Brentnall and Tony Downey.


Alan is a man who now needs no introduction. He commands respect, and he deserves respect. He is erudite, lucid, and ignored at people’s peril. The other two gentlemen were new to me, but they had been chosen to appear in this intimidating cauldron well and each gave a disturbing and clear insight into their treatment at the hands of Post Office Ltd and the horrendous length of time, measured in years, that it is taking for their claims to be put together and then thrown into the pot of government bureaucracy at its finest. We heard about bankruptcy and mental health problems, breakdown and break-ups, and men and women locked into years of work and stress trying to formulate claims that deserve proper scrutiny and contrition. 


The situations described gave compelling witness of an awful compensation system requiring dozens of highly paid solicitors to operate it and which must be costing millions of pounds.


As ever with this awful mess, you only need to listen to each postmaster to easily conclude that these are fundamentally honest, trustworthy people. Tony and Tim spoke about how their detailed claims containing monetary facts on their losses and these had somehow been turned into evidence of profligacy. Detailed medical reports were given short shrift and interpreted to the PO’s convenience.


Why, said Alan, was it that the assessment process did not include simply sitting down with the postmaster and talking to him or her about the claim before them? It’s more “hands-off” robotic dehumanising treatment piled on top of these wronged people. If only they had simply sat down with each postmaster the country would surely now be millions of pounds wealthier and everyone could get on with lives.


Tony, Tim and Alan were asked if the culture of the Post Office had changed. Perhaps assuming too much, the inquisitor framed the question with an introduction along the lines of “Whilst I recognise that none of you are postmasters anymore, I assume you do know current serving postmasters so has the culture of the PO changed?”


In turn each of them said it had not. The panel listened.


Alan said the Government should stop wasting taxpayers’ money on an organisation he is convinced will “never change” and “cannot change” and that the Government should “get rid” and Post Office should be sold. He suggested Amazon would be an appropriate purchaser and the selling price should be “a quid”.


Let’s just think about Post Office being owned by Amazon for a moment or two. Let’s set aside the strikes it has faced from its warehouse operatives in Coventry whose complaints about pay and the tag monitoring of every second, including loo breaks, is accounted for and think about the probable outcome of being under the management of a deeply commercial organisation. Commercial means sales, sales mean footfall. So far, so good but how do you do that? 


Firstly, you cross-sell. Try or EasyJet for examples where you must decline multiple product and service offerings before you can pay for a flight. Our Horizon (NBIT?) screens would be getting a big makeover. Second you would be set electronically monitored targets for the length of time allocated to each activity. A cash withdrawal would have to be completed within, say, 60 seconds or you would be adversely scored and possibly financially docked, as they want the next transaction to be running through the till. The issue here, for me, is not the change. It’s the fact that maybe even Alan has forgotten the importance of the social value post offices have in the daily lives of our customers.


Do we help the elderly customer who regularly comes to draw out cash but whose hands are not steady enough to key in her PIN? Of course we do, but helping this customer involves a second member of staff joining her and putting in her number for her. She trusts us. The cost of delivering this service exceeds the renumeration but is an essential component of providing the public the link they need so they can function within a digital economy. 


I was expecting to have no interest in the who said what disagreement between the former PO chairman, Henry Staunton, and just about everyone else, but I listened and to my surprise found the sacked chairman on the same wavelength as Alan. Fundamental change he said was needed but not by selling to Amazon but by bringing postmasters into the ownership of the business. A start, he said, should be from increasing the number of postmasters on the board from two to four and that two of them should chair the culture of the company and one should chair the renumeration committee.


Sooner or later, later probably, the curtain will come down on the appalling, human tragedy-drama we are witnessing and the powers-that-be will close a sturdy door behind them somewhere in the halls of Westminster and say, “Well, what are we going to do now? What are we going to do with this Post Office company we have?” They had laughed for a second or two when Alan said flog it for a quid, but that remark will have been remembered and it will be on the table. 


Also on the table will be the question of governance as it has been proved beyond question that PO, throughout the Horizon prosecution era, should not have been allowed to oversee its own conduct. Government was also culpable in their hands-off, and therefore tacit support, for Post Office’s crass handling of the issues that came from the bug-ridden system inflicted on postmasters.


The NFSP have tabled an Oversight Committee, and we can only hope that too is given full and proper consideration.  You may also have your own idea.  What should the future look like? Ideas on a postcard please. My postcard will say “I like the sound of an organisation owned by serving postmasters, a co-operative if you will”.  


I hope we are all allowed to talk, and others will listen this time.


Tim Allen

Kington Main

March 2024

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