I thank the Minister for the advanced copy of the statement and for coming to the House.
This is a disturbing affair. At a time when sub-postmasters’ income is being squeezed, the last thing they need is to lose confidence in the system they use to operate their businesses. The people in the post office network are the lifeblood of our communities and must be supported in every way possible. A recent National Federation of SubPostmasters survey found that operating costs were rising while personal drawings were falling, and that one in four sub-postmasters take no salary from their businesses. Most sub-postmasters earn little or no income from either financial or Government services, the two areas that Ministers identify as having real growth potential for post offices. The NFSP removed its support for the Postal Services Bill on the basis of the abject failure of the Government to deliver the “front office for Government” services they promised at the previous election. That is what makes today’s revelations on the Horizon system all the more worrying.
I welcome the steps taken by Post Office Ltd to investigate the concerns raised by the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and Mr Arbuthnot. Its website has a case-by-case analysis of sub-postmasters who did nothing wrong, but for whom alleged defects in the system had resulted in problems with cash reconciliation and processing payments. Press reports this morning say that the Post Office has admitted to software defects in the Horizon system, but the Post Office press release would have us think that this is a mere training problem.
Second Sight, the independent company employed by the Post Office to investigate these issues, said that while there was no fundamental problem with the Horizon system, there were bugs in the system that resulted in it identifying defects resulting in a shortfall of up to £9000 at 76 branches. The Post Office has recognised, however, that the report raises questions about the training and support being offered to some sub-postmasters. This raises wider questions on the current network transformation programme. Training concerns have been consistently raised by Opposition Members, the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills and Consumer Futures, but the move to a Locals model could result in fewer fully-trained in our post offices.
If post office services are merely being administered from the front counter of a newsagent or shop, can we guarantee that the servers will be fully trained to ensure that the issues with the Horizon system do not arise in the future? The Minister did not address that question in her statement, and the National Federation of SubPostmasters has raised this issue time and time again. It responded today by welcoming the Post Office statement, 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’ incomes are dropping, there is a dispute with Royal Mail on the segregation of mail payments, the future of the inter- business agreement is unclear due to Royal Mail privatisation, and Post Office senior management have awarded themselves bonuses of more than £15 million.
What processes 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? The Minister said that the interim report makes no comment about any convictions, criminal or otherwise, but can she tell the House how those serious issues will be dealt with? When did the Government know about this investigation and the problems with Horizon? How will she ensure that all staff are adequately trained in the transfer to a Locals model? Can she confirm or deny recent reports that there are ongoing talks to change the voluntary Locals network model to a compulsory model, due to the slow take-up of the transformation?