== Cock-up or conspiracy? ==
This piece could be quite important to those retailers with post offices who have had unexplained losses on their Horizon epos system. The Post Office has finally admitted that its Horizon system is not infallible.
Bill Morrison, whose Budgens forecourt site trades at Ramsgate on the Kent coast, reckons that over the past three-and-a-half years, around £10,500 has gone missing - into thin air, or most likely, cyberspace.
He’s not the only one. A number of retailers have contacted me on Forecourt Trader’s sister paper Convenience Store which reaches a big audience of subpostmasters.
The problem was kicked off by Graham Ward, who runs Oak Stores (previously Rivenhall Post Office) in Rivenhall, Essex. He asked me to "shake the tree and see what comes out" regarding possible intermittent faults in the Post Office’s Horizon system, resulting in big losses and even bigger penalties. Graham had problems for five years. "I think information goes missing. They said I owed £10,000 and they took £3,000 of it out of my wages." His contract with the PO has been terminated.
As another subpostmaster pointed out, when you sign the contract with the Post Office you accept liability for any losses (although you can keep any extra). He called it a ’bomb-proof situation’ for the Post Office.
Graham pointed me to Computer Weekly which chronicled tales of seven postmasters who claimed that their Horizon IT has shown unaccounted-for losses. One 40-year-old former postmaster in Yorkshire refused to pay £27,000 that the Post Office said was owed because he strongly believed the system was at fault. He went to court but lost and is now bankrupt. Another said calls to the Horizon helpline couldn’t stop deficits occurring and she started to sign accounts knowing they were wrong. She was convicted of false accounting. Another, convicted of the same charge, spent his 60th birthday in prison. A fourth sold his Post Office and resented repaying £11,000 he felt he did not owe.
And so it went on - to a seventh retailer who has refused to sign his weekly accounts and is calling for a public enquiry.
The Post Office denied that there could be IT-related faults.
I think there are a couple of points here that the Post Office should have considered from the off. Computers get glitches, viruses, faults - just like people. They are not infallible or why would Computer Weekly run such stories? Subpostmasters are very clever with money and admin. Not stupid. If you’re going to ’do’ the Post Office it would be for rather more than a few grand and you wouldn’t sit there waiting for them to come and get you either.
The Post Office is not without a sense of irony. Bill Morrison was relieved of his subpostmaster position in June although he was allowed to appoint a substitute (for whom he had to supply a reference!). Armed with a letter of support from his local MP, Dr Steve Ladyman, Bill had a meeting on July 20 with the Post Office with a really surprising outcome.
"I had no intention of kowtowing," says Bill, "but this was really positive. They did not deny that there could be problems. We had prepared our ground quite carefully and had been asking for help for some time."
Bill is now preparing to email a report to the Post Office.
As I said at the beginning, this is the first time to my knowledge that the Post Office has made such an admission. You can understand it not wanting to allow any bandwagon space to those who might have had their hand in the till, but we are talking livelihoods here in some cases. And, Post Office, either you have the money or a real deficit. Your accounting should be able to prove that, either way.
== Jingle tills - to coin a phrase ==
How many renegade 20p pieces have you got? I know one retailer who has six. He sold one on eBay for £200 when the story first began its mass circulation in June. He’s keeping the rest for his retirement.
The Royal Mint’s blunder occurred when it changed the design of the coin, switching the year date from the tails side to the heads. Except it missed quite a few, resulting in undated coins. Between 50,000 and 200,000 are out there.
This date switch actually led to some people putting pics of coins with undated Queen’s heads up for sale on eBay (which is what all the 20p pieces from 2007 and back looked like). And apparently others fell for it and started bidding.
The London Mint Office, a private company and no relation to the Royal Mint, is offering £50 rewards. You have to register - it has 10,000 places already allocated and says it is now releasing another 15,000 places.
I reckon if you’ve got one of the first undated coins in more than 300 years, you can do better than fifty quid (there’s one on eBay now for sale at £20,000). And I reckon retailers see more 20p pieces than most people. So, check your tills.
== There’s a relief ==
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has produced a new report, called A New Approach to the Rural Economy, which calls on the Treasury to make more funds available to local councils so they in turn can grant 100% rate relief for rural businesses.
The FSB is pointing to corner shops, post offices, petrol stations and pubs - all at risk in rural areas. Rural stores are currently entitled to 50% rate relief and councils can increase this to 100% if they feel like it. Trouble is, they seldom do.