Former union boss denies being ‘too close’ to Post Office

Business

The former head of a union for sub-postmasters has denied it became “too close” to the Post Office and was “flush with money”.

George Thomson, formerly of the National Federation of SubPostmasters (NFSP), also denied lacking sympathy for those who were wrongfully convicted during the Post Office scandal, which occurred following faults in the organisation’s Horizon IT system.

It comes after the TUC claimed earlier this year that the Communication Workers Union (CWU) had been blocked from effectively organising at the Post Office, and alleged the NFSP was given funds by the Post Office.

Mr Thomson, who served as its general secretary between 2007 and 2018, gave evidence at the Post Office inquiry on Friday.

When asked by inquiry counsel Julian Blake if he became “too close” to the Post Office, he replied: “No, I wasn’t.”

Mr Thomson later added: “We worked closely with the Post Office because we both needed to have a successful franchise – that’s the reality.”

The inquiry was shown an email sent on behalf of Mr Thomson in August 2013 which outlined plans for the Post Office and NFSP to sign a 15-year contract to represent all Post Office operators.

It included annual payments starting at £500,000 in 2013/14 and reaching £2.5m from 2017 to 2028.

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Mr Thomson said it had taken “a lot of badgering” of the then Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells to agree to the deal. He also claimed her team “would have preferred the NFSP withered on the vine”.

Put to him by Mr Blake that they were significant figures, Mr Thomson told the inquiry the NFSP “took on new functions” as part of the deal.

When asked if the NFSP was financially dependent on the Post Office at the time when issues with Horizon were ongoing, Mr Thomson said the federation had lost 8,500 sub-postmasters in the previous 12 or 13 years, and that the money was “replacing what used to be membership money”.

He added: “It was never ever tied to Horizon.”

The inquiry was also shown a Computer Weekly article from May 2009 which detailed the cases of several high-profile sub-postmasters, including Sir Alan Bates.

The sub-postmasters told the magazine their union had “refused to help them investigate their concerns”.

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‘Did the mask slip in this email, Ms Vennells?’

Asked by Mr Blake why the NFSP did not help them, Mr Thomson said the federation had to seek permission from the Post Office first.

He said: “We did fight their cases but we asked the Post Office, ‘What are we to do as an organisation?’

“Every case that was brought to us, we took it up with the Post Office.

“You’re trying to make out that somehow we were flush with money… That’s not correct.”

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Mr Thomson said he had investigated 20 or 30 cases at the “highest level” during his time as general secretary, and would have tried to employ a computer expert had he known more about the issues with Horizon.

He said: “I’ve been around a long time – suspensions have always taken place, prosecutions have always taken place, under the manual system as well.

“We had a franchise that was in crisis and we always tried to help people.”

Mr Thomson described Horizon as “a strong system”. He added: “It’s a well-used system, and I still support it systemically as being very robust.”

However, some former sub-postmasters reacted with anger to his testimony on Friday.

They included Christopher Head, who wrote on X: “[Mr Thomson] and his organisation failed it is main overarching duty to protect its members. They are a disgrace and have no place today to be trying to represent the interests of current Postmasters, they are a sham…

“The NFSP should be completely disbanded.”

More than 700 sub-postmasters were convicted between 1999 and 2015 after errors in the Post Office’s Horizon IT system meant money appeared to be missing from many branch accounts when, in fact, it was not.

It has been branded the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

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