‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’
There was some bewildering evidence at the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry on the afternoon of Thursday 16 November from Cath Oglesby, the Post Office area manager who sacked Lee Castleton.
Lee first came to Oglesby’s attention in December 2003, when he had a £1,100 discrepancy at his Marine Drive branch in Bridlington, Yorkshire. At the time Oglesby advised trying various things to see if the source of the discrepancy could be uncovered. When it couldn’t, Oglesby told Lee to make good the loss out of his own money and sign off his accounts so he could roll over into the next trading period.
As one of the Inquiry barristers had it: “You were, in effect, advising him to accept the loss, sign off the accounts, even though he did not think they were accurate?”
Oglesby replied: “Well, he would have shown the £1,100 short in his account, so he would be signing to say he had
a shortage in the account.”
Would he? Really?
The Inquiry barrister continued: “But you were encouraging him to make good on the basis that it would all come out in the wash with an error notice; is that right?
“That’s what I was hoping, yes.” replied Oglesby.
Lee paid the £1,100 into his Post Office branch account out of his own pocket. Three weeks later, Oglesby visited Lee’s branch again. The Inquiry barrister asked her if she bothered chasing up the hoped-for error notice.
“I can’t remember doing so, no”, replied Oglesby, “but as it was only three weeks or so after the loss, the error notices could take a long time to come back, so I didn’t think anything untoward or anything at that point.”
Imagine trying to account for what was happening in your branch on a (then) weekly basis with no idea when or why an error notice might appear to change your accounts – particularly if you didn’t know why you had a discrepancy in the first place.
From January 2004, Lee went on to suffer larger losses, eventually totalling more than £26,000. Neither Lee, Oglesby or anyone else at the Post Office knew where these losses had come from, so Oglesby sacked him.
Then the Post Office took Lee to court for £26,000. As we have discovered during recent inquiry hearings, the Post Office took the view it was worth spending more than £300,000 of public money to take Lee to court for £26,000, because doing so would deter other Subpostmasters from potentially taking legal action over their Horizon discrepancies.
The fact Lee was bankrupted when the Post Office won the case and were awarded costs was of no consequence to them. If you want to read the effect of the Post Office’s actions on Lee’s daughter, Millle, you can read this or listen to episode 15 of the BBC’s Great Post Office Trial.
Although the Post Office wanted to win their court case against Lee pour discourager les autres, the legal argument which persuaded the judge to find in favour of the Post Office had nothing to do with Horizon, it was because Lee had taken legal responsibility for the discrepancy by signing off his accounts.
On Thursday, the inquiry barrister picked this up with Cath Oglesby:
“The case being run by the Post Office against Mr Castleton was that the act of doing that, of signing and rolling over, was an acceptance that the accounts were correct, and [in your witness statement to the High Court] you say here “The Subpostmaster had to sign the Cash Account and of course should not have done so unless it was accurate.” But because error notices took time to come through, there might well be occasions where cash accounts were confirmed and a Subpostmaster rolled over to allow them to continue trading, when they didn’t accept there was a discrepancy;
do you see that?”
Which of course, is totally mad, but Oglesby did see that, explaining:
“They’d still be signing the account to say that that was accurate, the cash and stock was accurate and, at that point in time, there was also a discrepancy. So that would be a loss or a gain. So they’re signing the account, you know, to say that’s accurate at that point, with the loss or the gain in there.”
This interpretation of what a signature may or may not mean is somewhat reminiscent of Rod Ismay’s attempt to justify calling his partial report “objective” when in fact it was completely one-sided, telling the Inquiry: “It was an objective assessment of the areas where there were positives.”
What, the Inquiry barrister wondered to Oglesby, would happen if the Subpostmaster disputing a discrepancy refused to sign the accounts before rolling over?
“Well, nothing would have happened that I could think of”, replied Oglesby, who agreed that the Subpostmaster could roll over their accounts and continue trading as normal. “It’s only a signature on a document.”
Try telling that to a High Court judge.
Lee’s balancing problems
There is a huge bone of contention about what happened at Lee’s branch in 2004 after he was suspended. It was touched on on Thursday. Oglesby put two different temporary Subpostmasters into Marine Drive, and whilst both had minor balancing discrepancies, neither had anything more than £100. Oglesby says this was a big factor in her decision to sack Lee: “the decision to dismiss him… because I’d put people into the branch and there were no real… I know there were small losses and gains but that’s something you would expect in any branch, I based, you know, part of my decision on that the Horizon system was working and was robust. I had no reason to believe it wasn’t.”
Lee is adamant the first temp had far more serious problems than that, to the extent that the Horizon system went down in Marine Drive for the best part of a morning, and the temporary Subpostmaster reverted to manual accounting. Lee suspects during this period of downtime his system was being fixed remotely. It was raised by his barrister, Ed Henry KC at the end of Oglesby’s evidence, who suggested the Marine Drive Horizon system: “crashed. Do you not recall [the temp] saying that it had to be rebooted, and then [in court] she offered a different explanation, so a mutually inconsistent explanation, that it hadn’t crashed but that she just decided to work manually.”
Oglesby had no recollection of this. Henry tried again:
“I suggest that there were evident problems with Horizon when Ruth Simpson took over and no one was being frank about it; isn’t that right?”
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