Former post office operators’ leader denies ‘betraying’ his membership | Post Office Horizon scandal

The former leader of an association representing post office operators has told a public inquiry that he was “too trusting” of information given by the Post Office about its faulty Horizon IT system, but he denied being “too close” to the state-owned body and “betraying” his own membership.

George Thomson, a former general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters (NFSP), an association that represents post office operatives, was testifying to a public inquiry that is examining why hundreds of operatives were prosecuted after the Post Office blamed them for financial shortfalls. It has since emerged that the Post Office’s Horizon IT system was not reliable and contained bugs, errors and defects.

The inquiry heard that, in 2013, the NFSP signed a 15-year deal with the Post Office to represent all post office operatives in return for annual payments of more than £1m a year from 2014-15 onwards. Thomson served as general secretary of the group between 2007 and 2018.

Thomson was asked by Julian Blake, the counsel to the inquiry, whether he had been “too close” to the Post Office and whether he lacked sympathy for the convicted operators after criticism that the NFSP, which has now distanced itself from Thomson, had failed to help a number of victims of the scandal.

Thomson replied: “No I don’t … I would not say that I was close to the Post Office.” He said that during his tenure as general secretary he had investigated 20 or 30 cases at the “highest level”.

In a series of testy exchanges, Thomson was accused by lawyers representing victims of the scandal of taking the “Post Office shilling”.

Sam Stein KC, barrister for a number of operatives, told him that his clients were “of the view that you got into the Post Office bed with [former Post Office chief executive] Paula Vennells and did whatever she wanted you to do. Is that a fair description of what was going on?”

Thomson replied: “It’s nonsense.” He told the inquiry that he had done a deal with the Post Office after the organisation lost about 8,000 members over a 15-year period through network restructuring programmes.

“We lost that many members … We did the right thing for the network,” he said. “After the three restructuring programmes, yes, our organisation basically had to do a deal with the Post Office or merge into the CWU [Communication Workers Union].”

Stein told him that the deal included contractually accepting that NFSP should not do anything to criticise or undermine the Post Office, which he said was in exchange for the “Post Office shilling”.

“You essentially betrayed your own membership didn’t you?” Stein asked him.

“My position on Horizon changed not one jot after a deal with Post Office,” Thomson replied, adding that “we weren’t gagged” and the deal had been passed at a special conference by the membership.

Thomson said in his witness statement that the “Horizon system is systemically robust and is still giving a great service to our clients, RMG [Royal Mail Group], government and now in particular to the UK’s banks who are increasingly using the PO [Post Office] network”.

He added that only “a very small number of users of the Horizon system over the last 25 years have claimed to have had problems” and said he had been reassured by the Post Office about the IT system and in retrospect was probably “too trusting”.

The inquiry continues.

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