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THE POST OFFICE GROUP LITIGATION

Filed on behalf of the: Defendant Witness: Sarah Rimmer

o,," r.?fl?Til'nT li' I','J

Claim Nos: HQ16X01238, HQl7X02637 & HeI2X04248

IN THE HIGH GOURT OF JUSTICE QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION ROYAL COURTS OF JUSTICE

BETWEEN:

ALAN BATES & OTHERS

 

Claimants

AND

POST OFFICE LIMITED

 

Defendant

WITNESS STATEMENT OF SARAH HELEN RIMMER

l, SARAH HELEN RIMMER of

follows:

THE POST OFFICE Filed on behalf of Defendant Witness: Sarah Rimmer o,," r.?fl?Til'nT li' I','J Claim

WILL SAY as

  • L l am the Agent Remuneration & Expenses Manager for Post Office Limited (Post Office). I am authorised to make this statement on behalf of Post Office.

  • 2. The facts set out in this statement are within my own knowledge, or if they are outside my knowledge, I have explained the source of my information or belief.

INTRODUCTION

  • 3. ln this statement, I describe the appointment process for Subpostmasters since around 2007 up to May 2017 and aiso the checks that Post Office undertakes regarding the appointment of assistants.

MY BACKGROUND

  • 4. I have worked for Post Office since 1999. My first role was in the assistant vetting team, which was based within the Human Resources Service Centre (HRSC). ln

that role I assisted with the process of vetting individuals (known as Assistants) who were directly employed by Subpostmasters to undertake Post Office work at

Post Office branches.

AC_150618440

Claim Nos: HQ16X01238, HQ17X02632 & H017XO424B

  • 5. since starting my career at Post office, I have undertaken a number of different roles as follows:

    • 5.1 After working in the Assistant Vetting Team, I moved to the Employees Training Team in 2001 where I was engaged in setting appraisals for post Office employees and identifiing where further training might be needed.

    • 5.2 From 2002 to2007,l moved to work in HRSC, in the Advice Centre. At

that time, HRSC operated a helpline that employees of post Office and

also Subpostmasters could contact with HR related queries. This helpline

could also be accessed by members of the public who wanted to make enquiries about joining Post Office. This Advice Centre was completely different and distinct from the Network Business Support Centre (NBSC).

During that time, I worked as a Customer Service Advisor.

  • 5.3 I then became the Manager of the Advice Centre in 20AT for a short period until the Advice Centre was transferred from Salford to Sheffield. As I decided not to mo_ve to Sheffield, I took over management of the

Agent Application Processing Team (AAPT) later in 2007.

  • 5.4 From that time until 2017,I was the Manager for the AAPT, which was responsible for processing applications for those applying for the role of Subpostmaster.

  • 5.5 ln May 2017, I progressed to working on the Agent Remuneration Transformation Project.

POST OFFICE ASSISTANTS

  • o. As I have explained, I joined Post Office in the Assistant Vetting Team where we undertook basic checks of Assistant's who were directly employed by Subpostmasters.

    • 7. There was a form known as the P250 which Subpostmasters had to complete when they wished to employ an Assistant. This was an obligation under the Subpostmaster contract so that Assistants could be vetted prior to the Subpostmaster employing them. The Assistant Vetting Team would then undertake basic checks of the Assistants, including their name and address history (over a 5 year period). Previously (up until around 2014), a register (known as the debarment register) was maintained by Post Office and Royal Mail Group of former Assistants, former employees (of Post Office and Royal Mail) and also former Subpostmasters who had left the organisation and who would not be

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Glaim Nos: HQ{6X01238, He17X02-637 & Hel7X04248

recommended for re-employmenure-appointment. The Vetting Team would also

check that register, since 2014, the Vetting Team will check against current post

office payroll records and whether the Assistant has been employed or engaged

previously.

ln addition, Post office required Subpostmasters to complete a further form, the P356, on an annual basis listing all of the Assistants whom they employecl.

Basic checks as described above would then be undertaken for an Assistant who had not previously been checked.

The vetting exercise relied on Subpostmasters informing Post Office about the Assistants who were working in their branch using the p36s form. As post office

is such a large organisation, with in excess of 1'1,500 branches across the

country, it simply does not have enough resources to undertake on site checks as

to who is working in particu lar branches

at any one time. Even if we did have the

resources to undertake such checks, these would always be dependent upon who

was physically present in the branch on the day a visit took place. Accordingly, we are reliant on the subpostmasters completing the form and submitting this to

10,

us.

originally, the P356 form was sent to all branches once a year, to check that the

list of assistants we held was correct and up to date. We would then process the

responses and chase up any missing information. From 2007, the process

changed to a staggered approach with forms being sent out over the course of

the year which was easier to manage and monitor.

  • 11. when I worked in the Assistant Vetting Team, we would generally obtain a return of around 4A%-5Ao/o from all of the branches and I believe that this level of return has remained fairly constant up to the present day.

THE VETTING PROCESS

  • 12. The process of vetting Assistants has not changed a great deal in the past 20 years, although the volume of Assistants working in branches has increased. Currently, the Assistant Vetting Team uses Experian credit checks and also carries out a basic criminal records check, voters checks and financial history check. These checks are important as because Post Office clients often need to have a degree of confidence in the people who pedorm transactions for them in the Post Office network, which includes the sales of regulated financial products. Post Office is also protecting its assets and reputation by carrying out such checks.

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Claim Nos: HQ16X01238, HQ17X02637 & HQl7X04248

  • lJ- When I was working in the Assistant Vetting Team, very few checks came back as failures or raising particular issues. However, if the Assistant did not pass the check, then there was a standard letter that Post Office would send to the Subpostmaster informing them that there was an issue which had come up on the vetting check and that Post Office would not recommend that they employ the Assistant.

  • 14. Post Office was unable to disclose the reason why the vetting check had not been passed and my uhderstanding was that this was due to data protection

obligations to the Assistant. Accordingly, if the Subpostmaster contacted our team or the Advice Centre within HRSC, they were provided with a standard

answer, to the effect that they should speak to the Assistant, but that after checks

having been undertaken, something had come up which had resulted in Post

Office's instruction that they do not employ the Assistant.

  • 15. The Vetting Team would also flag an Assistant check failure to the Subpostmasters' Contracts Adviser (also known as a Contracts Manager. The role of the Contracts Advisers is detailed in the witness statement of John Breeden). I believe that the Contracts Adviser would then follow this up to make sure that the Subpostmaster did not employ the individual.

  • 16. Post Office's policy is that the Subpostmaster shouldn't employ anyone as an Assistant until they have been vetted. We were however aware (as a result of audits and annual checks or field visits) of situations where Assistants had already started working in branches before they had been through the vetting process.

  • 17. The cost of thd vetting checks was around L15 - L2O per person which Post Office

itself covers. lf the cost of these checks were to be passed on to

Subpostmasters, there would be a risk that Subpostmasters would sometimes decide not to notify Post Office of their Assistants to avoid the cost of the vetting

check.

  • 18. Traditionally, Post Office branches had a dedicated Post Office area and a separate retail counter. The requirement in the past was only ever to undertake vetting checks for Assistants who had access to Post Office cash and stock.

  • 19. Following Network Transformation, Post Office cash and stock was transacted from the same counter as the retail side of the business. As a result, the policy now is that everyone working in branches has to be vetted.

AC_1506'18440

CIaim Nos: HQf 6X01238, He17X02637 & He17X04248

APPOINTMENT OF SUBPOSTMASTERS

  • 20. As I have explained, between 2007 and201l,l managed the AApT, which was responsible for processing applications from potential subpostmasters. As a guide to the volume of applications processed by AApT, during the period between 2a12 and 2017, lhat team dealt with a totai of g,s98 applications (which is an average of just under 2,000 subpostmaster applications each year). These applications resulted in a total of 7,677 branch transfers over the same s year penod.

  • 21. I set out below details of the various stages of the application process that the AAPT and I were involved in (including my knowledge and understanding of the process prior to 2007, when t joined this team).

ADVERTISING A VACANCY

  • 22. when Ifirst joined Post office in 1999, not every vacancy for a subpostmaster position would be advertised. At that time, Post office had a mailing list for people who were interested in potentially becoming a Subpostmaster, and they would pay Post office a fee to be on the list. subpostmasters who were looking to leave and sell their business would also pay a fee to advertise that vacancy which would then be circulated through the mailing list. The fee which Subpostmasters had to pay was around f 10 - tl5 for a 3 month period.

  • 23. Details of vacancies would then be circulated to all of those on the mailing list every month. At the time, this was done by printing off the details of the

vacancies and posting them out to all those on the mailing list. lndividuals who were then interesied in the vacancy would get in touch with the Subpostmaster

directly.

  • 24. It was not compulsory for Subpostmasters to advertise vacancies through this route. They could also choose to simply advertise the sale of their business and

any property through an estate agent or commercial estate agent (also known as

a business transfer agent). Very often, an outgoing Subpostmaster would not resign until they had found a buyer for their business/premises and they would

then introduce the buyer to Post Office who would have to go through the

application process. lf however the Subpostmaster was not selling their business or not offering their premises then Post Office would usually advertise that there was a vacancy near to the location of the outgoing branch.

  • 25. ln addition to the mailing list, advertisements for all vacancies were also made by

way of a poster which would be displayed in the branch of the Subpostmaster

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Claim Nos: HQ16X01238, HQ17X02637 & HQl7X04248

vacancy and the nearest 2 or 3 branches. This practice ceased from around 2007. Post Office has also previously advertised Subpostmaster vacancies ai

franchise roadshows and trade fairs and also in the local press where vacancies

were long standing. ln the case of family transfers, providing the family member

was suitable, then no advertising was required.

f n around 200012001 , we moved away from the hard paper copy of vacancies to

an online platform which we called "the purple website". This was simply because the web5ite contained a purple banner. There was no fee for

Subpostmasters to advertise on the purple website.

  • 27. At the time this website was introduced, an update was issued to Subpostmasters to notify them that if they wanted to advertise a vacancy, they could do so on this website but it was made clear that they were responsible for providing the relevant information. lt was therefore the responsibility of the Subpostmaster to include a description of the vacancy and the business. Post Office did not undertake any verification of that information. Accordingly, if the Subpostmaster had stated that their turnover was fX per annum, this was the figure that was included in the advertisement. Adverts would also usually include a description of the products that were sold, whether the property was offered on a freehold or leasehold basis and also whether there was any living accommodation.

  • 28. As a result of the introduction of the purple website, the volume of vacancies advertised increased.

  • 29. ln around 2011t2012, Network Transformation (NT) Contractsl began to be offered and this generated an increase in interest in Subpostmaster vacancies.

  • 30. As part of the NT project, Post Office engaged a company called AB Communications, who set up another website for Post Office in 2014. This website focussed only on NT vacancies and ran alongside the purple website.

  • 31. The AB website was more modern and up to date and is still used today,2 lt contains images of the Post Office branch, links to Google Maps and also the level of remuneration. Unlike advertising on the purple website and other methods used previously, the level of remuneration and other information was generated and then checked by Post Office to ensure that it was accurate before the advertisement went live on the AB website. This was done for example by checking the last 12 months' remuneration for the particular branch. The content of the website was administered by my team (AAPT).

1 See the statements of Angela Van Den Bogerd and Nick Beal

' wwr4r. runapostoffi ce. co.u k

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Claim Nos: HQl6X01238, HQITXO2OfZ a HOtzXO424B

  • 52. Advertisements on the AB website were generaied internally by post office and specifically by the Field reams who had identified branches which would be eligible to receive NT funding. The information about the branch used to populate the advertisement would mostly come from internal sources within Post Office rather than the current Subpostmaster (although they would also provide certain details to the Field Team).

  • 33. The purple website ran alongside ihe AB website until 2016. From that date onwards, all advertisements for subpostmaster vacancies have been placed on the AB website. However, a subpostmaster would only be able to request an advertisement on the AB website if they were resigning from their position and the branch was transferring to NT. lt was, and remains possible for subpostmasters to advertise their branches themselves (either their retail business or premises or both) through estate agents. lf they did so then any buyer identified would have to submit an application for the Subpostmaster vacancy in the normal way.

  • 34. Under the NT programme, if a subpostmaster wanted to leave the network and sell their business or premises (or both), a Post office Field change Adviser

would visit the branch and conduct an exercise called "walking the patch". Essentially, the Field change Advisor would walk around the local area and

approach different retailers asking them if they would be interested in having an

affiliation with Post Office.

  • 35. Sometimes an outgoing Subpostmaster might have already found someone to take over the branch and therefore they might not wish to advertise the branch to

anyone else. ln these circumstances, they would submit their resignation and state to whom they would like Post Office to send out relevant Information, in order for their nominated replacement to start an application for the vacancy. This would be the same process for all outgoing Subpostmasters (not just NT

leavers).

All vacancies would be advertised on the basis that they were either "AT" the existing premises or "AT or NEAR" the existing premises. Applications for "AT"

vacancies would be accepted for the existing site only whereas applications

would be accepted for the existing site or suitable premises nearby for "AT or

NEAR" vacancies.

  • 37. For brand new branches, vacancies would be advertised in a similar way. These branches would have been identified following an ongoing project to identify geographical locations where there was currently no Post Office branch and assessing what potential opportunities existed in the area. Field Change Advisors

would undertake a similar process to the one I have already described, where

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Claim Nos: HQl6X01238, HQ,l7X02637 & He17XO424B

they would visit the area and talk to retailers with existing businesses, or look at potential other locations, such as community centres or church halls. Vacancies

for such brand new branches were still advertised in the same way on the AB

website.

THE APPLICATION PROCESS

For some time prior to me joining AAPT in 2007, Post Office operated a paper- based application process where potential subpostmasters had to complete an

application form and submit relevant supporting documentation, including a

business plan. An online recruitment tool called IRIS (which stands for lnteractive

Recruitment lnformation system) was introduced some time prior to 2006 (although I do not know precisely when) which the AAPT used to create all

vacancies. once those vacancies are created, anyone can submit an application through that system.

  • 39. After the introduction of the AB website in 2012, applicants could register their interest for a particular vacancy online by submitting basic information. AAPT would rebeive a daily notification of the registrations of interest received and from this, we would then commence the application process.

  • 40. We would send to the applicant full details of the information that we would need in order to progress the application and during my time in AAPT (between 2007 and 2017), this has a[ways been sent out to applicants by email. Examples of these (with attachments of the relevant forms and guides) are at {FOL-0156051} and {POL-0156059} A PowerPoint presentation of the online application process from February 2007 is at {POL-0155506} and a summary overview of the recruitment process through IRIS given in September 2006 is at {POL-01 55472} . The online application process also included an excel spreadsheet for applicants to complete their business plans.

  • 41. One of the guides sent to Applicants with the initial email (referred to in paragraph 41 above) was a guide entitled "Pre,paring your Presentation Hetp Gulde" {POL- 0156057) to help them prepare for interview. ln particular, as applicants would be required to deliver a presentation, they were given some guidance as to the areas that they might cover, including their business plan, customer service, product knowledge and staff management. ln addition, AAPT would also answer specific enquiries made by Applicants concerning the interview process. Post Office was not prescriptive as to how applicants made any presentation but the guidance flagged up that a 20 - 40 minute presentation would be required and that they should bring hard copies of their business plans and the presentation with them.

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Claim Nos: HQ16X01238, Flel7XO2637 & He17X04248

  • 42. My ieam received a daily notification of the completed applications. I would estimate that around 70% of the applications that were received did not contain everything needed to progress them. Accordingly, my team would revert to the

applicant by email with a request for the speciflc further information. As such, this

may push the application outside the 28 day period that applicants had for

completing the application. In these circumstances, we would give the applicant

an extension of a further 7 lo 14 days, depending on what fufther information was

required.

  • 43. Theoretically, by day 35 lo 42, we should have received everything required to progress the application to the next stage. This involves an assessment by the Financial Analysts, who are part of Post office Finance, and who will undertake a business plan assessment (see the witness statement of Tim Dance).

  • 44. The assessment undertaken by the Financial Analyst could generate further questions which would be fed into the contracts Adviser Teams who conduct the

interview. For example, if the applicant's business plan had indicated that they were not planning on employing any Assistants, this was likely to generate a question as to what therr contingency plans were if they fell ill or were unable to work in the branch for other reasons. ln addition, the assessment could identify

information which was missing or incomplete. This would be fed back to my team and we would then contact the applicant to request the further information.

  • 45. I would say that the AAPT does provide a fair degree of assistance and ''hand holding" for applicants through the Subpostmaster application process. For example, if speciflc pieces of information,are missing, then we will revert to the applicant and request the fufther details, but at the same time we will provide some guidance as to what is needed from them. Our role is one of supporting both the outgoing Subpostmaster and the applicant lo ensure that we obtain all the information that is needed to progress the application and the subsequent transfer of the branch smoothly. lt is in Post Office's interests to have branch

transfers conducted efficiently and for new Subpostmasters to have given proper consideration to what will be required to make the branch a success.

  • 46. The next stage of the process would be an interview. Whilst my team would make arrangements for the interview, the actual interview would be undertaken by the Contracts Adviser Team3 and the AAPT would liaise between them and the applicant to schedule it. Once a date is arranged, my team would then send the applicant an email with further information and guidance about the interview

3 Before the Contract Advisors,

Managers.

this would have been Retail Network Managers or Retail Line

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Claim Nos: HQ16X01238, HQl7X02637 & HQ17X0424S

process. An example of this is at Appendix g of the Agency Changes

Communiqu6 of 23 May 2003 {POL-0019832}. I have also referred to other

examples below (at paragraph 59).

  • 47. tf the applicant was successful at interview, then my team would receive a notification of this so that we could then arrange to issue the appropriate contractual documentation, We would also confirm the end date of seruice with

the outgoing Subpostmaster. We would ask them to provide their forwarding

address to enable Pbst Office to get in touch with them in the future, should this

be necessary.

  • 48 lf the applicant has been unsuccessful, then my team would send out a rejection letter to them. Before this is done however, the Contracts Adviser will have

telephoned the applicant to advise them of the outcome of the interview.

*-i:

Depending on the circumstances, we could agree to keep the application on file in

case of a further similar opportunity in the future. An applicant who is

unsuccessful can request feedback (which would be provided by the Contracts

Adviser who interviewed them) but there is no formal right of appeal.

  • 45. I would also say that in addition to the support that applicants obtain from the

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AAPT, applicants often get significant external support, including from

professional advisers, such as accountants and solicitors. lt is often the case that

solicitors are involved in the sale and purchase of premises and therefore

applicants do have access to professional advice if they need it. The AAPT would not typically liaise directly with the applicant's solicitors, but we would do what we

could to support and facilitate a smooth transfer in line with the timescales that other parties are working to. In addition, as I now go on to describe, under NT contracts, applicants are specificqlly recommended to take independent legal

advice before signing the contract.

THE CONTRACT

As I have explained, my team were responsible for sending oui the

Subpostmaster contract once the formal offer of appointment had been made.

  • 51. In addition, prior to NT, my team would produce an appointment paper which includes details of opening hours and any Conditions of Appointment (COA). The

Contracts Adviser would notify my team of what COA were needed and this is then used to produce the appointment paper. The conditions would be largely mandatory and common across all contracts and would include reference to the

terms of the contract. Other standard COA would include the product restrictions

and ATM obligations. Other conditions were specific to the particular branches

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Claim Nos: HQI6X01238, HQl7X02637 & He17XO424B

and would include, for example, an obligation to refurbish the branch, remove

screens or counters or remove out of date material. The COA would also include timescales for the conditions to be completed/complied with.

  • 52. The appointment paper (including the COA), a copy of the relevant contracta and other documents of appointment (called the appointment pack) would be sent to the successful applicant by post. An example of an offer of appointment letter, together with the COA and list of documents in the appointment pack is the one issued to Mohammed Sabir on 13 July 2006 at {C-0000146} . During my time as manager of AAPT, the offer of appointment letters would always be sent out by post and they would always enclose a full copy of the relevant contract.

  • 53. Where relevant (prior to NT contracts), Contracts Advisors would note whether Subpostmasters intended to work personally in their branch. This was noted for internal recording purposes but was not including as a condition of appointment in the appointment paper. Whilst Subpostmasters would need to work at least 18 hours a week personally in order to be eligible to claim a holiday substitution allowance, this was never, to my knowledge, included as a condition of their appointment.

  • 54. Prior to NT, successful Subpostmasters were required to sign the appointment paper and not the actual contract. Subpostmasters would be required to return

the signed appointment paper (including the COA) to my team.

AE

Under NT (post 201112012), the Contracts Administration Production Team

(CAPT) would be responsible for issuing the NT contracts to Subpostmasters

rather than my team. The CAPT were based in Leeds and were set up

specifically to deal with NT contracts. The Leeds office closed in 2016 and the

CAPT then moved to Bolton to sit alongside AAPT (and they are now part of that team).

  • 56. As far as I am aware from discussions with my team, the CAPT has always adopted the same process in terms of sending out contracts in the post to successful Subpostmasters as was used for the pre-NT contracts. Under NT however, no appointment paper is issued as the COA form part of the contract. As such, Subpostmasters are required to sign the contract rather than a separate appointment paper (which is now no longer issued). In addition, once the contract is signed by the Subpostmaster, (and checked to ensure it has been signed in the correct places) it is then countersigned by a Post Office manager who will then send a completed copy back to the Subpostmaster.

a See Nick Beal's statement for the different types of contract.

Claim Nos: HQ16X0{238, HQ17X02637 & HeI7X04248

  • 57. I have seen an instruction paper which is sent to successful Subpostmasters wlth the contract and an example of this is one sent to one of the claimants, Elizabeth Stockdale {C-0002695} . This paper is sent out by the CAPT with the contraci. lt includes, qt paragraph 2, a clear recommendation for the successful applicant to

obtain independent legal advice on the contract before signing. As far as I am aware, this instruction paper has been issued with all NT contracts and is still in

58,

use today.

Prior to an offer of appointment being made, a summary of the principal

contractual terms is also issued to the successful Subpostmaster prior to

interview. Some examples of this are as follows:

  • 58.1 Appendix to the Agency Change Communique (ACC) dated 28 February 2001 {POL-0155381/3};

  • 58.2 Appendix to the ACC issued on '17 December 2004 iPOL-0154682) ;

58,3 The version of the letter issued from August 2005 {POL-0155434} ;

  • 58.4 The version