The Grumpy Old Man

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Large is NOT beautiful

A salutary tale of the dangers of huge monopolystic empires

Being large is not necessarily beautiful. Being huge can be self-destructive and if not self-destructive, it can certainly be far from the best interests of the small guy.

I have personal experience of examples of each of those situations. One I shall talk about here, the other I shall discuss under "large can be self destructive".

This is an example of an organisation acting as an all powerful, perfect, never wrong Big Brother and being so large and dictatorial that I, the Little Man, was crushed, eventually being threatened with criminal action in the courts purely because "the organisation" believed that it was perfect, could do no wrong and that I had stepped out of line. In actual fact, although I accept I was not totally blameless, the fundamental root of the problem could be traced back to the inherent natural inefficiencies of a huge organisation.

The situation arose when Mrs Grumpy and I took ownership of a freehold shop, complete with living accomodation and garden, it was perfect for a famiy. The shop was a newsagents, confectioners, gift shop and Sub Post Office. Being a newsagents the hours during which the shop was open were very long. Setting up the papers and arranging for the delivery boys to leave on time started at six thirty every morning, seven days a week. The Post Office opened at nine o'clock, closed at five thirty, five days a week, while on the sixth day it closed at noon.

During our tenure of the shop, the UK National Lottery started operations. I saw this as an opportunity to increase footfall in the shop and therefore improve our turnover.

At the time, the lottery was a joint enterprise between Post Office Counters Ltd. and Camelot, the national lottery company. Lottery sales were mostly made while the Post Office was closed. As such, newsagents staff, who were employed by Mrs grumpy and I, did the work. With no input whatsoever from The Post Office, I contacted Camelot direct to arrange for our lottery terminal to be delivered and fitted. At the time, I acknowledged with Camelot that we were also a Sub Post Office and they had no qualms about negotiating directly with me, rather than the Post Office, regarding the installation of the necessary equipment.

By the time Post Office Counters Ltd got round to contacting me to make arrangements for the telephone line and terminal to be installed, it was all fitted and had been operating for over two weeks. Mrs Grumpy and I had already been to a Camelot training course on how to operate the terminal and handle the finances.

Sometime later, during a Post Office audit, the auditor stated that I had not been putting the money through the books in accordance with their proper procedures and as such had misappropriated their funds. This accusation left me reeling as, in the absence of any procedures from the Post Office, I was adhering to the Camelot procedures taught during our training day.

I was whisked off to one of their offices where I was treated like a criminal and interrogated by two men who behaved no better than playground thugs. It was clear that I was assumed 'guilty' of some ill-defined 'crime' and I had to prove my 'innocence' rather than they to prove my 'guilt'.

I explained in great detail what I had done and pointed out that no money was missing. At no point did these thugs take into account human error or obvious shortcomings in their own office procedures. These should have ensured that Post Office staff had up to date copies of the necessary lottery procedures to allow them to carry out their duties correctly.

This was totally ignored and, without any form of 'trial', I was deemed 'guilty' and suspended for two months without pay. This suspension meant I was effectively fined two thousand pounds. All because Post Office Counters would not acknowledge the possibility of any human error in their own organisation. Somebody had to be set up as a scapegoat. As if this wasn't enough, they then went on to insist that we should initiate proceedings to sell the Post Office, our shop, our home, our livelihood. If we didn't, they stated that they would 'withdraw my licence to operate as a Sub Post Office'. Through all of this, the Postmaster's Federation, who should have given me at least some support, were absolutely useless. It was clear they were no more than lackeys in bed with Post Office Counters Ltd. And that is putting it mildly and politely. Likewise, the Newsagents Federation were no better, even though at that time, there were huge numbers of their members being trampled on by Post Office Counters Ltd. To add further insult to injury, Post Office Counters were taking a rake off from the small commission paid by Camelot to operators of the lottery terminals, even though the majority of the Lottery business took place outside Post Office hours by Newsagents, not Post Office staff. The situation stank. The bottom line is, Post Office Counters were taking a rake off for doing bugger all.

You may ask why didn't we tell the Post Office to sling their hook and take their Post Office away. This was not an option from a purely financial viewpoint. At the time mortgage interest rates were an eye watering eleven percent. A far cry from the three to five percent enjoyed today! The Post Office salary just covered the mortgage we had on the property and the shop. The shop on its own would not support that level of mortgage. In fact, none of the trio of Post Office, newsagents, gift/confectionery shop were financially viable in their own right. Each depended on the existence of the other two to provide their part in the overall income stream. Post Office Counters left us with no option but to sell the business (and our home) as a going concern.

In summary, one could say that the little people in Post Office Counters Ltd. operated as investigating policeman, prosecuting counsel, judge, jury and executioner in a police state. They seemed to be totally unaccountable to anyone, acting as a real oligarch or dictatorial Big Brother. (See George Orwell's 1984!)

Another account of Post Office Counters bully boy tactics came some years after my own experience. It appears that they installed a computerised system through which many of the counter operations were automated and controlled. I can understand how this could make, in the majority of cases, daily accounting and the weekly balance a much simpler task. Having a lifetime of industrial experience with computers, databases and this sort of control, I can see the many advantages and benefits that could accrue from the use of such a system. However it would appear from reports in the press that Post Office Counters was still persecuting the hard-pressed Postmaster and accusing him of the misappropriation of Post Office funds. One Sub Postmaster, based on these suspicions, being sent to jail. However, it was later suspected that there was an intermittent software glitch that caused the accounts to show a discrepancy. From what I read of the case, there appeared to be no other corroborating evidence of malpractice beyond that based on outputs from this piece of computer software.

Now, I know for a fact that no computer software is that perfect or foolproof. After all, it is designed by 'man'. As an example of this, you only have to look at the problems that are occurring more frequently in the banks with their software utilities. But see a later grump, still to come, on the dangers of computers!

If Post Office Counters thinks that they, along with their computer systems are perfect and can do no wrong, I ask you, how arrogant can they get, where is it all going to stop and who oversees the overseer? This and many other dictatorial monopolies driven by little men must be restrained.