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Sub-Postmaster (Dismissal)
24 June 1955
Volume 542

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. R. Thompson.]

3.52 p.m.

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Mr. Frederick William Turvey became the sub-postmaster at Ombersley Road, Worcester, on 12th October, 1952. He bought the stationery and tobacco business associated with the sub-post office for £10,000. I merely mention that to show that the business, including that of the sub-post office, was one of some magnitude and that Mr. Turvey is a man of some substance. His record bears the closest possible scrutiny. For eleven years prior to becoming the sub-postmaster, he was the personnel manager of a well-known local firm with 1,600 employees. The turnover at the sub-post office is fairly considerable, amounting to many thousands of pounds weekly.

On Saturday, 31st July, 1954, when making up his weekly balance, Mr. Turvey found a shortage of £80. The post office was closed on 1st, 2nd and 3rd August for the Bank Holiday weekend. On reopening the office on Tuesday, 4th August, Mr. Turvey was visited by two checking officers who came from the head office at Worcester to carry out their usual periodic check, a check which is carried out from time to time without previous notice to the sub-postmaster concerned.

Mr. Turvey reported the shortage as soon as they arrived, and they carried out an investigation which bore out the fact that the discrepancy had occurred. As he was not able to explain how the discrepancy arose, whether by a bookkeeping or accountancy error, or what not, Mr. Turvey offered to make up the amount of the discrepancy until the way in which it had arisen manifested itself later on, when other aspects of the post office accounts had been audited. The representatives present refused to accept his cheque. That was all that happened on 4th August, 1954.

On 5th October, the same year, two other checking officers came along, accompanied by another gentleman whom they introduced to Mr. Turvey as, "Another gentleman from the Post Office." The two checking officers were known to Mr. Turvey because they came from the head office at Worcester. They carried out a further check on 5th October, and after the check had been going on for some two hours it was found that there was a shortage or discrepancy of something like £71. At this stage the third gentleman, who had been introduced by the two checkers as "Another gentleman from the Post Office," said to Mr. Turvey, "Would you mind waiting until I fetch someone in?"

On his return with this other person, who had been sitting in a car just up the road, Mr. Turvey was first made aware of his identity because he said, "We are from the investigation branch." That department of the Post Office concerns itself with looking into matters where discrepancies have occurred, or where it may be necessary to take legal proceedings against persons responsible. This gentleman from the investigation branch, having disclosed who he was, went on to say that anything which Mr. Turvey said would be taken down in writing and might be used in evidence.

Apparently, it is the practice of the investigation branch to use, quite illegally in my submission, the language used by police officers in conducting inquiries into criminal cases. Mr. Turvey was sufficiently intelligent to know this, too, and he challenged their right to administer such a caution on the ground that it could only be administered by authorised police officers. He was offered the presence of a friend at the interrogation which the officers of the investigation branch wanted to conduct.

It is right to point out, in that connection, that the Post Office has a rule which governs the procedure to be followed when an interrogation takes place. It reads as follows:
"A sub-postmaster or sub-office assistant who is to be interrogated as a possible offender will be asked whether he desires the presence of a friend at the interview. The friend must be a sub-postmaster, sub-office assistant or Post Office servant who is not under 18 years of age, is obtainable without delay, and in the opinion of the Investigation Branch Officer is not likely to be involved personally in the inquiry."
It will be seen how narrowly that rule is framed, and how difficult it can be for the person who is to be interrogated—

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. R. Thompson.]

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It will be seen how difficult it can be for a person to provide himself with a friend to be present at the interrogation. The one thing which is quite clear is that the sub-postmaster faced with such an interrogation is neither entitled nor allowed to ask for his solicitor to be present.

It is my first submission that the Post Office arrogates to itself a right which even the police authorities do not claim. It is quite true that when I raised this matter in the form of a Question the other day the Postmaster-General gave an assurance that he was looking into the rules relating to interrogation. I hope that as a result of his inquiry the Post Office will depart from what could easily become a travesty of justice, will bring itself into line with the procedure adopted elsewhere and will no longer arrogate to itself a right which, as I say, even the police authorities do not claim.

Mr. Turvey then suggested that a mistake had been made—that an accountancy error was perhaps responsible. He again offered to give a cheque to cover the amount of the shortage, but this the investigation officer refused to accept, continuing to insist that he was there to ask questions and to take a statement. Mr. Turvey asked why the officer was there to ask questions and take a statement and, according to Mr. Turvey, the officer replied, "You are under suspicion for theft of money."

I know that the use of those actual words is denied by the officer in question. What is admitted, in the form of a letter from the Post Office authorities is that he did not use that expression, but said that
"… a refusal could lead to the inference that you had no satisfactory explanation to offer for the deficiency."
I doubt whether, in such circumstances, an investigation officer would use this periphrastic language of the higher grade civil servant. Indeed, I doubt whether the most experienced, long-serving police officer at Scotland Yard would use it. I have an idea that what the investigation branch officer did say to Mr. Turvey was something a little nearer to some such statement as that, "You are under suspicion for theft of money."

Believing himself to be an innocent man, Mr. Turvey was most indignant when such an accusation was made against him, and expressed his indignation in a letter which he wrote to the Postmaster-General the next day. Nothing happened until 22nd November, when the same officer, with another gentleman from the investigation branch, visited him and asked him for a statement on the ground that he was still under suspicion for theft. When Mr. Turvey refused to make a statement—as I think he was perfectly entitled to do as there is the possibility of a criminal charge being made—the officer said, "I will report this to the head office."

Mr. Turvey, in fact, sent a cheque, which had been refused on two previous occasions, to the head postmaster in Worcester, and the cheque was acknowledged with a receipt worded in this way:
"The amount will be held pending the Postmaster-General's decision as to its acceptance and without prejudice to any action he may be advised to take in the matter."
On 5th January, 1955, Mr. Turvey received a letter by registered post dated 4th January from the head postmaster's office asking him to provide a written explanation. The letter was very long and put a number of points to Mr. Turvey. Mr. Turvey replied on 22nd January that he wanted to retain the papers owing to certain false accusations contained therein, whereupon the head postmaster demanded a reply by 29th January, failing which Mr. Turvey would be suspended.

On 29th January the head postmaster at Worcester, accompanied by four of his officers, walked into the sub-post office operated by Mr. Turvey with the intention of taking the office over at 6 o'clock that night. It was a Saturday. Instructions were given that the office had to be closed at 3.30 p.m. and the public denied all further access, although normally the post office would be open until 6 o'clock. The four officers who accompanied the head postmaster went behind the counter to take over the stock. The head postmaster said to Mr. Turvey, "If you answer my letter of 4th January and let me have the original back, perhaps I can do something for you and not take the post office away from you."

The Post Office has a curious habit of sending letters of the character I have mentioned, signed by a responsible official, in this case making all kinds of charges, and asking the recipient of the letter to send the original back after having having made a note of the contents or a copy thereof. That also strikes me as rather odd, because normally, in the outside world at any rate, if a person writes a letter to another person he does not ask the recipient of the letter to send the original back.

The head postmaster said that perhaps he would do something for Mr. Turvey and not take the post office away. This was on Saturday afternoon, 29th January. Mr. Turvey asked him how he could do that, and the reply of the head postmaster was, "I expect I can find someone at the regional headquarters who will arrange things in that way." He added, "Otherwise, we shall have to take over the stock and the office equipment at 6 o'clock and move it by mail van, and take the post office to some other business premises in the vicinity. I am going to allow you until half-past five to come to the head office and bring a reply to the letter of 4th January and return the original."

Mr. Turvey called at the office at 5.45. He returned the original and put in a reply dated 29th January to the letter of 4th January. While he was there, and as soon as he did that, the head postmaster telephoned the sub-post office where he had left the four assistants and told them, "Abandon ship," which meant that they had to come back to the head office. As a matter of fact, the four officers whom he had left behind to take over the post office found the balances quite satisfactory.

On 12th February, Mr. Turvey received a notice of dismissal. He was given one month's notice. I believe, though I am not absolutely certain, that he was entitled to three months' notice, and the reason why he was given one month's notice was that the postal authorities were not satisfied with the explanation for the deficiency that had been revealed on 4th August of the previous year. The letter also referred to Mr. Turvey's unco-operative attitude and refusal to answer questions.

Mr. Turvey has suffered considerable loss. He purchased the business for £10,000 in 1952, and he had spent £1,700 on modernising not only the business part but also the post office section of the premises. He had provided extra protective devices, bars for the windows, burglar alarms, and so on. He had to sell at a loss of about £3,000. He is £3,000 out of pocket. I do not know whether the arrears of pay to which he is entitled as a sub-postmaster have yet been paid to him by the Post Office authorities.

He had been in the War Reserve Police for many years. As a result of the action of the Post Office his services with the War Reserve Police of Worcestershire have been terminated. Mr. Turvey finds his character destroyed. He has challenged the Postmaster-General to prosecute him. Now he is a social outcast. The Post Office machine has simply steam-rollered him out of existence without giving him any opportunity to clear his reputation.

It is an elementary principle of British Justice that we determine the guilt or innocence of an accused person on evidence given on oath in the witness box in the presence of the accused, where the accused has the opportunity through his legal representative, to cross-examine whoever it is who is prosecuting. In other words, every man, woman and child is presumed innocent until proved guilty.

The attitude of the Post Office is inexcusable. That is not only my view but the view of the Secretary of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters who, in a statement to the Press, said:
"It is true that sub-postmasters get the sack for minor offences. The result is that they become social outcasts. They cannot clear themselves. They endure a punishment so savage that it makes the original minor offence appear ridiculous."
The Federation's London District Secretary is reported as saying:
"The reasons why Mr. Turvey has been sacked are ridiculous."
An experienced police officer, like Chief Inspector Fabian, who has now retired from Scotland Yard, says that on the evidence before him it is impossible to say whether Mr. Turvey is guilty or not. He adds that if he is guilty he should be charged and put on trial, and says:
"Obviously, the Post Office must protect the public funds."
I agree, of course, with that proposition, but I also agree with what this most experienced retired police officer also said:
"… it is equally important to protect the rights of individuals, and I accuse the Post Office … of using methods which are a travesty of all that we mean by British justice."
Those are words not lightly spoken by a very responsible and experienced retired police officer who had a most distinguished career at Scotland Yard.

Those are, briefly, the facts. There is a further consideration. In the course of all these difficulties, Mr. Turvey, by mistake, received on 15th December, 1954, an advice note from the head office at Worcester, which was supposed to remit only £290 but it contained cash to the extent of £540. The head office has to send by way of advice notes cash remittances to sub-post offices. If he had wanted to keep that extra £250 in Treasury notes included in error in that cash remittance no one would have been any the wiser. It created a lot of alarm and excitement when he telephoned the head office at Worcester immediately he received the remittance and pointed out that £250 too much had been sent. I mention that merely to show that Mr. Turvey is a man whose honesty cannot be lightly swept aside in the way in which the postal authorities have apparently attempted to do.

I think Mr. Turvey has received a very raw deal. He has been treated in a way in which no criminal, or person suspected of a criminal offence, would be treated by the police. I think it absolutely monstrous that the Post Office should conduct its criminal investigation activities in this way, which apparently is its practice. I am assured that the case of Mr. Turvey is not an isolated case, but that there are other instances in which officers of the investigation branch have conducted inquiries in a way which if it ever came to court no judge could possibly condone.

In those circumstances, I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General whether he considers that Mr. Turvey has been dishonest about the disposal of public funds. If so, I suggest that it is the duty of the Postmaster-General to prosecute Mr. Turvey would be glad if the Postmaster-General prosecuted him because, unfortunately, that is now the only way in which Mr. Turvey can clear his reputation. If the Post Office refuses to prosecute and in that way refuses to give Mr. Turvey the only opportunity he could have of clearing his reputation, I do not think that will redound to the credit of what we have always regarded as a very reputable public service.

4.17 p.m.

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The hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) has not left me much time in which to reply to a very long indictment. Therefore I must ask him to accept my excuse if I do not deal with all the points he has raised.

This matter first came to light as a result of an article in the "Empire News" on 1st May, 1955. I do not know to what extent the hon. and gallant Member got facts from that article, or to what extent he has interviewed Mr. Turvey and got other details as well.

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I have seen Mr. Turvey.

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I must correct the hon. and gallant Member on one point. He mentioned the Federation of Sub-Postmasters. In point of fact, the Federation of Sub-Postmasters told the "Empire News" in a letter that the newspaper had misreported it and sent a copy of that letter to the Post Office, so I hope the hon. and gallant Member will not make much of that.

However, I am glad of the opportunity to explain exactly why the services of Mr. Turvey were dispensed with. It is quite true that he kept a shop in which he combined the business of a news vendor and stationer and was paid at the ordinary post office scale according to the amount of business done. I must make one point clear from the beginning. The Post Office, like any other employer, must retain the right to dismiss a man if his services are not satisfactory, and for that reason, as I shall try to show, we decided to get rid of Mr. Turvey.

I must make this equally clear to the hon. and gallant Member. The Post Office is under no greater obligation than any other employer to prosecute an employee before dismissing him. A sub-postmaster who shows a deficit in his accounts, for whatever reason, is potentially a bad financial risk, and it is the duty of the Postmaster-General to take action in such a case.

When there is a clear case of dishonesty, prosecution normally follows. Otherwise the man is told the reasons why the Postmaster-General had no further confidence in him and is provided with an opportunity to give an explanation before the decision whether to retain his services is taken. But we are certainly under no obligation whatever to prosecute a man in whose services we have lost confidence.

The case started, as the hon. and gallant Member said, in August last year. I must correct the hon. and gallant Member on another point. Checking officers came to the sub-post office and discovered the loss. It was not Mr. Turvey who pointed it out. Checking officers discovered that there was a deficit of £80 in Turvey's account. That fact is, I think, admitted.

Some weeks later an officer of the investigation branch called on Mr. Turvey to ask whether he would give any explanation why the £80 was missing. Mr. Turvey was told that he could have a friend if he wished. He understood that by the rules of the Post Office he could not have a solicitor. No injustice whatever was done to him. However, Mr. Turvey refused to have a friend but admitted that the shortage existed. He refused further to co-operate in any way to discover why the money was missing. He took the attitude that it was an ordinary accounting error that could be dealt with locally.

The following day, Mr. Turvey wrote to G.P.O. Headquarters complaining that the investigation branch was investigating a deficiency. We replied giving an account of the interview as it had been reported by the investigation branch officer and explaining that it was not only our duty but our right to try to discover why the money was lost or missing. Meanwhile, two other things had come to light. The first was that there was the apparent irregular acceptance of a cheque, which seemed to have been incorrectly endorsed at the sub-office, to cover up the irregularity. The second was that on at least one occasion Mr. Turvey had adjusted upwards the cash figure in his account to get the right balance to send to head office.

Towards the end of November, Mr. Turvey was again visited by the investigation branch officer, and it was only then, and not when the hon. and gallant Member said, that he offered a cheque for £73 to make up the difference of the missing money. Early in December, Mr. Turvey asked for a personal interview, and this was given him by the regional director in Birmingham. At this interview, Mr. Turvey again protested about the manner in which we had tried to find out exactly what had happened over the deficiency, but again he gave no explanation whatever. He offered no reason why the money was missing. He was then asked if he would give any explanation and he said that he would think it over but could not commit himself definitely.

On 4th January, the head postmaster, acting on the regional director's instructions, wrote to Mr. Turvey. I will read the concluding paragraph of what was then said:
"In view of the foregoing, the question of your suitability to retain your appointment inevitably arises, and you are given this final opportunity of explaining the irregular acceptance of a cheque for £28 15s., the alleged falsification of accounts on your instructions, and the reason for the deficiency which existed in your accounts on 4th August."
Mr. Turvey did not reply to that letter. He was sent a reminder. He did not reply to that, and on 25th January he was sent a second reminder, to which he also did not reply. It was only then that the head postmaster at Worcester felt compelled to go and see Mr. Turvey and take over the office from him. Then Mr. Turvey gave some sort of explanation, but only when the head postmaster had turned up at his office.

He gave no real explanation. He simply said he did not know what had happened. He was absolutely unco-operative from beginning to end. The regional director therefore came to the conclusion, which I think was an absolutely inevitable conclusion—the Post Office would have been criticised if it had not been taken—that Mr. Turvey was not the sort of man who should be entrusted with the responsibility he had been given. He was therefore given one month's notice.

It is absolutely essential, I hope the hon. and gallant Gentleman will agree, if we are to retain the confidence which the Post Office has always enjoyed, that we insist on the highest possible standards of honesty and conduct. Mr. Turvey was given every conceivable opportunity to explain what had happened to the money, and the reason for the other two irregularities.

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After the caution on 5th October.

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There was no conceivable reason why he should not be given a caution. The caution was given entirely for the man's own protection.

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But by whom?

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Anybody investigating a case can give a caution. It is not necessary to have a police officer to give it.

Therefore, Mr. Turvey was given a month's notice. The hon. and gallant Gentleman said that that notice was too short. There was no reason, however, why he should have been given a month's notice. These officers hold their offices during the Queen's pleasure and can be summarily dismissed, and they know that when they accept their appointments. It is interesting that Mr. Turvey himself did not appeal. He did not appeal to the regional director, and he did not appeal to the Postmaster-General, as he could have done.

Those are the facts of the case. The hon. and gallant Gentleman said, I think, that Mr. Turvey today is a social outcast. If he is, it is entirely his own fault. No publicity was given to this matter by the Post Office, just as no other employer would give widespread publicity to the fact that he was disdispensing with the services of one of his servants. If he is a social outcast in Worcester, the reason must be that somebody wrote an article about him in the "Empire News," or that he wrote the article himself, or prompted the article. There is no reason whatever why this unsatisfactory conduct should not come out.

I appreciate the feeling that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has. He has a reputation for taking up cases in which he feels an injustice has been done, but I can assure him that not the slightest injustice has been done in this case. This man failed in his duties. He failed to account for money which was entrusted to him. He failed to give any adequate reason why he had cashed a cheque contrary to Post Office instructions. I think it was quite justifiable that he was dismissed from Post Office service.

I hope I have convinced the hon. and gallant Gentleman that no conceivable injustice has been done, and that there is no reason why a man should be prosecuted before he is dismissed. If every employer had to take an action in court before he got rid of a man and had to charge him with criminality, what would employment be like? After all, the Post Office is only an ordinary employer in that sense. It has a very high reputation for the way in which it endeavours to treat its staff with consideration and fairness. I sincerely hope that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is satisfied with the explanation I have given.

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Is it the invariable practice of the Post Office, when conducting an investigation which may arise for any of all sorts of reasons, to say that anything that a man says may be taken down in writing and used in evidence against him? Is it not possible to have an inquiry without saying that—an inquiry to get the facts—before making up one's mind that a criminal offence must have been committed?

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The warning given by the investigation branch was given entirely for the man's own protection, and it could be given by anybody in similar circumstances.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.