The Telegraph 2024-04-03 01:00:38

Rishi Sunak ‘appalled’ by killing of three British aid workers in IDF strike

Rishi Sunak told Benjamin Netanyahu he was “appalled” by the killing of three British citizens in an Israeli strike as he described the situation in Gaza as “intolerable…

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Royal Mail investigating barcode stamps after customers hit with £5 fines

Royal Mail is investigating problems with new barcoded stamps amid fears customers are wrongly being fined to receive letters, The Telegraph can reveal.

Members of the public have complained that they are being hit with £5 penalties to collect post because Royal Mail has deemed the stamps on them to be counterfeit. 

The issue has emerged since the postal service switched entirely to a new barcoded system in July.

Postmasters have said that the allegedly fake stamps were bought from Royal Mail directly, prompting fears that they are wrongly being identified as counterfeit. 

Following a meeting on Tuesday between the Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake and Royal Mail chief executive Martin Seidenberg, the postal service committed to investigating the issue.

The Telegraph understands that a formal investigation has not been launched, but that Royal Mail has assured the minister it is working with retailers including the Post Office to identify the “source of the problem”.

Mr Hollinrake said: “We spoke to Royal Mail and they are investigating and they are working alongside the Post Office and other retailers to try and ascertain the source of the problem.”

Last week, Royal Mail insisted its processes are “secure” and that it uses “specialist equipment” to assess whether a stamp is genuine. Most stamps are verified using the service’s scanning devices at sorting offices nationwide.

The Post Office said any allegation that fake stamps were bought at one of its branches was “extremely serious” as it implied that a postmaster or member of staff had swapped genuine Royal Mail stamps with counterfeits.

The news that Royal Mail is investigating has been welcomed by postmasters. The chair of one campaign group, which represents those wrongly convicted during the Horizon IT scandal, said: “It goes without saying that postmasters do not want to have to deal with false accusations about something else.”

It comes after more than 900 sub-postmasters were prosecuted for theft from the Post Office because of errors linked to the Horizon computer system. 

Barcoded stamps were first introduced in February 2022 as a method to reduce postal fraud, saving the beleaguered company “tens of millions” of pounds each year.

Previously traditional stamps were delivered to a sorting office where they were stamped with ink to show they had been used. However the Post Office claims fraudsters were able to wash away the postmark ink and resale used stamps.

David Gold, the head of public affairs and policy at Royal Mail, said at the time “the improvements in efficiency and security” would benefit all customers. 

However, since 2022, 700 managers have been fired and last year the company made a loss of £419m, a fall largely blamed on the decline in letter sending. Around 19 million letters are sent each day. 

Barcoded stamps became mandatory from July 31 last year and it wasn’t long before numerous customers began complaining about being accused of having used counterfeit stamps.

It came to a head last December when a barrage of complaints emerged as people’s Christmas cards were either left undelivered or could only be collected if the recipient paid a £5 fine.

Alan Green, of Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire, was forced to pay £5 after receiving a Christmas card with a “perfectly normal-looking first-class stamp”.

The £5 bill was four times the cost of a first class stamp at the time.

Mr Hollinrake vowed to “get to the bottom of what has happened” last week when approached by The Telegraph and on Tuesday he welcomed the steps taken by Royal Mail.

He said: “I very much welcome the decision, it’s something I wanted to see and I’m pleased it’s happening.”

The minister refused to answer whether Royal Mail will also scrutinise its scanning technology used to read the barcodes – which some fear is the cause of the problem.

Robert Kennedy, an IT engineer from Lisburn, Northern Ireland, said he purchased a book of stamps in December last year from his local Post Office but only two of them were flagged as being counterfeit and the rest were not reported as being fraudulent. 

He said he had such little faith in the postal service, he refused to raise a complaint. “I didn’t register a complaint because it’s such a joke. My biggest bugbear is that we trust this organisation. If they can’t get the verification of their own product right, which they produce, then how are they ever going to substantiate my claim?”

“It’s just a joke of a set up,” he added.

Mr Hollinrake said he was keeping an open mind as to whether the fault lay with Royal Mail or postmasters. 

He said: “I don’t think it’s right to make accusations without evidence. I haven’t got any evidence [of postmasters selling counterfeit stamps] so that’s why you investigate these cases to see where the truth lies, but of course anyone who is guilty of anything should be dealt with properly.”

Richard Trinder, who runs the 900-member strong campaign group Voice of The Postmaster, said he and colleagues “absolutely welcome” any investigation into counterfeit stamps.

Mr Trinder, 63, who runs a branch in Sheffield said: “We have seen some postmasters posting on forums about this year.

“In our branch, we have had two or three customers coming in and saying they have been fined for these stamps and I’ve heard of around 10 or 20 others (postmasters) who’ve had similar experiences.

Mr Trinder said his stamps are delivered directly from Royal Mail offices in Swindon. 

He added: “We would all absolutely welcome any investigation into this.”

The Post Office said it receives stamps directly from Royal Mail’s secure printers. They are then delivered to its warehouse before individual Post Offices receive the stamps in specialist delivery vans which also carry cash to the branch. 

A spokesman said: “Any allegation that fake stamps have been purchased at a Post Office are extremely serious. The implication of such an allegation is that one of our postmasters, or a member of their staff, has obtained fake stamps and has chosen to sell them to customers rather than selling legitimate stamps that have come from Royal Mail’s secure printers. 

“This is why we insist that any customer who thinks they may have purchased a fake stamp from a Post Office must produce an itemised receipt so that this can be looked into further.”

A Royal Mail spokesman said: “When a customer reports to us that they bought a stamp from a retailer that is subsequently found to be counterfeit, we will always look into the circumstances of that case. 

“We also work closely with retailers and law enforcement agencies, and actively seek the prosecution of those who produce counterfeit stamps. We reaffirmed that policy to the minister today.”

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‘Disgusting’ rubbish in Welsh cave blamed on Instagram influencers

A Welsh cave made famous on social media has been ruined by people who visited to take pictures for Instagram and then left behind excrement, luminous graffiti and mounds of rubbish, a volunteer who cleaned it up has said.

Anthony Taylor, 42, said hundreds of people had flocked to the abandoned Gaewern slate mine near Corris Uchaf, Gwynedd, to take photographs for their Instagram profiles in recent years.

The cave, which contains a heap of rusting old cars and televisions dumped when it closed in the 1970s, first became a popular selfie spot in 2019 after a visitor put it on YouTube, earning more than six million views to date.

But Mr Taylor said others following in their footsteps “destroyed” the cave by leaving behind faeces, rubber dinghies, glow sticks and bin bags they had used to keep their feet dry.

“It’s just disgusting – really sad and disheartening,” he told the BBC. “The whole reason people want to visit a place like this is because they’ve seen it on the internet and think: ‘That’s an amazing place to go and see.’ So why would you trash it?”

The scrapheap inside the old mine is a selfie hotspot because it is illuminated by shafts of sunlight at certain times of the day. “How often do you see hundreds of cars underground with lights coming onto them from the sun?” asked Mr Taylor.

He and a group of fellow volunteers spent two days cleaning up the “bizarre” cave last month, carrying out rubbish and scrubbing spray paint from the walls.

Fluorescent yellow, red, green and turquoise graffiti covered “every bit of wall” before the volunteers cleaned it.

“From about 30ft in, the spray-painting started, and it was awful,” said Mr Taylor, who is from Aberystwyth. “When you got to the end, it was just a sea of boats, inflatable dinghies everywhere. If these things keep happening, it’s going to be lost to everyone forever.”

Mr Taylor estimated that his group and another from Hell on Earth, a YouTube channel, had removed 30 discarded dinghies from the cave in total.

“Something had to be done,” Mr Taylor said. “The people that go to these places, influencers they call themselves… they go because they’ve got inherent value to them.

“Why destroy it for everyone else? They are beautiful places, and a lot of people don’t want them to be ruined. Instagram seems to be the killer of a lot of things. People turn up, take a picture and then leave.”

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Adult feelings must not be put before children’s needs, says former Ofsted head

Adults’ feelings must not be put before children’s needs, Amanda Spielman, the former Ofsted chief has suggested…

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Watch: Paula Vennells may have known about allegations Horizon could be remotely accessed

Paula Vennells, the former Post Office chief executive, may have known of allegations that the Horizon system could be remotely accessed two years before prosecutions were halted, audio footage suggests.

Tapes obtained by Channel 4 News show that the Post Office’s chief lawyer is heard confirming twice that Ms Vennells had been briefed about a “covert operations team” that could remotely access sub-postmaster accounts.

The audio recordings date to 2013, two years before the Post Office halted prosecutions against its own sub-postmasters.

Ms Vennells also went on to tell MPs in 2015 that remote access to accounts was not possible.

In written evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Inquiry, the Post Office stated: “There is no functionality in Horizon for either a branch, Post Office or Fujitsu to edit, manipulate or remove transaction data once it has been recorded in a branch’s accounts.”

In the sixteen years up to 2015, more than 900 sub-postmasters were wrongfully prosecuted because of faulty Horizon software producing fictional shortfalls on their accounts.

The fact postmaster accounts could be accessed remotely was a key part of the Horizon scandal.

Channel 4’s newly uncovered tapes derive from a call on which investigators from forensic accountancy firm Second Sight, along with several Post Office executives, were present.

At one point, Susan Crichton, the Post Office’s then-general counsel, is asked whether Ms Vennells is aware of the allegation that Second Sight were investigating.

This concerned the existence of the remote unit at Bracknell’s Fujitsu headquarters.

“[Paula] knows about the allegation. She knows we are working on it,” Ms Crichton’s voice is heard saying in the clip.

“She’s got everything. The way that I’ve tried to brief Paula is, as soon as I have evidence that, you know, that there is a problem, she knows about it the next minute,” she adds.

Michael Rudkin, the former Post Office union official, who was portrayed in the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, was also referenced in the call.

Mr Rudkin was central to the discovery of Fujitsu’s covert operations unit.

In the tape Ron Warmington, of Second Sight, warns that Ms Vennells could be questioned by Lord Arbuthnot – who campaigned on behalf of sub-postmasters – on the Bracknell operation.

“If James says something like, ‘And where are you on this assertion about the Bracknell covert operations team, as it was referred to by Rudkin?’,” Warmington asks in the newly-released audio.

“Well look, that’s a specific case. We’ll come back to it when we finish the investigation,” Ms Crichton responds.

“Yeah, well, as long as she doesn’t come back and say, ‘Look, so what’s this Bracknell issue, what is he talking about?’; ‘Oh, we’ve known about that for two months’,” Mr Warmington probes.

“She knows about the allegation. She knows we are working on it,” Ms Crichton responds.

In another part of the tapes, Post Office officials relay conversations with Ms Vennells on how the Second Sight probe – commissioned by the Post Office for an independent investigation – could raise the spectre of a “miscarriage of justice”.

Ms Crichton is heard saying: “So Paula agrees that the original scope of the investigation did not go as far as looking at whether it was the miscarriage of justice point, Ron and Ian.

“So that’s, that’s not what she’s looking for. She’s looking for the systematic – or systemic rather, not systematic – systemic weakness in the Horizon systems.

“But not, as I said, it doesn’t go on to that next point around whether or not it’s caused the miscarriage of justice, or suspension of a sub-postmaster.

“Because I think that, once you found it, then it’s up to us to look for and see what impact it might be, if that happens,” Ms Crichton is heard saying.

A statement released on behalf of Ms Vennells by her lawyers said: “I continue to support and focus on co-operating with the inquiry and expect to be giving evidence in the coming months.

“I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the sub-postmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system.

“I now intend to continue to focus on assisting the inquiry and will not make any further public comment until it has concluded.”

Susan Crichton did not respond to Channel 4 News’ requests for comment.

Fujitsu declined to comment.

A Post Office spokesperson said: “We remain fully focused on getting to the truth of what happened and supporting the statutory public inquiry, which is chaired by a judge with the power to question witnesses under oath, and is therefore best placed to help achieve this.”

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Couple given Asbo-style warning over claims they are feeding gulls

A couple has been threatened with an Asbo-style court order after deliberately attracting hordes of gulls to their rewilded garden with dog biscuits.

Stephen Atkinson-Jones, 71, and wife Caroline, 64, who have lived at their home in Bexhill, East Sussex, for 27 years, were alleged to be causing a nuisance in a complaint to the local council.

Since 2009, the couple say, they have thrown pieces of the biscuits into their rear garden courtyard at 8am each morning to feed a flock of around 10 gulls.

And they say they have been made to feel like “public enemy number one” for trying to turn their garden into a haven for local wildlife.

In August last year, an environmental health officer from Rother District Council visited the couple’s home following a complaint that they were “causing a nuisance due to persistent bird feeding”.

Internal correspondence, seen by The Telegraph, shows the council had received a complaint from a neighbour, alleging the “swarms of birds/gulls” have been defecating on their patio, on their clean washing and even on themselves.

Video evidence ‘backed complaint’

The council ruled the complaints were “substantiated” by video evidence.

Phil Smith, on behalf of the council, urged Mr Atkinson-Jones to stop feeding the birds, a request which he complied with.

“Very amiable no issues whatsoever,” Mr Smith wrote of the conversation in a report submitted to bosses.

But three months later, Mr Smith sent a letter to the couple issuing them with a formal “community protection warning” under the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014.

The letter, Nov 23 2023, barred the couple from using food to lure birds to their garden and stipulated they were only allowed to feed “wild birds smaller than a common pigeon”.

And it warned them they could be prosecuted if they breached the terms of the notice.

‘We’re law-abiding decent people’

A Freedom of Information request submitted by Mr Atkinson-Jones on Jan 3, 2024, revealed that the council had received only one complaint over the bird-feeding.

Mr Atkinson-Jones said he is seeking legal advice, adding: “I have got the time now, I have got the money, and I have got the inclination to stop being bullied.

“I don’t think that we’re doing anything that we should actually be warned with a community protection notice, we don’t want to be unreasonable neighbours, we don’t want to cause anyone distress.

“We just want to live our life. We’re law-abiding decent people.”

Mrs Atkinson-Jones said they had received a litany of complaints over the years, including ones relating to overhanging bushes, repairs to a window in a coach house, feeding foxes and having a bonfire.

“We must have a file about 18 inches thick on complaints… [Neighbours] have complained about everything they can possibly think of, it’s almost like a vendetta,” she added.

Green benefits of rewilding

Mr Atkinson-Jones claimed the neighbours “never ever use their garden” and added: “I don’t know what the problem is.

“I don’t know what it is about us that they obviously dislike.  You can’t like everyone but it doesn’t mean you have to be subversive and disingenuous and go around reporting people. It’s horrible.”

The couple insist their garden is carefully looked after and cited the environmental benefits of rewilding as championed by BBC presenter Chris Packham.

Mr Atkinson Jones added: “Every plant we grow supports the bees, the butterflies. It is not that we neglect our garden, it is just that we have a different view, it is a naturalistic garden.”

Rother District Council has been approached for comment.

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Row over whether homeless people could be arrested because they smell

The Government has become embroiled in a row over whether homeless people could be arrested because they smell under its proposed rough-sleeping laws…

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