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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A former Subpostmaster writes: "This was systematic abuse... I lost my business and lost my family"

Bal's Post Office in 2003
What follows is cribbed (with permission) from the blog of Balvinder Gill. You can read the original post here. Bal is a claimant in the group litigation.

Bal's story is shocking. Every time I think I am inured to the personal experience of people who are claimants in this case, I come across something which stops me short.

Bal has an HND in Maths and Computer Science and before he took on a Post Office helped run his father's convenience store as a teenager and into his twenties. Bal also worked for Cahoot bank in Coventry before he moved to Oxford. He took over the Cowley Road Post Office on 3 Dec 2003.

This is Bal's tale, as told on his blog:

"I am currently entangled in a longstanding dispute with The UK Post Office (Post Office Ltd) as part of a group litigation with 500 odd other sub-postmasters who have all suffered the same or similar plight.

This chapter was the biggest contributing factor to my breakdowns and decade of mental instability.

It was only through knowing more about the litigation and learning of the many cases of others who had suffered a similar peril that I can now rationalise what happened.

My memories of what happened were quite blurred as this all occurred in 2003 when I was 24 and had just got married and moved to Oxford. As part of my recovery from mental illness, I think the subconscious may have also intentionally suppressed this as “You don’t need this right now!” kind of action. There has certainly been a lot of accepting and letting go as part of my recovery so this could have also been released without too much thought, hence the difficulty revisiting it initially.

The trial has however, brought everything back. I have a good memory now and certainly in a quiet moment of stillness can picture things quite vividly.

My family ran a convenience store in Coventry. We suffered hardship before (when Sainsbury’s opened near our corner shop we lost about 50% of our business), but we adjusted and then grew the business considerably after a period of consolidation.

In the Summer of 2003, I sat with my father most evenings in our flat above the shop browsing through Dalton’s Weekly looking for a new business venture.

'An unrecoverable disaster'

It was the run up to my wedding, and having worked with him on developing the retail businesses since I was a child he was more than happy to support me and fund a new venture that would help set my new life up in Oxford.

I was desperate to leave Coventry at this time as we lived in a rough council estate and I think my time there had just passed.

So we had found a Post Office in Oxford which was advertised with an attractive remuneration (a salary!) of £50k. I made some enquiries as it was on my dad’s business bucket list to run a Post Office. It seemed like a symbol of some status for a first generation immigrant Asian shopkeeper and we proceeded to explore the opportunity in more detail.

I had a reasonably good academic record and was good with maths, business and computers generally. The business plan was a doddle as it was simply projecting the remuneration over the 12 months adding the nominal retail business sales and taking out the fixed costs. There would have been and were no wages required for staff as we planned to keep it family run. The interview was promptly organised and we were treated very well. We had substantial money to invest and both sides were happy with the arrangement.
Bal's Post Office in 2004 after his parents' investment

What happened next is nothing short of an unrecoverable disaster for us. The postmaster who was running the Post Office was frantically calling saying “I need to get out sooner rather than later and if you don’t complete sooner then the deal is off.”

The alarm bells should have rang but the Post Office asked us to save the day and take over during the busy Christmas period which we were told would normally never happen. With a quick fire 1.5 days of stamp and coin counting training we were in!

We opened and similarly to the stories I have heard from other claimants everything was very rush rush…. It was sign this, now do this and then this and we just kind of followed through. It was ridiculously busy, queues around the corner on the street everyday and we did not know where to look or what to do.

There was a trainer with us for a few days from opening but they always left around mid afternoon. I rang the area manager numerous times for support and he sent somebody the week after Xmas (OMG!!) and there were errors upon errors upon errors and things which I knew just could not be right.

'Walking round like a zombie'

The trainer came and made some adjustments on his laptop, called someone and then said you are £100k in surplus we are going to move that into a suspense account. This is after trading for only 20 days approximately.

Did that mean transactions had not been put through as I never had any customers come back and say there was an issue and was dealing with large amounts for banking or had someone just decided to be really charitable?

I was mind boggled but accepted as I really did need the help and he managed to zero the balance that night and I felt like everything had been resolved. I think we were a few pence over by his reckoning.

He left us again and I vividly remember two power outages, including one where I had to close for the rest of the day. There were issues with screens crashing on Horizon where I would start on one terminal and have to move to the other. Also the system would fail when doing the dreaded Wednesday balance and get stuck on the roll over screen.

Over the next few months I constantly called the helpline and area manager to say that I just cannot get this right it does not make any sense. At one point, I shut down all other tills ignored the queues and just worked of on my own of one terminal for a whole week and very slowly to check each transaction to make sure that there can be no errors. Still this week ending balance made no sense at all!

The area manager during his phone calls asked me if I was interested in taking on a second Post Office. We were still in the honeymoon period and I expected that they would assist me to get this right and must have confidence in me to be offering me a second post office. There were errors but there was no issue and I did not think for a second that they were going to turn on me in a given moment. I was also offered a third post office for which in both cases I just copied and pasted over the business plan and sent it to them and they set everything up.

I was getting more and more stressed each week working all the hours possible and hoping the numbers would start coming correct… they never did! I was receiving transaction corrections at an alarming rate on a weekly basis and I remember walking round like a zombie for months with all the life drained out of me thinking "when is this going to end? Why can this not be right as I am doing everything I possibly can!?"

'This has never happened to anyone else'

On 13 May 2004 (I will never forget this day!), I turned up in the morning and was met by auditors who told me I cannot enter the office and they need to check everything. I called the area manager and he said there is a debt. Then he told me: “Get your dad to pay it as he has plenty of money.”

What happened that day was the destruction of my family and the beginning of an internal war which broke us for more than a decade.

I was told that there was a £60k shortfall and that I cannot enter the Post Office and they were calling investigators. I was then taken to the back of the office and interrogated by them under some kind of pseudo-police interview.

I was alone and they made a tape recording and repeatedly asked “did you take the money?”

I was in an exhausted state of shock and could hardly stand up. I just kept saying that I did not take any money from here as I know I did not.

I then returned home and broke down. But my family said "you must have done something wrong - how has this happened?!"

The argument that then followed broke our family up. I left the house the same day with my wife. I needed answers as I could not understand how considering I had been open and honest about problems that I was having that they could suddenly just turn on me. I did not talk to my parents again for the next 12 months and amongst the wider family and local community I was labelled as a fraudster who had failed his family.

I waited frantically to know what had happened and hoped that maybe the £100k surplus which was put into a suspense account would be some how connected and they would let me know that everything is now OK and you can resume, we have put everything right.
Balvinder Gill

I never at that time suspected Horizon could produce losses as I was told very specifically that it does not make mistakes and that this has never happened to anyone else. I felt like a complete failure and my whole life fell apart around me. I was 24 and this was a lot to take onto my shoulders.

I then received a statement saying I had been terminated and with no reason and no criminal charges. The bill had increased and I was now facing £108,000 with no way of disputing or questioning these transactions as I was now on the outside. I was told I am not allowed near the Post Office which I had purchased for £67,000 and that I need to make good this amount as soon as possible.

There was a temporary subpostmaster in charge who had been appointed by Post Office and he took all the profits to keep the Post Office open. I was penniless and broke and could not work out - was I criminal? Incompetent? Or been somehow bled out?

The next couple of years were very difficult as I was earning £13k – £16k a year at minimum wage and was told I need to pay around £500 each month against the debt. If I did not then they would take action, meaning prosecution and debt recovery. I took payday loans, racked up more debt and when my first child was born they were taking 40% of my income and I remember not having enough money to even fuel my car to get to work.

At one point the fuel ran out and I just left the car there and walked the remaining 6 miles. This was one of the hardest periods of my life.

Within less than 6 months I had the pain of £108,000 debt, lost my business and lost my family in addition to the damage to my reputation. I do attribute this trauma to be an overbearing contributor to my mental health battles since.

My father had still been given the Post Office back despite all that had happened and had made a match funding agreement with them and felt he was doing a duty to recover the business from the damage his son had caused, the failed businessman!

These issues had divided my family, we no longer were a family. Later he and my mother received a similar fate and my mother was actually criminally prosecuted. They sold everything to fund a legal case and she was spared jail, literally with the judge's last word.

This was systematic abuse and there are many stories that have now surfaced of suicide, false imprisonment and of people that have suffered much more than me. My mother being one of them… that is another story I will share some time soon.

This trial does not get the coverage it deserves in the UK and if any of my followers are still around as I have not wrote for over a year I would be really grateful if you could share the stories so people across the world know how badly a UK government-subsidised business have treated people here."

After being "terminated" by the Post Office Bal's marriage broke up and he has been sectioned twice. Bal says he was pursued by the Post Office for the £60K discrepancy for a decade after he was sacked. He was declared bankrupt in 2014.

I am delighted to say that Bal is recovering well, working as an entrepreneur and is extremely open about mental health and how it can affect people. Please do read his blog "Fighting My Demons" for more.

Bal says some very nice things about my reporting of the group litigation in his original blog post which I have excised from the text above, but I am grateful to him for his kind words, and for allowing me to repost his recollections.

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If you experienced something similar to Bal please contact me using the message form which is in the right hand nav bar of this website. Alternatively, if your experience of dealing with the Post Office is entirely benign and you want to tell me about that, please get in touch. I am also after guest blog posts from any political, legal or forensic accountant types who may have a view on this group litigation. Please message me.

I have asked the Post Office for a response to Bal's story. They told me it wouldn’t be right to comment on individual cases outside of court hearings.