Sunday 6 January 2019

A former Subpostmaster writes: "I am broken."

This is Wendy Martin, who ran the Crichton Lane Post Office in York until December 2016.

Wendy Martin
Wendy is a claimant in Bates v Post Office. Her mental health has been affected by the ordeal she went through. She's more than £30,000 in debt, suffers anxiety attacks and has been diagnosed with depression. She unreservedly blames the Post Office for this.

Here is Wendy's story, submitted to me this week, in her own words:

"Let me start by saying the person writing this is not the same person I was four years ago. 

I am an empty shell. I am on a waiting list for post-traumatic stress counselling. Even saying that doesn't sound right. I am not a soldier. I should not need counselling. I was a postmistress working in a post office. I am destroyed both inside and out.

I started out my career working in an accountants and became a credit controller, but I never really knew what I wanted to do with my life until I found a job in my local post office in February 1999. I  worked at the Liphook branch in Hampshire. It was a mid-size office which provided most services, including car tax and data-post. My job was varied and I really enjoyed it.  

Two months after starting at Liphook, our office was chosen to trial a new computer system. The Post Office was rolling out Horizon. To me, using the computer was no hardship as I was so new to the job. I helped the older staff with the computer and they helped me learn the job. I found I picked things up very quickly.

After my husband's father got ill we moved back to my home town of York. I found work in various post offices. I enjoyed it - how many people can really say after 16 years in a job they still wanted to be at work like I did? 

The decision that ruined my life

I had complete faith in the Post Office and Horizon. Horizon had never let me down and I did not have a single discrepancy in any branch I worked in for over 10 years. I knew others had, but felt I didn't get problems because I was good at my job. I never took a day off sick. For 16 years I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. 

Knowing this was what I wanted to do until I retired helped me make the decision that ultimately ruined my life. 

I had been working in the Crichton Avenue post office in York for eight years when the previous postmaster decided he wanted to leave. I applied for the job.

I had to agree to many changes and refurbish the office so it was compliant for disabled access. This meant a new layout which the Post Office decided but I had to pay for. I borrowed £22,000 from the bank, borrowed money from my family and ploughed my own life savings into the branch. I was stupid. I thought I was securing my future. 

My side of the refurbishment went smoothly, I chose the best company and paid for good workmanship. It was carried out to a very high standard. The problems started with the Post Office. 

They had one man working early morning until late at night wiring up the office. He told me they were not paying enough to send more men, but more were needed. He struggled, but he finished wiring everything up and I have to say the subsequent problems were not his fault. Everything was cheap, carried out to cheap standards, and although my problems were caused by the items he was using, he was not given the correct materials to do the job.

System failures

The first thing he was instructed to do was to place all the wiring on one line - the computers, the alarm system, the gas and electric top-up machine and the phone line. This saved the Post Office monthly line rental on the phone bill, which was all they cared about. They knew the problems this set-up was causing in new offices and they are still refurbishing offices in the same way.

As soon as I opened for business my computers would crash. All day every day. They were constantly offline and not working. I was getting one drop-out every minute on each of my three terminals every single day. Transactions were going missing. My alarm system would not send signals to the alarm company and I was getting false call outs. My panic button did not work. Had I been robbed I would have no police assistance. My office was closing most days due to system failures. I spent each day on the phone trying to get my problems rectified.

Customers were also upset when payments they made would not reach the person they paid due to system problems. Despite this the Post Office would not send anybody to help.  Each day when I checked my cash I had massive discrepancies, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of pounds. You could input the same figures and the discrepancy would alter each time. We were experienced staff and each one of us could not balance our tills. We kept getting told Horizon was not causing our problems. This was rubbish. I knew Horizon was the problem. I could not believe what they were telling me. To make matters worse they kept closing my case and refusing to send anybody. 

I never slept. I was like a walking corpse and so were my staff. The worry and stress was killing us and we were getting no help from the Post Office despite my union man trying his best to help. He was a CWU representative and the Post Office would not deal with him. I was emailing everyone including Angela van den Bogerd so it's no use anyone saying they didn't know what was going on. I'd spend all day arguing with idiots and then all evening arguing with the top nobs. They did not see me as a threat and would not help.  I could not even go to the doctors as I spent each day fighting at work and each night phoning and sending emails trying to rectify my problems. 

The horrible thing is, until it happened to me, I would have been stood on the other side of court saying, "well I never had a problem...."

Depression ravages me

In December 2016 after many closures, staff walkouts and nearly two years without sleep, I closed my doors. I could no longer deal with the stress. The Post Office responded by keeping my last three months remuneration which amounted to nearly £7,000. They still say I owe them more than £8,000. I am broken. My credit is ruined as I owe more £30,000 which I cannot repay as I have no income. My health is damaged and I am awaiting counselling.

The stress has ruined my home life. My relationship with my partner has broken down. I can never work in a financial role again as my credit rating is worthless. I am 48 years old and now have no career, I am still risking the home I live in as my debtors have a right to come after it. Depression ravages me, and I struggle to find any work. 

It has been just over two years since I closed and I still feel exhausted. I am out of fight. I am still shocked by lack of press coverage and lack of concern by the government who own this institution. 

I am still hopeful this will change. I am not alone. Hundreds of postmasters are like me. I hope the Post Office will be brought to account soon."

The Post Office tell me they won't comment on individual cases, but their current legal position, as explained in court during the recent common issues trial, is that what happens in a branch is the Postmaster's responsibility. Problems with Horizon have to be proved by individual Subpostmasters. Horizon's general reliability means that the Post Office can safely assume it is reliable unless a Subpostmaster proves otherwise. It has no contractual obligation to investigate its own computer system.

Thanks to Wendy for getting in touch. Given the number of people who have told me about depression and dark thoughts as a result of what happened to them please be aware there are ALWAYS people you can talk to - click on this link to the Samaritans, who are experts in dealing with the emotional fallout from any trauma. 

If you need urgent financial or legal advice, before doing anything, go to Citizens Advice. My wife volunteers for CA and they are brilliant. They can listen, help and point you in a sensible direction. 

For specific advice on what to do about the Post Office - try the JFSA, Freeths and the CWU

Finally a note on Wendy's observation that she is shocked by the lack of media coverage. Regular readers will know this is a familiar bugbear so forgive me for boring on, but if aggrieved former Subpostmasters don't try to get media coverage (and I am not including Wendy in this, who did go to the media to try to get help when she was still a Subpostmaster), how do they think journalists will cover their story? By magic? 

In the last eight years I have been writing about this, the number of press conferences, JFSA interviews, demonstrations, days of action and co-ordinated media campaigns by Subpostmasters who have fallen foul of Horizon has, as far as I know, amounted to nil. That is not to denigrate the Herculean work the JFSA have done in bringing this story to parliament's attention, getting the mediation scheme up and running, and then working with Freeths to find the money to bring this case to court.

But I'll let you into a little secret:

No media activity = no media coverage. 
Sporadic, occasional media activity = sporadic, occasional media coverage.
Sustained media activity = sustained media coverage.

And you can ask the Windrush generation, Marine A, victims of the black cab rapist and Gina Miller about the value of running a sustained publicity campaign alongside your legal one.

From what I have seen the JFSA is not geared up to make any waves in the media. It does not have the appetite, wherewithal, capacity or contacts. The NFSP are patsies, the top brass at the CWU aren't interested enough to do anything, individual Subpostmasters don't seem to want to co-ordinate, and the GLO claimants do what they're told by their lawyers, when it technically should be the other way round. All this plays into the hands of the Post Office, who need this kept as quiet as possible.

It's tempting to be glib here and say - don't worry! Mr Justice Fraser will solve everything. If you believe that, well, I admire your faith, and look forward to reporting the miracle. In the meantime, more Subpostmasters will be experiencing the same sort of problems Wendy had, and the human misery will continue.