Tuesday, April 23, 2019

"I balanced and it showed a loss of £32,000"

Gary in 2011
This is the story of Gary Brown, a claimant in the Bates and others v Post Office group litigation and former Subpostmaster at the village of Rawcliffe in East Yorkshire from 2000 - 2014. 

I've not met Gary, but he's been a regular and helpful secret emailer for the last six months. I've taken his testimony at face value. He tells me what follows is his honestly held recollection of events which corresponds to the sworn witness statement he sent to Freeths:

"I left school in 1970 at 15 years of age with no qualifications at all. I trained to be a butcher with Dewhursts and was their youngest shop manager at the age of 17. I left to retrain as a paint sprayer.

I sprayed Chieftains, Challenger 1 and Challenger 2 main battle tanks plus many more armoured fighting vehicles for the British Army, The Royal Jordanian Army and The Shah of Iran. I was employed by the Royal Ordinance Factory in Leeds from 1976 to 1987 when we were taken over by Vickers Defence Systems.

In December 1999 I was made redundant and had no idea what I would do to support my family. I was married with two children so had to find something. That New Years Eve, of the new millennium, we stayed at a friends in the beautiful village of Rawcliffe, East Yorkshire.

During the evening, talked turned about my future when my friend told us the Village Post Office and shop was for sale. He thought it could be a viable proposition. This set my wife Maureen’s and my mind thinking about it. The property was set perfectly on the village green, with a large six-bedroom house above and to the rear of the shop. It was run by an elderly lady and the business was on its last legs. It was a typical old-fashioned Post Office and shop just what you would imagine a village Post Office would look like.

After much discussion and viewing the property we applied to a bank for finance. We were turned down not once but four times by different banks until The Co-op bank said yes. To raise the deposit we had to use the collateral on our house, redundancy money, cash in our insurances plus what little savings we had. We borrowed £90,000 and invested £30,000 of our own money.

Before we could proceed further we had to undergo an interview with the Post Office. This took place in Grimsby. So one day we headed off for the interview with the backing money of the bank and our retail forecast which Maureen and an accountant had sorted out.

"I was expecting some form of test"

The interview I can remember was fairly relaxed with a man and woman interviewing us, sorry I cannot remember the full names - the gent was called Andy. Towards the end of the interview I asked when I would find out if we had secured the post. I was told it should be about two weeks, but he said he could tell me I had been successful in my application and that the only thing the Post Office needed to know was that we wouldn’t go bust in the first two years. 

I was surprised the interview was so short and so relaxed for such an important position. I was expecting some form of test, especially maths. To be honest I was fearing a maths test as I hadn’t done any since at school and I was very weak on the subject. 

I was told before taking over the Post Office I would be sent on a Horizon training course, which never happened.  I made several phone calls to Andy leading up to my appointment about the training course but was always told it was getting sorted. 

The week before we took over the business I received a letter giving me the date of the course. It was 22 August 2000, the same date we were moving into the Post Office! To make things even more nervy I found out on the day we moved in that a trainer was not available! Fortunately a little later on I received a phone call from a trainer saying the Post Office had just contacted her to come to me. (I found out from her later that I was her last Postmaster to train as she was suppose to be retired).

I was to be given two weeks of training on the job which was cut short from what I remember by two bank holidays. The first day of my appointment was balancing day so after a nerve wrecking first day I had to try and take in balancing. My trainer was very thorough and went through everything (even though it was all going over my head), we finally finished our day at twenty to one in the morning. I had been working from 5am with no break and was absolutely shattered.

Overs and unders

One thing I remember most about the training was the ‘overs and unders tin.' I was told when balancing it was almost impossible to balance to the penny so if the balance was showing a positive the money, no matter how much, was to put in a tin of some sort and kept in a drawer. Then, when the system showed a negative, the money would be taken out and put back into the Post Office till.

I was very nervous about doing this as it didn’t seem right and spoke about my concern to the trainer. She assured me this was correct practice and all Postmasters did it. I found it strange, a large company working like this.
The unimproveable picture caption to this is "First class male."
After my two weeks of training I was given a sheet by my trainer informing me of how I had got on. I had done well on everything apart from navigating the Horizon system. She advised more training. This I got some months later from another lady. She was with me for 3 days. Her review of me was that I was just what the Post Office was looking for: polite, with good customer service but a bit weak on Horizon. It was no surprise to me as I had only done manual work before and had no knowledge at all of computers. 

As time went by I started to get a little more confident with Horizon but made lots of mistakes. I was forever phoning the Post Office Hell-Line (help line). When I could get through most of the advice wasn’t very good and nearly always made matters worse.

My ‘little tin’ started to come into use almost immediately, sometimes putting money in, sometimes out, most of the time though it was taking out until there was no more to take out.

You're the only one

Balancing started to turn into a nightmare showing sums missing ranging from a few pounds to thousands. I can remember one particular incident where I was exactly £1000 short. 

I phoned the helpline and they went through a few things. They said they knew the problem and explained to me what to do. I followed their instructions, tapped a few keys on the keypad and hey presto, the amount doubled in front of my eyes! The help line had no explanation but said the error should correct itself at the next balance. It didn’t and I lost £2000.

To keep this story short I won’t go into all the losses, not that I can recall them all, but suffice to say they happened on a regular basis in my 14 years as a Subpostmaster.  Our shop takings were rising week on week but we had no profits, as we were having to put money into the Post Office from our takings. 

On several occasions I phoned the Post Office for help in paying the money back from my wages which they agreed to. 

Each time I phoned them I always asked the same question “Is this only happening to me?” and the answer was always yes. 

I can remember saying to one lady on the phone “I must be thicker than I thought.” 

I really did think that. My confidence in my ability to run my business was on the floor. I felt stupid. But from what I have heard this was said to most Postmasters when they were seeking help.

When asking for financial help it was usually was followed up by a phone call from my contracts manager who always said that it was down to someone taking the money but for most of the time it was just my wife and myself working in the Post Office. I said point blank that this was impossible but was told in no uncertain terms that this was the only cause.

Sweary auditor

I asked my direct supervisor for help with my problems and eventually she got hold of a friend of hers who was an auditor for the PO to come to me and go through the office with a fine tooth-comb (he came as a favour to my supervisor, it was not official). 

The auditor stayed with me for five days and went through all of my paperwork. He sat beside me as I served, he watched me balance and could not find anything wrong. My paperwork was spot on, my serving the same, but the balancing while he was there was was (from memory) about £150 short. This went unexplained.

When monthly balancing came in things went from bad to worse, I hated balancing and felt sick every time I had to do it because I didn’t know what was going to show up. I was now living on my nerves. I used to love my work but now I wasn’t sleeping and I was working long hours to try and improve everything but to no avail. 

It got so that we were about £16,000 down, but then, early in 2014, I balanced and it showed a loss of around £32,000.

I knew then we couldn’t carry on any more. I phoned my NFSP rep who told me he couldn’t get to me till the Saturday evening but advised me to carry on.  The rep came at 6pm on the Saturday and left at about 10pm. He went through some of my paper work, but sadly confirmed the loss and told me not to open the Post Office again and he would contact our supervisor.

The auditors came in on the following Tuesday. I was terrified but I have to admit they were not the ogres I expected, but two gentlemen who spoke to me not like a criminal but as though I hadn’t done anything wrong.

They in fact tried to cheer me up telling me I would laugh about it in a few months. Nice words but not true. They confirmed the figure was about £32,000 missing. 

On leaving one of them said to me: “Take this security screen down and sell something which will make you some money. The Post Office is f****d” 

Those were his exact words. They both shook my hand and wished me the best for the future.  I thought it odd at the time how they spoke to me but now thinking back I suspect they knew I hadn’t taken the money and they knew of some troubles with the Horizon system.

Accused of stealing

On 22 Feb 2014, I was suspended from my job. The NFSP didn't help with my situation. In fact they were worse than useless. The rep advised me to resign from my position, which I did. I was also advised by the NFSP to put the house/business up for sale asap to try and pacify the Post Office to show that I was committed to paying back the money as soon as possible, because if I didn’t and was threatened with prosecuted, I could go to prison for two years. 
The now defunct Rawcliffe Post Office today
This sent shockwaves through my wife and myself. I had never been in trouble before never even a speeding or parking ticket now I could be jailed for something I had not done!

We contacted several estate agents and chose the one we trusted the most. He valued our property and business at £350,000. 

I asked him if it would sell quickly he said it could take a while at the price but that is what it was worth. I explained that I needed it selling as quickly as possible: “within days”.

Maureen said he seemed shocked at that but we reiterated it had to be as soon as possible. After thinking about it for a few minutes he came back with £250,000 to escape stamp duty.

It worked and within a couple of days the property had sold. The sale dragged on due to the buyers' mortgage provider, but at least I could contact the Post Office to tell them they could have their money as soon as we exchanged contracts. 

Some weeks later I was telephoned by internal investigations and was told I was to be interviewed under caution but they had no where to conduct the interview. I suggested them coming to my house and conduct it. This offer was accepted.

The interview was carried out in a spare room upstairs in our house.

Once again I was surprised at the friendliness of the two gents that came. The interview did have its fierce moments. One of them directly accused me of theft on more than one occasion. When my union rep tried to talk he told him to be quiet and the rep never spoke again. It wasn’t a very nice experience but I felt it could have been a lot worse. I got the feeling again that the two men believed me. After a thorough search of the house, there was light-hearted banter with the two Post Office men and the union rep. I certainly didn’t feel like any banter of any sort and left them to it.

I didn't take any legal advice. In my naivety I thought the NFSP would look after me! I wrote to my MP Andrew Percy after I left service who contacted Paula Vennells, the head of the Post Office at the time. Mr Percy's advice was to get a solicitor.

I burst into tears

I was later contacted by my contracts manager Andy Carpenter and told that the Post Office was not going to prosecute me. That was such a relief. I burst into tears while talking to him. Andy sounded supportive and caring if that is the right word. He wished me luck.

We closed our shop in May 2014 due to lack of custom. We now had no income at all and were hoping for the house sale to go through quickly. 

It dragged on and on until a few days before we were about to sign contracts our estate agent phoned and told us that if we didn’t drop the price by another £25,000 the buyers were pulling out of the sale.

After discussing it with Maureen we thought we had no option than to reduce the price once again. I was getting regular phone calls from the PO asking how the sale was going and when could they expect their money back. These calls continued even up to the day of completion.  

So we sold our six bedroom house on a village green (prime location for housing in the village) for £225.000. Bargain!

We now live in a two bedroom cottage just down the road from the Post Office which is now somebody's home. The effect it has had on my wife and myself is drastic. I was diagnosed with depression and now live with Fybromyalgia, ME and Bells Palsy - illnesses thought to be brought on by our experience. I have been on many painkillers including Fentanyl and Pregabalin but none work so I have now ditched them. I am taking so many tablets a day I have lost count of how many I take. My depression is the same but the Fybro and ME are getting worse.

We have lost the house we loved, our business, my health, my reputation and good name but we feel as though we haven’t been affected as much as some ex postmasters who have lost their lives, been imprisoned, marriage break-ups all caused by a company who knew what was going on but have blamed hard-working men and women.

From taking over the Post Office till this day it has been one long nightmare. Why I didn't get out sooner I will never understand. Shame on the bosses at the Post Office."

Thanks to Gary for the time he took to write this. If you have a story to tell, expert comment or just want to get in touch, please use the contact form on this website.

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