Monday, May 20, 2019

Post Office vs Mental Health: Wendy's story

A week ago today, the Post Office made a self-satisfied pfffft about its commitment to helping people with mental health in the workplace. This was met with hostility by those who blame the Post Office for destroying their mental health, along with their lives and livelihoods. I wrote a piece about the reaction to the Post Office tweets and I wrote to and tweeted the Post Office asking what they were doing or had done to support Subpostmasters' mental health. Not a word of reply.

I also realised I had never really interviewed Subpostmasters about the breakdowns they suffered whilst dealing with the Post Office. To mark Mental Health Week, I put out an appeal to see if anyone would be interested in speaking to me about this difficult subject. Several people volunteered.

This blog post is the result of a chat with one of those volunteers, Wendy Buffrey (pictured below).

I met Wendy on day eight of the Common Issues trial in November last year. This was the day Angela van den Bogerd, a Post Office director was giving evidence. Wendy was in the company of fellow claimants Jo Hamilton and Sue Knight and she seemed like a jolly sort. She told me she was a claimant and had a criminal conviction for false accounting. We swapped numbers.

Wendy Buffrey
I spoke briefly to Wendy after the hearing to ask if I could pass her number to a couple of interested journalists. She kindly agreed. Wendy took part in this Daily Mail interview and was subsequently interviewed by the Gloucestershire Echo.

Wendy was a Subpostmaster in Up Hatherley, Cheltenham from 1998 to 2008. She and her husband Doug bought the business and adjoining property. They put £20,000 into upgrading the post office counter and facilities.

Before Horizon arrived Wendy had one run-in with the Post Office. In 1999 she was audited. A thousand pounds was missing from her counter. A couple of days earlier a staff member had apparently disappeared "on holiday" to Greece. Wendy hadn't done her weekly cashing up by this stage and did not know she was £1000 down. She was suspended on the spot.

"It shook me to my foundations."

It was only when her staff member failed to return to work and remained uncontactable that the Post Office allowed Wendy back in her branch. Wendy and, it seems, the Post Office came to the conclusion that the missing money was probably in the pocket of that staff member. Wendy was reinstated.

But because the Post Office's interpretation of the Subpostmaster contract made Wendy liable, she paid the missing £1000 out of her own pocket. She said told me her treatment at the hands of the Post Office on that occasion had a bearing on her actions nine years later.

"When you've ploughed everything you've got into that business and that building and to see how easy it was for them to take it away.... it shook me to my foundations."

Forward to 2008. Wendy was given one day of training on Horizon when it arrived in 2000, and then sent to work. She operated it without a problem for eight years. One May afternoon Wendy did a cash and stock balance and was horrified to see her Horizon terminal showing she had an extra £18,000 worth of stamps in stock. She didn't. Wendy reversed the stock out of the balance but found that in doing so she had doubled her discrepancy to £36,000.

At this time Doug was seriously ill. He was eventually diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Wendy didn't want to trouble him, so she kept it secret. She spent hours going through her transaction receipts to try to uncover the cause behind this high value error. She couldn't find anything. So she looked again. And again. And again. She was looking every waking moment she wasn't actually serving customers - printing off and ploughing through receipts, stock and cash with a rising sense of panic and disorientation.

"I was tired. So tired. And faced with that amount of a loss you stop thinking in a joined-up way."

When it got to weekly balancing Wendy made what she now describes as "the single biggest mistake of my life."

"I felt ashamed. I felt stupid"

Rather than flag up the problem with the helpline, Wendy pressed "Roll over" on the screen - agreeing Horizon's figure as accurate. She did this in the hope a transaction correction would appear days or weeks later, cancelling out this large and inexplicable discrepancy.

"I felt ashamed. I felt stupid for not finding where the loss was. I'd spent hours and hours and hours during that time - night after night after night going through the paperwork that I had to try and find it. And once you've rolled over that one time... if it doesn't come back... you're stuck."

Wendy believed that if she flagged the problem to the Post Office she would be held liable for it. But the only way to roll over the Horizon terminal into the next business day was to either flag it or make it good immediately. Wendy's compromise was to not sign the account balance receipt which was generated when she pressed the "Roll over" button.

Wendy continued looking  for the source of her discrepancy. She was "terrified" of being held liable for a sum she couldn't afford. "I was so scared. I was so scared I would be labelled a thief."

The weeks went on with Wendy feeling "sick, right in the pit of my stomach" every single day: "I took out a loan and money on a credit card and try to right the loss. Every spare penny I had went towards trying to clear the debt, all the time thinking it will be all right and the error will show."

Wendy developed kidney stones and stress-induced optic neuritis, causing a partial loss of vision.

Over a period of seven months, Wendy pumped £10,000 of her own and borrowed money into the system. There was no transaction correction, and she didn't find the error.

In October 2008, three Post Office auditors knocked at the door. Wendy told them they would find a £26,000 discrepancy. They actually found a £36,000 discrepancy. Wendy was suspended on the spot.

Wendy refused to agree the auditors' figures and demanded they go back into her counter and safe and check everything again. After a couple of hours the auditors realised they had miscounted some cash bundles to the tune of £10K, but there was still a £26,000 discrepancy. Lucky Wendy held out or she would have been held liable for the auditors' error too.

Under duress

Wendy was presented with her unsigned weekly balancing records. She says she was "intimidated" by the auditors into signing them. But in doing so she had just physically signed an inaccurate record of her accounts. Although it happened, in Wendy's words "under duress", this evidence would be used against her as part of the Post Office's false accounting charge.

Four weeks into her suspension, Wendy attended an interview at a sorting office in Swindon. As she considered herself innocent of any crime, she did not take a solicitor. Instead she asked comedy trade union (see previous articles) the National Federation of SubPostmasters, for representation. According to Wendy they refused, telling her that because she was suspended, in their eyes she was no longer a Subpostmaster!

Over three hours the Post Office investigators repeatedly asked where the money was. Wendy replied there was no missing money. It looked to her like some kind of computer error.

Wendy did admit "changing the account" but "not to steal". She was told the investigation would continue and she would be likely be called for another interview.

Despite repeated attempts to find out what was going on with her suspension, Wendy received no communication at all from the Post Office until she was summoned for another meeting just before Christmas 2008. She was told she was being terminated.

"I went to that meeting wanting to find out what was going on with the investigation - where had they got to? Why did the reversal double? Why did those stamps appear like they did? And they still wouldn't admit that the computer system had messed up or anybody else had messed up, or they couldn't even tell me how I'd messed up."

Wendy went back to her old job as a driver with the ambulance service, helping ferry elderly and sick patients around Birmingham. She made plans with her husband to sell their home in order to raise the money the Post Office said she owed. Although they still lived in the property attached to the Post Office and owned the retail premises, Wendy didn't go there any more. The less she thought about it, the better she felt.

The criminal charges

In early 2010, after more than a year of complete radio silence from the Post Office, a hammer blow. Wendy received a summons to court. She was being prosecuted for theft and false accounting. Doug was still off sick with his COPD. Now Wendy's mental health began to fall apart.

At first it was tears, stress, anxiety and panic attacks, but then real depression set in.

"I was like a zombie." she said "But I had to work as we had no other income. During the day, I would be happy Wendy, helping people get about, and then I would go home, shut the curtains and lie on my bed, completely empty, looking at the ceiling for hours until I'd get up, go to work and be happy, jolly Wendy again. Day after day after day after day."

In May 2010, Wendy pleaded not guilty to the charges against her and the case was referred to the crown court.

"It was horrendous." says Wendy "I just wanted to screw myself up into a ball and not go out, not do anything. I didn't even want to go to work at that point. But we were still in a situation that I was still trying to the pay the loan off. We'd got no other money coming in and Doug wasn't well enough to work."

Although just about making ends meet, Wendy had a demand for £26,000 hanging her. Perhaps hoping the Post Office might drop the charges if they were given the money they were demanding, Doug put the Buffreys' property on the market.

Almost immediately they received a letter from the Post Office's solicitors informing them that they had successfully applied for an order under the Proceeds of Crime Act, freezing both Doug and Wendy's assets.

The Buffrey's solicitor got an agreement from the Post Office which would allow their assets to be unfrozen so they could sell their property, providing all the money from the sale went into his account, out of which the Post Office could help themselves to £26,000.

Doug found a buyer for their house at a knock down price and secured a smaller property they could move into. On completion day, the sale went ahead and the Post Office took their money. But then something went wrong. Instead of freeing up the remainder of the sale money to allow the Buffreys to buy their new property, the POCA order remained in place. The property purchase fell through.

Andrew, Wendy's son
By this stage Wendy was in a very fragile state: "You're just in a bubble. You can't let anything else in to hurt you so you just do what has to be done and you don't let any feelings come into it. You just can't. You just lock it all away."

The Buffreys were homeless. They moved in with their son, Andrew.

The guilty plea

Although the Post Office had now got their hands on Doug and Wendy's cash, they continued to maintain both the theft and false accounting charges against Wendy.

Wendy had pleaded not guilty all the way up to the start of the trial in October 2010. She says she knew she hadn't stolen anything and was not a criminal, but on the day the trial began she was advised by her solicitor that if she pleaded guilty to false accounting, the theft charge would be dropped and she would likely avoid going to jail.

Broken, and traumatised at the prospect of a prison sentence, Wendy agreed.

The guilty plea was entered.

Unbeknownst to Wendy, her friends, family and customers in Up Hatherley had quietly started a letter-writing campaign. Before sentencing at Gloucester Crown Court the judge was presented with more than 50 character references explaining what an outstanding Postmaster, friend and colleague Wendy was.

In court, the Post Office accepted she was "not responsible for the actual taking of the money".

Criminal conviction and total breakdown

Wendy says the judge told the court this was not an issue of "larceny" but an extraordinary situation created by Wendy's "onerous" contract.

According to a BBC report of the time, he said: "This was a case of false accounting to put off the day that you had to pay a large discrepancy in the Post Office's balance. As your defence barrister put it, you were putting off the 'evil day'. The offences were committed at a time you were struggling to cope. Pre-sentence reports showed you were a pillar of the community, but because of your [health issues], your problems grew and grew."

The judge added that because of Wendy's reputation, he suspected she would be "an asset to the organisers of community payback".

Wendy was lumped with £1,500 costs and 150 hours community service. The judge, on hearing the Post Office had already been given the £26,000 from the sale of the Buffrey's home, removed the POCA order which had caused so much anguish.

"When I came out of the court it was as much as I could do to walk back to the car." Wendy told me, "It was hard just to put one foot in front of the other. My son was holding me up on one side and my cousin was holding me up on the other, and when we finally got home I just sat and cried for hours."

The day after sentencing, Wendy received a letter by recorded post. She had been sacked from her job with the Ambulance service. She was also told by St John ambulance (where she volunteered) she was persona non grata. "That hit me worse than losing my job", she says.

Some days later, Wendy received a message from Alan Bates and Jo Hamilton from the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance. Someone had had seen the news reports of Wendy's sentencing and alerted them. She knew then that she was not alone, but it failed to forestall what happened next.

Eight weeks after receiving her sentence, Wendy had a complete breakdown. Her personality had changed completely.  "I didn't want to get up. I didn't want to do anything. I didn't wash. Nothing piqued any interest."

She made it to her GP's. "I remember the doctor saying to me have you ever had serious thoughts of suicide and I can remember saying to him "if you're saying people don't think about it all the time, then you don't know what you're talking about!" That's... that's how off the edge I was. I was obviously thinking about it all the time and... I thought that was normal."

Wendy was prescribed amitriptyline, which, after three or four months, helped her turn the corner. She found a job as a cleaner, but she still wasn't right. "It's akin to grief. You've lost something from you. It's gone and you know you're not going to get it back."

The turning point

Wendy's first mosaic
Wendy was contacted by a friend who was diagnosed with depression after losing her mum. She'd been given the opportunity to do art classes, and found it therapeutic. Wendy went along and took a mosaic class.

"It changed everything, to be able to sit there and create, to make something. You can lose yourself in it totally without any pressure, without any stress."

Wendy's art classses allowed her to come off the amitriptyline. "Once I'd started with the artwork, I felt less and less need of actually taking medication. And it also left you feeling quite numb. At some point you've got to start letting feelings come back or else you'll never survive."

Wendy is still at the same cleaning company she started working for in 2011, but has progressed to become a health and safety advisor and trainer.

Wendy found 2013's mediation scheme a difficult experience. It took her six weeks to read and organise the documentation she'd kept around the time of her suspension and prosecution. She'd burned a lot after the court case. At one stage the anxiety and panic got too much and Wendy didn't feel like she could cope with dredging everything up again. She asked her doctor if she could be prescribed the amitriptyline again. She got hold of the 'scrip, and still has the happy pills, but didn't take any.

In 2014 Wendy's son Andrew died, cycling home from work. He hit a pothole and suffered a fatal head injury. "I haven't been able to grieve him properly" she says. "I don't have that inside me any more."

I asked her what the last few years have been like. "Well," she says. "Without the support of my friends and my two families - my JFSA family and my own family, I wouldn't be here today."

And how does she feel about the Post Office now? "I wouldn't give them the time of day. They're not wholly honest. They don't have any respect for anyone around them. They're arrogant. It's the arrogance of the way they think they can treat people and get away with it."

Our conversation for this blog post made it clear to me that the jolly Wendy I met in London last year was the jolly Wendy persona she puts on to get through her day.

She told me it took every ounce of will she had to get herself to court last November for the Common Issues trial. Wendy remains traumatised by the justice system. The fear of being in court again, even as an observer, nearly stopped her from attending. In fact, on the courtroom threshold, she panicked. "I was stressed. And in that moment I decided to leave and go home, but Jo and Sue took me by the arms and physically pushed me in!"

I saw Wendy briefly in the autumn gloom outside the Rolls Building once the hearing was done. She walked up to me with tears in her eyes, extremely angry about Angela van den Bogerd's evidence. "She lied." was the way Wendy chose to describe it.

During our conversation for this blog post I asked whether there is anything about the litigation process which is helping or might improve the state of Wendy's mental health.

"It's already helping in that the Post Office are damaging themselves more than anything else by the way they're doing things and a wider range of people are actually seeing that now. It's not just us. We're not just on our own now. More and more people are starting to see how the Post Office are treating people."

Is that helping you, though? Wendy sighs. "I just want my name cleared," she says quietly, "that's all."

Wendy also hopes her ordeal might help other people talk about the mental health problems they suffered after being sacked and prosecuted by the Post Office. I am aware of two suicides connected to their actions and several more breakdowns and attempted suicides. Wendy also wants her story to act as a warning to people who have Post Offices or who are thinking of taking one on, saying: "They have no compassion for anybody who works for them. The only thing they're interested in is their bottom line. That's all they're interested in."

I am still waiting for a comment from the Post Office on what they did and what they are doing to promote and help the mental health of its Subpostmasters. At the time of Wendy's conviction they said they had:

"a zero-tolerance approach to any dishonesty... Our policy is that we will always seek to prosecute the tiny minority of people who abuse their position of trust."

Wendy's unfinished mosaic of her son Andrew.
Wendy's story is not a one-off. Here are just a few I have collated for this blog. There are many more.

The Post Office have told me it wouldn’t be right or appropriate to comment on individual cases.

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If you want to find out a little bit more about the underlying story, click here. 
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