Saturday, August 24, 2019

Post Office vs Mental Health: "It's been a living hell."

Deirdre Connolly used to be a credit controller working in Strabane, County Tyrone, for a company called Frylite, which delivers and recycles cooking oil. Deirdre's husband Darius was employed by Guinness as a forklift operator.

In 2006, as Deirdre was approaching her forties, she and Darius decided they wanted a change, mainly to spend more time with each other and their young family. A lease came up on a shop with a post office at Killeter, which wasn't that far from where they lived. The Connollys gave up their jobs, borrowed to buy the lease and got started. They thought they would be set for the rest of their working lives, or to use Deirdre's turn of phrase, "we would be carried out of there in coffins."

As part of a gradual transition process, Deirdre first took over the shop, and was given a basic idea of how to use the Post Office's Horizon system by the previous incumbents. For the first six weeks of being a Subpostmaster, no one from the Post Office came down to show Deirdre what to do.

"I had to go into the post office without training... and try to get used to the whole new system which I knew nothing about... I was reading manuals to work out how to do things."

Deirdre, did, of course, have access to the infamous Horizon helpline: "They were useless. They couldn't understand my accent to start off with [Deirdre has a rural Tyrone accent, and she does speak quickly, but it doesn't take long to get used to]. They could never actually explain anything, how to do anything... I didn't know what I was doing."

Deirdre was operating a system she didn't know how to use, under a contract she hadn't been given*, which would see her held liable for any financial discrepancies at her branch.

With Horizon it is possible for any operator to make a number of mistakes in seconds which could potentially create a balance discrepancy of tens of thousands of pounds. As I have found from speaking to other former Subpomasters, Deirdre's situation was not unique.
The Connollys' Post Office in Killeter, County Tyrone
After six weeks, a trainer came down for a day and a half. The Post Office would later claim Deirdre also went for a week's training in Belfast. "I didn't." she says, "It never happened."

Sitting duck

Somehow, Deirdre, with the help of Darius, got up to what they thought was a reasonable speed. The retail area became a success and with a lot of hard work, Killeter post office and store became a viable business at the centre of the community.

Things were going so well in 2008 the Post Office suggested the Connollys might like to take on a couple of outreach post offices in Ardstraw and Aughabrack. An outreach branch is where a Subpostmaster takes a Horizon laptop, cash and a pinpad into a community without a post office, and operates a basic service from a library or village hall via the data signal on a mobile phone.

This is potentially a risky business at the best of times, but the Connollys' main branch was closer to the Irish town of Donegal than any town in the North. Paramilitary organisations still operate in the area, and when Deirdre was the Killeter Postmaster there had been a number of "tiger" kidnappings. Deirdre was often travelling on her own to and from remote outreach locations at advertised times carrying thousands of pounds in cash in her car. Mobile phone reception in this part of the world is intermittent and without it, Deirdre's panic button wouldn't work. Deirdre regularly changed her route to and from her outreach offices, but she was essentially a sitting duck.

"I was scared. I was waiting on someone to jump out in front of me on the wee roads. I had to contact a local sergeant at one stage because I thought I was being followed."

Despite this hairy situation, Deirdre diligently incorporated her outreach activities into the working week and the Post Office seemed perfectly content to have her travel round County Tyrone carrying large amounts of cash without any proper protection.

"Step out. You're finished."

On 2 June 2010, the Connollys' happy family life and successful business was ripped away from them in a matter of hours.

A Post Office auditor arrived and started going through the Horizon accounting logs with Deirdre. He found a £16,592 discrepancy with exactly £11,500 out of whack on the outreach terminal. The auditor suspended Deirdre on the spot.

Darius was there. "He said: "Hand me your keys. Step out. You're finished.""

The auditor changed the time locks, the combination on the safe and took the single key to the post office "fortress" area away with him. The Connollys were left reeling.

The branch remained closed for a week, causing all sorts of problems. The retail side took an immediate hit as customers were diverted to other branches and the Connollys tried to come to terms with what had happened.
Deirdre with Darius

The same auditor returned a week later, let himself into the fortress and did another audit, during which he found £1000 in cash in the safe which he had missed the previous week. The discrepancy was now £15,592.

One moment the Connollys were a hard-working, successful, respectable couple, known to everyone in their village and the surrounding area. Within days they'd lost their livelihoods and Deirdre was under suspicion of theft.

A week later Deirdre was summoned to Belfast to meet with Post Office investigators. Darius accompanied her, but on arrival he was ordered to wait outside.

Deirdre was allowed to have a member of the National Federation of Subpostmasters present. "He was a 'yes' man", she says, and remembers him sitting there saying "you've done this... ", agreeing the Post Office approach to her suspension was correct. The Post Office investigator told Deirdre she was the only person having problems with Horizon, and no one could explain to her what she had done wrong or how the discrepancy had supposedly arisen.

Eight days later Deirdre was summoned to another interview in Belfast. Again Darius was not allowed to attend, but on this occasion Deirdre had her solicitor present. Nonetheless, she remembers this being closer to an interrogation, with the investigators asking why she had stolen the money and what she had done with it. Deirdre says afterwards her solicitor advised her to make good the discrepancy.

Worried for their future and unaware there were dozens of Postmasters throughout the UK having similar problems, the Connollys borrowed money from their families and handed a cheque to the Post Office for £15,592.

The Post Office responded by terminating Deirdre's contract.

The aftermath

The shock of what happened to the Connollys, particularly Deirdre, is something the family are still living with today.

On 4 August 2010 Deirdre received a letter from the Post Office informing her that she was not going to be prosecuted. The realisation that this could have happened to her was a hammer blow. "I didn't even think of it. Maybe I was na├»ve, but I'd done nothing wrong, so why would I even think of it?" Deirdre considered ending it all. "Darius would've been coaching soccer... I was here on my own. And I got myself in a real, real tizzy. I could've topped myself that evening if a friend of mine hadn't come round. That was a close call, but I came out on the other side. I'm here to tell the story."

As Subpostmaster, Deirdre had been earning around £1800 a month from the Post Office. This now went to a temporary Subpostmaster who the Post Office installed in the Killeter branch. The Connollys received a small amount of rent under this arrangement, but the hit to their finances and the disruption to their business was significant. The shop was no longer the happy place it used to be. Retail earnings suffered. "People stopped coming in because they thought I stole the money." Deirdre told me. "No smoke without fire, you know...?"

The Connollys struggled on, but it wasn't working out. They had a mortgage on the shop lease, a mortgage on their home and owed money to their family and suppliers. In 2013 they were declared bankrupt. Shortly afterwards, Deirdre developed epilepsy, which she says her consultant believes was directly due to the stress she was under.

"It's been hell," she says "a living hell... We were doing so well. We were having a good craic in the shop and everybody used to come in in the morning and be standing chatting in the shop and there was banter... but no... it all changed."

Deirdre was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Sean, Deirdre's teenage son, was a promising footballer. He had had trials in England, and was keen to see what level he could reach. As he watched what his mum was going through, he became withdrawn and developed anxiety and suicidal thoughts. He stopped going to training and once found himself walking into a river, ready to dip his head under and give it all up. Sean has recovered to a degree, but his parents say he is a changed man.

Mediation scheme and court

Although Darius and Deirdre's marriage was put under severe strain, they came through stronger. "I have to say our families were so supportive." says Deirdre. "I was ashamed it happened because I felt as if I'd let them down. I don't know why but I did. I didn't know where the money went, but it was costing family, costing us."

The Killeter Post Office in later years
I asked Deirdre if she dwelt on how the discrepancy could have arisen. "Every day! Every day until we got out of that shop, I was trying to work out ways that would let me look for it, where it could've gone wrong."

Deirdre and Darius had no idea their situation was not unique until August 2013, when Darius's sister saw an article in the Daily Mirror about a Subpostmaster wrongly accused of stealing £85,000. The piece quoted the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance. They contacted Alan Bates, the founder of the JFSA, just in time to get on the mediation scheme.

Unfortunately, the mediation scheme collapsed in acrimony before Deirdre got a chance to sit in a room with the Post Office, however her case report, compiled by Second Sight, an independent forensic accountancy firm, makes for interesting reading.

Second Sight's job was to investigate each applicant and decide whether or not they were suitable cases for mediation. Here is what they have to say about the Post Office's efforts to uncover the cause of the discrepancies at Deirdre's branch:
"We have drawn the conclusion that no contemporaneous investigations were carried out into the cause of the shortfalls identified by the Audit. Post Office rejects this by stating: "Investigations were carried out by Post Office. The lack of contemporaneous notes does not logically lead to the conclusion that there was no investigation, particularly in light of all the other information presented in [our submissions to Second Sight]"... we are unable to verify the validity of Post Office's statement on this subject and, in any event, we note Post Office's acknowledgement that an undocumented investigation may have been carried out, which would clearly not be sound investigative practice."
So, according to Second Sight, either the Post Office team:

- didn't bother investigating the causes of Deirdre's £15K discrepancy,
- did a thorough investigation and weren't handing the results of that investigation over,
- did a slipshod, half-arsed job.

Hmm.

Second Sight's report concludes:
"We... find the Applicant's remarks regarding her training to be rather compelling and, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we are inclined to believe that she really was inadequately trained and supported. We have concluded, therefore, that Post Office bears some responsibility for this branch's losses."
By this stage the Post Office Horizon story was generating a reasonable amount of media interest. In May 2015 Deirdre felt well enough to go on Stephen Nolan's BBC Northern Ireland radio show to talk about what had happened to her. The Connollys were still trying to piece together their lives, and Deirdre, as an innocent woman, wanted the cloud of suspicion around her lifted. She describes going public as "a weight off my shoulders".

When the Bates and others v Post Office group litigation began, Deirdre became a claimant.

To mark the first trial, in December 2018, Kevin Magee, a BBC Northern Ireland television journalist, made a piece about Deirdre. Her former employer, Eamon McCay at Frylite, saw it.

Eamon had no idea what Deirdre had been going through. He made contact, and within weeks Deirdre was back, doing her old job at her old company, working for the first time in nine years. She's thrilled.

"It's great. I'm enjoying it. Walking in the first day, it was really scary, but for Eamon to have the confidence in me, to take me back... it means I'm not worthless. For a long time, I thought I was worthless."

Uncertain futures
Tight knit: Deirdre, Sean, Gemma and Darius Connolly
This, though, is not a happy ending. It has taken the Connollys years to get anywhere close to being over their experience. "We've been married 28 years now," says Darius, "You've never seen anybody go from being so outgoing... when we were married the parish priest said DD [Deirdre] was "vivacious" - full of life and full of joy - and that's how she always was. But after what happened she became very introverted."

For a long time Deirdre was clinically depressed, taking medication and living on benefits. She's going to be on epilepsy pills for the rest of her life. Deirdre used to be a confident person. "Now I second guess everything I do." she says.

Financially, the Connollys have lost what should have been the most productive years of their lives. When they should have been building their nest egg, they were paying off debts. Deirdre was unable to work. Today, they have their heads above water, but they have no pension, no investments and still have a long way to go before they pay off the mortgage on their house.

The Connollys have been following Bates and others v Post Office, and have scraped the money together to travel over to London to sit in court and bear witness for at least one day of both trials. "It makes me feel sick," says Deirdre, "when I was told I was the only one, to hear they knew about all these problems."

Deirdre is unequivocal about what she wants from this court case. "An apology. I want my name cleared."

"They lie to you," says Darius, "they tell you nobody else is having any bother and then... you look at what they're doing and you look at how they're conducting themselves and the more you learn about them the more sickened you are really. The people in government have to know how crazy this whole thing is."

I asked the Post Office for their thoughts on Deirdre's situation. They replied "it would not be appropriate to comment on an individual case. The litigation is continuing."

My thanks to the Connollys for their patience as I put this piece together and the numerous interviews which took place over the phone. If you want to read more stories of the people caught up in this scandal, click on Victim testimony at the top of this page.

* Deirdre had signed an "Acknowledgement of Appointment letter", about which forensic investigators Second Sight later said:
"We are surprised to see that Post Office is still referring to such Acknowledgement of Appointment letters as "the contract", when they most obviously are not the contract itself... In stating that there exists no evidence to show that the full 114-page contract was not supplied, Post Office has omitted to say that it has been unable to present any evidence to show that it was supplied."

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Addendum: One of the recurring themes in the nine years I've been following this story is the number of Subpostmasters who claim they were told by Post Office contract managers and investigators that they were the only ones who were having problems with Horizon. Time and again Subpostmasters bring it up as a prominent and memorable feature of their trauma. The effect of being told this lie was obvious - isolation, self-doubt and a sense of helplessness.

It seems to have been a Post Office investigation strategy, yet over the course of two trials it has not been addressed in the High Court. Jo Hamilton, a Subpostmaster who was convicted of false accounting, alleges a Post Office contracts advisor called Elaine Ridge told her she was the only person having problems with Horizon. Elaine Ridge gave evidence in the first trial in this litigation. It would have been simple to ask her on oath if she had ever said this to anyone. Yet it was not a feature of any line of inquiry with any Post Office or claimant witness, despite the fact Second Sight picked up on this during their investigations for the mediation scheme.

Maybe it could be argued it's a legitimate investigation strategy for people suspected of serious offences (it doesn't feel like one), maybe proving it would be tricky, but it is concerning there was a golden opportunity to expose what seems like some serious mendacity, yet it was passed up. Perhaps this is for another blog post.

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