Monday, September 2, 2019

"I hate everything about it. I will not go into a post office."

Nicki Arch
A few months back, during UK mental health week, the Post Office announced it had signed up to the Time to Change* campaign.

I asked those who felt the Post Office's actions had affected their mental health to get in touch. A woman called Nicki Arch sent me an email. It was an eye-opener.

Nicki was a branch manager at Chalford Hill post office in Stroud, Gloucestershire. In November 2000 she was suspended by the Post Office for an alleged £24,000 discrepancy. She says the Post Office tried to pin fraud, theft and false accounting charges on her. Nicki lost everything.

This is first time in 16 years she has told her story publicly:

"I originally come from Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire. I left school with 5 O levels and 3 CSEs. I did my A-levels and then a business degree at Bristol University. I moved to Stroud in 1992 and got a job at Brimscombe post office working behind the counter. I stayed at Brimscombe for 5 years.

In 1997 The Subpostmaster sold up to live on a canal boat so I decided to do Post Office relief work as all the Subpostmasters in the area were complaining that they couldn’t go on holiday as they couldn't get the relief.

I was extremely busy. I was asked to do relief at the Chalford Hill branch in Stroud because the Subpostmaster was getting older and didn’t feel she could cope on her own. We got on extremely well and in 1998 she offered me a full time job with holiday pay, so I took it.

The Subpostmaster's health started to deteriorate (she was diagnosed with cancer) so she asked if I would like to take over the stationery shop too. We set up an arrangement that she would pay me a small salary and I would run the shop how I saw fit. I invested my savings in stock and did a lot of sale or return deals with greeting cards and all was well. I used an accounts company in Stroud to do all my account work. It was going really steady and all the villagers were over the moon. I had met my boyfriend by then (I was 26 when we got together). He lived with his family in Stroud and was a tree surgeon. He never got involved in the business.

Unfortunately the lady I worked for died, and in 1999 the Post Office made her husband Subpostmaster. He had never worked in a post office in his life, so he asked if I would keep it going. He took the Subpostmaster salary and paid me a small wage out of it. The shop profits were mine.

Eventually I was able to employ a part-time assistant to cover me if I wanted time off. This worked very well for several years and 3 years later, my boyfriend and I decided we would get our own home and marry.

There were some new small 2 bed houses being built very close to the post office on a shared ownership basis so we went for it.

A year later Horizon was installed. The trainer sat with me for one day and that was it. I then had to show the part-timer what to do.

When I was using Horizon I kept getting pension payments duplicating, yet cash was balancing. One day in November in 2000, the auditors turned up and said I owed the Post Office £24,000. I was mortified. My fiancé and I had not long got out first home on the government shared ownership scheme as we didn’t earn enough to get a mortgage for a starter home by ourselves.

I was told on the day that I had to be driven to a crown [post] office to be questioned and my post office was to shut down until investigations were completed. I did as I was told and locked up and was driven by two Post Office investigators to Stroud Crown office to be interviewed in a locked room. It was a recorded interview and I was denied anyone to be with me or any phone calls. I was distraught! Then they said I was responsible for £24,000 being missing and if I would just admit that I stole it I would be treated more leniently.

I was in a state of shock. I vehemently denied any involvement in theft or wrongdoing but was ignored. The interviewers were terrifying, threatening me with prison.

Eventually they let me go at 4pm so they could inform the official Subpostmaster of what was happening. I got driven back to my car and went straight home sobbing. I rang my fiancé and family as soon as I got home to tell them what had happened.

Later that evening I got a phone call from the official Subpostmaster to say that the Post Office had told him he must suspend me until further notice and I was not allowed on the premises at all. 

I asked about my shop and how I was meant to earn a living but he said that the Post Office said he had to do this and he had no choice. 

Within 24 hours everything had become ashes. I sought a solicitor, and then the long haul started.

I was questioned over and over again by the Post Office at Stroud police station with my solicitor to the point where 10 months later I was charged with theft, fraud and false accounting.

The case was referred to crown court. I was also told that I had to empty my shop and I was sacked.

It was all in the local papers and everywhere I went my customers were blanking me and saying that I’d robbed the post office. I couldn’t cope and my fiancé was told to prepare for my imprisonment.

The wedding we had planned, funded by our parents was cancelled as neither one of us felt like we wanted to celebrate. We had no idea whether we even had a future. We were heartbroken and on our knees.

I went for a routine GP appointment and my doctor was shocked when she saw me. I was a wreck and could hardly speak. She prescribed me Prozac as I was so scared and just wanted to end my life.

My fiancé and I used to sit up at night and discuss ways which we could be happy together for ever and the only idea we had was to die together.

In the summer of 2001 went to the local registry office and got married with no one there other than two witnesses.

We had no professional photos, no wedding dress and no honeymoon or party. We just went home. We were both highly medicated to keep calm, thank God.

My husband is dyslexic and was not domesticated in the slightest so my family promised to help him get through if I went to prison. He promised to wait for me and we shared each night on our own just sobbing and hoping for a miracle.

The Post Office were so threatening and we were convinced that no matter what I said it was a done deal.

In April 2002 we had a 3 day trial with which I was found not guilty and it was all over.

I walked out of court and collapsed to the floor sobbing with relief. We got home and I didn’t have a clue what to do. We had to set up an IVA as our debts had mounted because I couldn’t work.

I’d lost my business and my husband just worked as a local driver. We sold our home to pay the housing association back and stayed with my parents for a while to save up a deposit to rent a home.

We never heard from the Post Office again. We have lived with this for 19 years and have no wedding pics and started our marriage in the worst possible way.

We will never get that time back. I have suffered with depression and panic attacks ever since and take anti-depressants daily to enable me to get on with life. The only thing I’m guilty of is a rubbish wedding day for my husband."

I found Nicki's story very affecting, and I wanted to know a bit more about what happened, so I gave her a call.

We ended up chatting for over an hour. We covered Nicki's mental health battles, the way Post Office prosecutors and investigators behaved and what her hopes are for the group litigation.

Nicki in happier times
To the best of my knowledge, the email above and the interview below represents Nicki's honest recollection of events and honestly-held opinions.

I started by asking Nicki to tell me what life was like before her Post Office "audit" in November 2000.

"We were engaged to be married, we'd just bought our new home. We did everything by the book. And I had a little business, and...it wasn't much, there's no way we could have lived just on my money. But it was steady. So in theory, it was a perfect world, and then suddenly, everything changed. Literally everything."

Nicki's branch audit was attended by three Post Office staff members, two of whom turned out to be rather threatening "investigators". They appeared to be expecting a large discrepancy, and when they found one, Nicki was driven straight from her branch to Stroud Crown Post Office for an interrogation.

"I just look back on it and think how ridiculous, why did I let them do it? Why go with them, even? I had to leave my car behind. They said: "You must come to the Crown Post Office." I said, "Can I ring my fiancé?" and they said: "No, you're not ringing anybody.""

The nightmare had begun.

"They stripped my life apart. I presented every single bit of financial history from the minute I left university to them. They came to my house to see what was in it. They didn't even have a search warrant. My parents were like: "These are the Post Office, so you work with them and let them do what they want to do.""

Nicki was unable to explain the cause of the discrepancy, because, as far as she was concerned, she hadn't done anything wrong. It didn't stop the investigators suggesting that if she'd just confess to theft, things would go much easier for her:

"They kept saying; "You know, it's in your own interest to just stop this messing around, and stop wasting all our times. We are the Crown. You do realise who we are?" And I'm like, hang on, you're not even police officers."

Nicki was not impressed by what they were trying to accuse her of, either. "They had no idea what the hell they were talking about. I was like: "No, that isn't what I did." and they said "Well, that's what the [Horizon] paper says." and I would say "No, the paper doesn't say that, does it?" and they would say "Oh, you're just going round in circles now, you're just wasting our time.""

Predictably, Nicki was told she was the only person having problems with Horizon. "They said "We've never, ever had a problem with this system." And I'm like, "Well, I'm the first, then, aren't I?" They said: "Don't you think we've trialled it so many times? These are professionals. Not like you, these are professional people, who have worked the system time and time again. We've never had a problem with it."
Site of the former Chalford Hill Post Office today.
Nicki remembers Horizon's supposed perfection as a recurring theme: "This Horizon system was unbelievable. It was state of the art, it was the best the Post Office has made, it been trialled and tested so many times, and I was just totally incompetent. And a thief, nearer the point."

Nicki's boss and her part-time assistant, Marlene, stopped all communication. The Post Office had told them they were needed as prosecution witnesses and they couldn't speak to her.

The local paper ran a story on Nicki being suspected of theft. No one would employ her. With only a single income, Nicki and Steve fell behind on their mortgage payments.

"I just stayed in. I did attempt, several times, to go to the supermarket, and I just felt everybody was whispering, "Oh, that's the woman who steals from pensioners," and I thought I can't, I can't do this."

Things got desperate: "Steve wouldn't tell me truly how he felt, because he didn't want to make me feel worse. We weren't married then, so he could walk away. And I kept saying to him, "Why don't you just walk away? Why don't you just go. If you go now, you won't have to be involved in any of it."

Nicki's biggest concern was what would happen to Steve if she were sent to prison.

"I thought he would never cope. He's completely dyslexic, he can't even cook, and I thought... he wouldn't even know how to pay a bill. And I'm like, "Steve, just walk away. For God's sake, just walk away from this," But luckily, he didn't."

The interrogations continued:

"I thought they were going to drop it. I thought they're never going to take this to court, surely. And I was saying to my sister they're just going to keep on and on and pressure me, hoping that I'm going to crumble. And I'm not. And that "we want to question you again, we want to question again" kept coming. And we'd set up at Stroud police station, in a little room where they'd come, and it was ridiculous. We were just going round and round in circles, and I'm like, are they ever going to charge me with anything, or is this ever going to end?"

Steve began to feel very stressed by the situation, struggling with his concentration and making mistakes at work.

"He came home one day and said, "I don't feel right. I'm going to go to the doctors." And I said, "Well, do you want me to write down how you feel, and then you can take it with you? Because you're not very good at expressing yourself."

Steve agreed. As soon as the doctor saw the note she asked Nicki to make an appointment with her.

"She said, "What on earth is going on?" I said, "Nothing." And she said, "Nicki, I've read that letter. There is something seriously wrong with anybody who writes letters like that."... and I just broke. I just crumbled. She was the first one who delved deep enough to say you can break if you want to. Because I didn't show it to anybody. I thought I can't let Steve know how I feel. You know, because I just thought, God, this is life over."

The stress started to push Steve and Nicki towards a very dark place.

"It got to the point when Steve said, oh, we'll just take a load of pills, and we'll go together. Let's not give them the satisfaction of taking our life away. At least we would have control, you know? And because we both started on antidepressants at the same time we had access to the pills."

Thankfully they didn't attempt suicide, but their lives collapsed. They had been planning a big wedding, but neither Nicki or Steve felt capable of facing family or friends.

"We were going to have a church wedding, but I said I can't... I can't smile anymore. I don't want to have to pretend in front of people.... Until we see the end of it, I cannot live, do you know what I mean? So we went straight to Stroud's registry office, got married, and within half hour we were back home."
Steve and Nicki's wedding day, 28 August 2001

Throughout this period there were pre-trial court dates to deal with. Nicki kept Steve away from it. 

"I thought he just generally couldn't cope. It would send him doolally. He did go to the trial. But up until then, I just went with a friend. I wouldn't let my parents come, either. I was so ashamed."

I asked Nicki if the Post Office ever tried to claim she was the only one with access to her Horizon terminal, something which has been comprehensively debunked across the course of the current litigation.

"That was what they thrived on, for weeks: "there's no way anybody could put anything into that computer, other than you. Those figures on that computer were you. It could never have been anyone else. Nobody could even get access to it. We couldn't see it until you printed off that weekly report and showed it to us." And it was all bullshit. Absolute lies. They could go into the computer any time."

Nicki says throughout this process, her solicitor seemed out of his depth.

"He sort of was terrified of it. He was like, "Oh my God, I don't know what the hell we're going to do. The Post Office are just going on and on and on, saying the same old thing," he said, "and I can't advise you to say any different to what you're saying, but I don't know how this is going to end," he said."But you need to be prepared for the worst.""

Steve did come along to one of the last legal conferences before the trial. Nicki's solicitor told them the Post Office had offered her a deal. The fraud and theft charges would be dropped if she pleaded guilty to false accounting. Her solicitor told her she might want to consider it.

Nicki refused. "We was walking home, and Steve said "Are you sure you don't want to just say you've done it, just so that we can actually start a life after?" I said no, I'll take whatever they give me. I'd rather do that and be able to live with myself than to do any sort of bargain that I know is a complete load of crap. And he said, "Fine. I'll stand by you, then."

Nicki's solicitor got a barrister involved for the trial. "He was a bit more, "I'm not having any of this..." you know what I mean? He was a bit, "No, they're going to have to come up with summat a bit better than that." And he wasn't scared of them at all."

He offered Nicki a piece of advice: ""Just be yourself," he said, "Don't try and solve their problems for them." and I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You keep looking to find solutions to this," he said, "Stop it. That's not your job. That's not what you're here for.""

In April 2002, Nicki was put on trial. The Post Office's case was that Nicki was running a scam, producing duplicate records of pension payouts on Horizon, handing one out to each genuine recipient and trousering the rest.

"You stand in the dock, you've got two prison blokes with you... I was in my early 30s, you know? I'd never, ever been in a courtroom in my life. I'd never been arrested, I'd never done anything. I was from a very strict family, and... and I'd done quite well for myself, considering we were from a family of six. All of a sudden, I'm in Bristol Crown Court with two prison officers behind me. My mum was like, "Oh, my God, this is the Queen's business. They're going to send you to prison." They were absolutely devastated. My dad was going through kidney failure, he was in hospital the day the trial started. It was just horrendous"

Nicki's former boss and her part-time assistant, Marlene, gave evidence as prosecution witnesses, but it didn't really work out for the Post Office.

"They went to court because the Post Office told them to, and they were questioned on oath, and my ex-boss was like, "Well, I've just helped her get her mortgage. I just happened to give her a reference, you see. So no, she hasn't got any money." And he made [their barrister] look a twat, to be honest. And Marlene went up, and she said, "Well, no, Nicki hasn't got any money." So although they were Post Office witnesses, they might as well have been mine."

I asked if the Post Office ever explained to the court how she was supposed to be doing this fraud, the actual mechanics of it.

"No." she says "They didn't have a clue. Nor did I."

Nicki remembers the Post Office barrister getting quite het up.

"He chucked a bundle of dockets at me and said "You explain this lot." and I said "I don't know what you want me to say about it." And he was shouting, and getting louder and louder, saying, "You explain how it all works," and I said, "I don't... I have nothing else to say about them. They are what they are," you know? And he was getting really angry."

The Post Office barrister then tried to get the prosecution witnesses to explain the fraud. "They tried. But we were all stood, including myself, in bewilderment to say, hang on a minute, on paper, in theory, your cash is right, your pension dockets is right, it's just your weekly report that's wrong. So how do you know you're owed any money at all? And the Post Office were like, well, Horizon's weekly report tells us we do. And the judge then stepped in and said well, no, your cash is right, your dockets are right, your customers are happy... but the weekly report Horizon report is saying different. That's where we're at."

The whole thing sounds pitiful.

"One of the prison officers was drawing funny little pictures, and passing them to me to try and cheer me up. I do remember that. I've kept one because I felt, oh, bless... I just looked at him, and I was just... I don't know what I'm doing here. And he must have felt sorry for me or something, you know, and he was trying to cheer me up. And he was there all the way through for three days, and I thought, oh God, he'll keep me upright, if I collapse."

I asked Nicki if she felt the judge smelt a rat, or whether he was straight down the line in his summing up.

"Before the jurors went out to make a decision, I do remember him saying something like make sure you consider whether we've actually got a completely innocent person stood here. It was words to that effect, And I thought: he believes me. My barrister was the same, in all fairness. I have 100% faith that he genuinely knew I was innocent."

The jury were of a similar mind. They took two hours to find Nicki not guilty.

After the trial Nicki never heard from the Post Office again, but the reverberating effect of her trauma continued. Penniless, in 2004, Steve and Nicki sold their home before it was repossessed. They entered into an IVA to stave off bankruptcy and moved in with Nicki's parents.

Nicki in hospital in 2005
In 2005 Nicki had a complete mental health collapse and was admitted to hospital with a number of physical symptoms. Steve could not cope at work - he was making mistakes and becoming a potential liability to himself and others. He started delivery driving, which he does to this day. Nicki was eventually able to get a job with social services. They have slowly rebuilt their lives.

Nicki does not hold back on what she thinks of Britain's "most trusted brand":

"I hate everything about it. Even now, I will not go into a post office, I will not use anything to do with the Post Office. I will drive to somewhere to deliver a letter before I'll post it. I can't bear it. I'm still that bitter, now. It's shocking, really. I just think, oh, get over yourself, but I can't. I'm never going to have a wedding day. I'm never going to have a father walk me up the aisle now because he's dead. It's gone, you know?"

She is particularly scathing about the Post Office's recent mental health wokeness.

"I couldn't find the words. How bloody dare they? I just do not know how they've got away with it, and I just wonder what on earth is going on in government that nobody has put a stop to it. Because they're vile. I fear for anybody who even considers working for them, let alone all the Subpostmasters now. It's not even humane. I just don't get why they're getting away with it. I just don't understand it. And I think they'll still get away with it. The people who did this to us. They've moved on. They all live with themselves. They didn't give a shit. They don't even work for the Post Office anymore, half of them. Nobody's going to be accountable. The vile people that pushed me into the back of their car... they traipsed me in public through the Crown Post Office in Stroud... All the staff there must have known what was going on, I was going to be... you know, I was some sort of villain. I had to go through the public entrance being escorted by those two, recorded interviews and all the rest of it. And those two people, who just sleep at night like babies, will carry on. And nothing anybody does, including Judge Fraser is going to change that. In fact, they've probably retired now, living it up in Costa del Sol, or something. I don't know. You know what I mean? God, I'm that bitter..."

Nicki doesn't have much hope for the group litigation.

"I don't think we'll get any money, to be honest. By the time everybody's made their profits from it... Freeths are amazing, don't get me wrong, they are brilliant. But at the end of the day, it's a business transaction to them. You know, we are a business transaction, that's all we are. We can get emotionally attached as much as we like. I don't do that anymore. Whatever happens, there is going to be not one person who will say, God, I'm really sorry. And that is never going to happen. No. They will never, ever be accountable for what they've done. They won't. And we'll all be left the same as we thought we were, without an acknowledgment, without apology... we might get 50 quid if we're lucky, what, split between 500-odd people? I don't know. It won't be nothing significant. It won't be life changing for any of us."

Despite this, Nicki is following the trial closely, and was delighted with the judgment which was handed down on 15 March: "I'm slowly falling in love with Judge Fraser," she says. "When I read his verdict, I thought, yeah, you've got it. You've got it. You know exactly where we're coming from."

Nicki was on Prozac for more than a decade. Her longest period without drugs was three years, but since she joined the litigation the anxiety has come back. Nicki has taken early retirement from her job in social services and is back on the antidepressants. On Steve, she says:

"20 years on, we're solid. Absolutely solid. It's probably one of the strongest marriages you would ever get. And we've got two kids now. Steve is just amazing, though. I don't know how he done it. I think he's more... mind over matter. It was a hideous time, don't get me wrong. At times, we were both on our knees, screaming. And I still can't answer now what on earth made him stay. Because nobody in their right mind would. I can't think of anybody who would want to have lived through what he did. I've always said, if I get any money whatsoever, he will have every penny. Because there's nothing, no amount of money, nothing I could ever give that man that he deserves for standing by me and taking this on as his life. Because I'm just... I'm just one screwed up human being, you know? I'm not the same person as I was when he met me. I may look similar, but I'm not the same. I'm bitter, I'm nasty, I can...you know, my moods are shocking. And I'm still like that to this day. Because I'm used to being at rock bottom. I'm confident there. I'm on two Prozac every single day, just to function, just to keep well and contented. It is horrible. It is horrible."

Nicki has never spoken to anyone about what happened to her in this much depth before. She's never met another litigant or even spoken to Alan Bates, founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters' Alliance.

"I know the sort of person I am. I know if I get friends with these people, if I go up and meet people who've gone through the same as me, I'm going to have a bond with them like no other. And I'm going to jump into this all guns blazing, and it's going to overtake my life. And for what? I've spoke to them on Twitter, and.. I would love to meet somebody who knows exactly how I feel. Because I've never done it yet. Never. So for somebody to say, actually, Nicki, I've done exactly the same, and they took me away as well... you think you'd make friendships like no other. Because nobody else in the world could have that same bond and same memory, and know exactly what you live with than those other people. But it's all time and emotional consuming, and I just think would my family get affected by it, would I come home, you know, when all this is over, and we still land up with nothing."

My thanks to Nicki for speaking to me. Given her description of her trial, I am particularly keen to get hold of the court transcripts. Nicki tells me when she was trying to obtain documentation as a claimant for the litigation, she was told all the recordings of her interviews by Post Office investigators had disappeared. I would very much like to hear the Post Office's side of this, but they say they will not comment on individual cases.

You can read more individual stories from some of the claimants (and non-claimants) currently in dispute with the Post Office over what was meted out to them whilst they were Subpostmasters, branch managers and assistants or counter staff.

* I asked Time to Change how they felt about lending their credibility to the Post Office in the light of the Post Office's alleged activities with regards to its Subpostmasters' over a period of twenty years. Time to Change listened politely and told me they weren't going to comment. I wrote a piece about their silence.

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