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Thursday, January 24, 2019

"The horror of that whole Post Office fiasco was a major factor in her death."

When I read this article in Forecourt Trader magazine, I couldn't quite believe it. I've come across grim stories in the past, but this one seemed worse than most, particularly with regard to the alleged behaviour of Post Office staff on the ground.

I contacted Phil. He kindly wrote a personal account of his experience for this blog and showed me the corroborating documentation he had available. Phil is a claimant in the group litigation, and many of his files are now held by the Freeths, the claimants' solicitors.

I am satisfied it is Phil's honestly-held belief that the events he describes below happened as he tells them.
Phil Cowan
"I used to be based in Edinburgh and was a reasonably successful businessman. I had multiple interests including a number of Shell service stations (back when there was still money in it), a Cash Converter and a valeting company. I was also slowly building a property portfolio.

With further diversification in mind I bought a post office on Parson's Green Terrace in Edinburgh and we opened on 5 Feb 2001.

The office had a sizeable retail area and the idea was that Fiona, my other half, would in due course, take over the running of the office allowing me to exploit the healthy Post Office footfall for retail purposes. I'd already had many years experience in this area via my service station outlets..

I would be keeping a watchful eye, whilst taking care of my other business commitments.

This was all made clear to the Post Office in my business plan, which I still have.

As the registered Subpostmaster, I needed to learn the ropes and fully satisfy myself that I was a capable 'buck-stop'.

Crash course

I prepared myself for some hefty training.

I received ONE week!

The Post Office rep who supposedly trained me then flounced out of the office promising he'd be at the end of the phone should I encounter any problem. And there was always the helpline.

The actual training consisted initially of a flurry of paperwork which needed to be read, digested and signed followed by a crash course in operating a terminal alongside the one-thousand-and-one other actions required to run a post office.

The Horizon training merely comprised an explanation of the various icons on the terminal and an official handing over of my very own Horizon Operations Manual - oh and the number of the help-lines. I was not shown any troubleshooting techniques or what to do if the system showed discrepancies or shortfalls.

Phil and Fiona with one of her boys in 2008
I have had a long business career, working for large organisations throughout my life. I can honestly say the Post Office training was the worst I ever experienced, considering the complexity of the system and the consequences and personal liability should anything go wrong. Other companies would require months of training in order to be left alone to deal with a system like Horizon.

Luckily I inherited a very experienced staff member and with her help and guidance, over six months or so, Fiona and I became satisfied that we actually knew what the hell we were doing - although we had never envisaged just how complex it would be to run a post office.

Over time Fiona became super-competent (she was very clever with great admin skills) and although we had lost our main staff member to retirement we were lucky enough to secure the services of yet another efficient counter assistant (we'll call her Brenda). Brenda came highly recommended by my area manager. She was a veteran with decades of blemish-free counter experience in both Crown and franchised branch offices.

Brenda was a lovely salt-of-the-earth lady and she and my wife became good friends.

After another year or so - aside from building-up and running the retail side - my sole contribution to running the post office counter was producing the weekly balance.

Hours checking everything

We promoted Brenda to manager, and in due course Fiona and Brenda took on the joint responsibility of producing the weekly balance, reporting back to me accordingly.

When I did the balancing my recollection is that there were numerous discrepancies, but many of them bounced back via Transaction Corrections the following week or were re-credited at a later date.

I remember mentioning it to the Post Office area rep but he simply dismissed it as 'some kind of crossover' (as did the help-desk).

However there were also a number of occasions I do remember where I had to fork out sums that never did return - two of them sizeable - £200 and £2000.

At no point did I suspect dishonesty - a slip of the finger perhaps - but there was only my wife and Brenda with my daughter helping on the retail side. I also had a sophisticated cctv system, including covert cameras - there for an absolute double-check.

Also, we did not just accept a shortage - we would spend hours and hours after a balance double-checking absolutely everything again and again. My wife and Brenda had a mantra - 'it has GOT to be here somewhere'. They'd repeat it constantly throughout the check.

Fast-forward now to 11 Feb 2004 - one of the worst days of my life.

Discrepancy, audit, ransacking and closure

I received a phone call from Brenda informing me that the weekly balance was showing a shortage of more than thirty thousand pounds.

Convinced it had to be an error I rushed over to the office and did a further two balances myself. These produced the same awful result.

My wife informed me that the shortage had been accumulating in large amounts over the previous five weeks.

Fuming at Brenda, I reminded her that it was a part of her responsibilities to inform me immediately of any shortage greater than two figures - and why hadn't she done so!?

It transpired that she'd been overruled by my wife 'so as not to worry me'.

They'd recently been experiencing shortages on a regular basis, they told me, but up until the last five weeks they'd bounced back the following week - literally all of them.

They'd simply been rolling over with the shortages.

For five weeks they'd been expecting a similar outcome but the discrepancies did not reverse, they  accumulated.

I immediately called the area manager, explained the situation, and he was there within the hour, alongside two forensic accountants.

The accountants did two balances arriving at the same awful conclusion.

The area manager then took me aside and asked me just one question..."how soon can you pay us back?"

The three of them then literally ransacked the place, emptying the office of all that had Post Office ownership. Money, stamps, postal orders, alongside the terminals, scales and  finally demanding the keys to the safes.

It was all over in a flash! The office never opened again.

You're the only one

Over the next few days we were each of us called in 'individually' for questioning, firstly by the local management and then by a team of three investigators from the head office in England.

From the very start their attitude toward us was one of guilty until proven innocent.

I remember the investigation team at one point attempting to point the finger of suspicion toward my wife, telling me that in the majority of cases they've investigated it turned out to be the spouse. This seemed 'scripted' as I'd already had the same spiel from the local guys.

No matter how much I protested our innocence, suggesting a possible glitch in the system, it was met with the same slow head-shake accompanied by a knowing smirk - 'if that were the case you'd be the only Subpostmaster in the entire network to experience such a glitch - ever!' I was expressly told that if I was experiencing problems with Horizon then I was ‘the only one on the planet’ having such issues.

Eventually I was cleared of any suspicion but both Fiona and Brenda were charged with false accounting.

I requested a temporary Subpostmaster to run our office until we got to the bottom of it, but this was categorically refused.

I invited them to come take a look at our home; encouraged them to have a look at our bank accounts; our properties; welcomed any kind of private investigation, however intrusive.

£30,000 is a lot of money for sure, but at that time it was a drop in ocean compared to my net worth.
But they were having none of it. Simply not interested.

The investigation team scuttled back down south, assuring me they had the facility to trace and investigate the transaction journey from point-of-sale to destination - something I'd asked about - and they said that they would report back.

I never heard from them again, nor were they contactable.

Post Office refuse to co-operate with police

Meanwhile, angered at the way the investigation was being conducted - and by now deeply suspicious of their motives (network re-invention was underway at the time) - I approached the local police asking that they investigate, supplying them with a comprehensive background and log of events.

They contacted me a few days later apologetically explaining that although they were happy to help, the Post Office were unwilling to co-operate. Not only that, they spelled out to the police that they had their own autonomous investigative structure which included power of arrest & charge.

As the months then drifted by, the prospect of re-opening my branch became unrealistic - my customers/clients etc had been hoovered up by other offices and the retail side was nothing without the footfall.

The shop became derelict and a target of vandalism - also ineligible for insurance.

I recall one incident when Fiona needed to visit the shop after the alarm had been triggered. Whilst boarding up a broken window she was spat on by a former customer. This was witnessed by her two little boys. Charming!

Not long after that I sold it for a pittance.

I did continue to fight my corner however - mainly from the perspective of not being allowed to keep my office open for business. With the help of the National Federation of Subpostmasters - and under the auspices of 'punishment over-kill', the Post Office eventually caved and in 2007 I was offered an £88,000 redundancy payment (from which, of course, they deducted £30,000). Every penny of the balance went toward the outstanding mortgage on the shop.

In the meantime Post Office had 'kindly' informed the local press of the office closure and my resultant suspension.

Word got around, as it does, and in 2008 when a fresh contract with Shell was due for renewal I was subtly and informally advised 'not to bother'. That's the way they worked.

Anything verging on 'dodgy' was a complete no-no with Shell, even after a 14 year blemish-free partnership. I was even training their company-owned site managers for them.

I was a damaged man that's for sure. I'd now lost my main source of income, my post office was gone and the economic collapse of 2008 meant my little property portfolio had all but evaporated, as had the Cash Converter.

Overdose and death

But it was nothing compared to that suffered by my wife.

She was a dynamic woman - full of energy with a strong work ethic (and a good heart), and she genuinely enjoyed her job.

Sadly she also suffered sporadic bouts of black depression, brought on by a dreadful experience as a child. Three or four times a year it would hit her, and each time it would be for a three or four day stretch. It could be truly awful.

Generally she could work through them, and her post office duties were good for her in that respect, as was her beautiful garden.

Now suddenly she was unemployed. Not only that, it dawned on her that she was now probably 'unemployable' due to the criminal charge hanging over her - she would be too honest not to mention it at job interview.

She also felt terribly betrayed by Brenda , whose friendship she greatly valued. She believed what the Post Office investigators had told her...that one of us was a thief....and she knew it wasn't us!

Without going into detail Fiona eventually succumbed to her mental illness and spiralled downwards into what she called her 'cauldron of misery'.

She passed away in her sleep on 21 January 2009 after accidentally over-dosing on her medication.
She was 47.

I have no doubt in my mind that the horror of that whole Post Office fiasco was a major factor in her death.
What's more, I found out years later via a freedom of information requests that the criminal charges against her had been dropped years before - while she was still with us.

The Post Office did not even have the courtesy or decency to inform her."

The Post Office have told me they will not comment on individual cases whilst the group litigation is ongoing.

Fiona McGowan 1961 - 2009
Other stories:

16 Jan 2019
A former Subpostmaster writes: "She was simply regurgitating a lie."

6 Jan 2019
A former Subpostmaster writes: "I am broken."

30 Dec 2018
A claimant writes: "I felt a fool for trusting them."

12 Dec 2018
A former Subpostmaster writes: "This was systematic abuse... I lost my business and lost my family."

27 Nov 2018
A former Subpostmaster writes: "I hate them."

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