Wednesday, 28 October 2020

The first Post Office Horizon investigation

This is the origins story of the first piece of journalism written about the Post Office Horizon scandal.

In 2008 Lee Castleton was working as an electrician on power stations. He was a former Postmaster at Bridlington, North Yorkshire. The Post Office had taken him to the High Court over a £24,000 discrepancy at his branch and bankrupted him.

Lee was dwelling on what happened. He had contacted Computer Weekly a number of times without much success, but decided it was worth having another go.

The magazine's executive editor at the time was Tony Collins. Tony was responsible for a Computer Weekly investigation which called into question the verdict of the inquiry into the Mull of Kintyre Chinook disaster. 29 people were killed. The inquiry blamed pilot error. 

Computer Weekly found evidence of a potential glitch in the helicopter’s engine control software which could cause the aircraft to increase thrust without warning. The magazine stated:

"Gross negligence can only be brought if there's no doubt whatsoever as to the cause of the crash. In this case, there are too many uncertainties and the evidence that we have highlighted proves that the evidence on which the verdict was based is inconclusive.

We are saying that the verdict of gross negligence is manifestly and demonstrably unsafe."

Tony was right. 

It was not his only success. In 2007 he won an award for demonstrating the NHS national IT system was a dangerous flop.

In September 2008, Tony saw Lee's letter and gave it to Rebecca Thomson, a 26-year old staff journalist on the Computer Weekly team. He asked her to look into the story.

A bit... hello? What?

I first contacted Rebecca seven years after she published her investigation. I felt it was important to find out a bit more about the journalist who had broken the Horizon story. Rebecca was no longer at Computer Weekly and had just taken a job in the corporate world, but she was fairly easy to find on twitter. I sent her a tweet asking if she would be willing to correspond. 

Rebecca did not reply publicly, but followed me, so we were able to message each other in private. We swapped email addresses and I told Rebecca I was keen to chat through her experience of being the first journalist to break the story. 

Rebecca kindly agreed to a telephone call and two weeks later we spoke. The conversation did not go the way I expected. 

Before I could ask any questions about Rebecca’s work on Computer Weekly, she told me she had received a call at work from a senior public affairs exec within her company. That person asked Rebecca if she had been contacted by a journalist with regard to her investigation into Horizon. Bemused, Rebecca confirmed she had. Rebecca’s colleague said he had received a phone call from someone claiming to be from the Post Office, during which he had been reminded that his company counted the Post Office among its clients. It was suggested that Rebecca might like to tread very carefully before upsetting her company’s clients.

An apologetic Rebecca, new in her job, said to me that on the basis of her conversation at work, she didn’t feel able to talk to me about breaking the Horizon story or her time at Computer Weekly. Our conversation ended shortly thereafter.

I was disturbed by this. The tweet I had initially sent Rebecca was innocuous enough, and that was the only communication between us in the public domain. 

I don’t mind the Post Office following me on twitter. I actually asked them to once so I could send a direct message to their Director of Communications. But surely my one public tweet wouldn’t provoke anyone in the Post Office to pick up the phone and speak to Rebecca’s employer. What kind of weirdo would do that?  

The full story

A year later, I tried again. By this time Rebecca had jacked in her job in the corporate world and was back in journalism. She was happy to chat about her experience of putting the Computer Weekly investigation together. Here is what happened:

“Tony passed on Lee’s contact details and I gave him a ring. Lee told me his story, which was heartbreaking. It was quite upsetting talking to him because he’s such a nice man and he’s obviously been broken by this… organisation. 

He had a young family and he just sounded so downtrodden by it all. When I listened to him, he didn’t sound like a crazy, and he had lots of detail - he had his computer log and dates and he just wanted someone to look into his data and see if they could see anything that might have been causing him problems.

Lee also knew other people who had been in a similar situation. He gave me names and contact details, so I started calling around.”

In her piece, Rebecca interviewed seven former Subpostmasters - Lee Castleton, Jo Hamilton, Noel Thomas, Amar Bajaj, Alan Bates, Alan Brown and Julie Ford. 

“Alan Bates became my main source of contact after a while. Because Lee had so much on his plate I started dealing with Alan, who was very helpful.”

Given this story was not in the public domain, the legal risks of printing unproven allegations must have been very high. I asked Rebecca what her biggest concern was: 

“Never mentioning Fujitsu. Because they were the ones who might actually sue. Tony said that because the Post Office was a publicly-owned company it was very unlikely to sue us. That’s what made the story possible to run at all. If it was a private company we were investigating, we couldn’t publish because we couldn’t prove anything. All we had was the testimony of the Postmasters and a handful of experts saying 'Yes this looks suspicious but we have no way of knowing what the actual problems are.'”

In the finished piece all the Subpostmasters blame Horizon and the Post Office’s heavy-handed approach towards them for their varying woes, which include jail, bankruptcy and the loss of significant sums of money. All of them say their union, the National Federation of Subpostmasters, gave them no help whatsoever⁠.

The Post Office’s position is worth recording. Rebecca wrote:

“The Post Office denies it received any complaints from postmasters, and also denies that any IT-related fault could have caused the systems to show incorrect sums of money owed by some postmasters.”

Both parts of that denial are untrue. I have letters from Alan Bates, written to the Post Office, directly complaining about weaknesses in the Horizon system as early as 2000 and Alan Brown’s story (Case Study 6 in Rebecca’s piece) was a real systemic computer fault (it became known as the Callander Square incident) which could and did cause Subpostmasters to be out of pocket⁠.

It was Rebecca’s first investigation as a journalist:

“I got very emotionally involved with it. I just felt sorry for them basically. It’s quite an affecting story. And I think they were used to people like me asking questions about proof, because they’d been desperate to find proof for themselves. Any documentation they had they were very keen to send to me. I spoke to far more Subpostmasters than the case studies we went with in the end. Some were quite clueless, but some were really switched on.

The thing that gets me is that the Post Office should have been looking out for them, really. I know they weren’t actual employees of the Post Office but you kind of assume that a government-run organisation, which is there to provide to you with a living…” 

… she tailed off… 

“It’s just shocking that it could turn around and become so aggressive and could ruin their lives… and how people could end up in these desperate situations by doing comparatively so little. Obviously false accounting is wrong, but they all turned around and said they knew it was wrong, but they didn’t know what else to do.

I guess it was that combination of that desperation and being put in that position by a company that should have been trusted and that you automatically would trust because of what it is. It’s like the NHS turning on people. Institutionally… it’s so… weird in a way.” 

I asked Rebecca what it was like when, after six months of solid work, she got to press the button and push the story into the public domain.

“It was obviously exciting. We’d spent a lot of time getting this right, and so to finally get it out there was great, but we had really been working up to getting this onto the Today programme or having one of the Sunday papers pick up on it. A lot of Computer Weekly investigations had been picked up in the past and we genuinely thought it was a great story. But we put it out there and nothing happened, which was a bit disappointing…” 

Rebecca’s investigation is still up on the Computer Weekly website⁠. 

Although she was disappointed by the initial reaction, Rebecca’s piece had a far-reaching impact. Not least on James (now Lord) Arbuthnot, who read it and immediately set aside his scepticism about his constituent Jo Hamilton, who had been prosecuted by the Post Office for false accounting:

“It galvanised me. During the Chinook enquiry, Computer Weekly had been absolutely fantastic, and the fact that they were on Horizon’s case gave it, in my mind, credibility. I began to think that this was something that I couldn’t let go.”

Rebecca's piece also inspired the first TV investigation, by Taro Naw in the September of 2009, which uncovered yet more Subpostmasters having problems with Horizon.

Of the Postmasters interviewed in the Computer Weekly investigation, I’ve never had a chance to meet Amar, Julie or Alan Brown, but over the course of the last seven years I’ve come to know a lot about what happened to Jo Hamilton, Lee Castleton, Alan Bates and Noel Thomas. 

Alan went on to form the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and won an epic High Court battle against the Post Office, which only finished at the end of last year. Noel and Jo are due to have their convictions quashed at the Court of Appeal later this year, and Lee is still working as an electrician, still bankrupt and still fighting without much recognition or recompense for his efforts.

Rebecca remains exceptionally modest about her contribution, but I think she deserves significant credit for doing the job of getting the Post Office Horizon scandal into the public domain. She is, as you might expect, a bit of a hero of mine.

For more notes on the journalism which has reported on the efforts of the Subpostmasters to get justice, see "Credit where due".

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Tuesday, 27 October 2020

EXCLUSIVE: Business minister asks Dept for Health why Paula Vennells is still running an NHS Trust

Paula Vennells, CBE

Last year, Paula Vennells slipped from office into the warm embrace of the NHS at the exact time the Post Office, under her leadership, was asserting its legal right to treat its own Subpostmasters “arbitrarily, irrationally or capriciously.”*

On 24 December 2019, eight days after the second damning High Court judgment into her organisation's behaviour, a complaint was made to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) by Dr Minh Alexander about Ms Vennells' fitness to chair a large NHS Trust because: 

"The Post Office’s behaviour under Paula Vennells’ leadership was not accountable nor open about its computer problems, and the Post Office instead caused serious suffering to scapegoated subpostmasters, some of whom had been prosecuted and jailed. 

It would be very unsafe for such a corporate culture to be replicated in the NHS, where vulnerable patients would take the brunt of any cover ups."

Now it seems the government has similar qualms. In a letter to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), Lord Callanan (the business minister in the Lords) writes:

"The decisions and conduct of POL [Post Office Ltd] while Paula was CEO were heavily criticised in the Horizon Litigation judgments from last year. This includes:

• attempts to confuse and obscure true facts regarding issues with the Horizon system, specifically during an attempt to mediate issues between the company and postmasters;

• haphazard practices and procedures in the organisation;

• an oppressive culture, behaving with impunity towards postmasters;

• fostering a culture of secrecy and excessive confidentiality, failing to be transparent, when necessary."

Lord Callanan of Low Fell

He concludes:

"I recognise that due process relating to the CQC referral must be followed, but I felt it was important that I made you aware of the background and the level of Parliamentary disquiet on POL’s conduct as set out above, most of which was under the leadership of Paula Vennells and I ask that DHSC considers whether Paula Vennells a fit and proper person to be the Imperial College NHS Trust chair in light of those criticisms."

You can read the original letter in full at the bottom of this blog post. 

I asked the DHSC to send me their response to Lord Callanan and a comment. They replied:

"This matter has been referred to the CQC. We are unable to comment until their investigation is complete."

Earlier this month Dr Alexander chased the CQC to see why she hadn't received any meaningful response to her request for a Fit and Proper Person referral made nearly nine months previously. The CQCs Deputy Chief Inspector of Hospitals Nigel Acheson, wrote back to tell her:

"we have not concluded the FPPR referral and we are making further enquiries with the trust...

I am unable to confirm when the processes will be completed but will keep you updated as and when I have further information to share."

Dr Minh Alexander

I asked Dr Alexander what she thought of this. She replied:
"The Fit and Proper Person process in the NHS is a farce, excessively protracted and exposes staff and patients to serious potential harm. We all depend on the NHS and it needs excellent leaders to safeguard service quality and patient safety. The NHS should not be abused for political favours nor be a dumping ground for recycled executives who have failed elsewhere, and who have a track record of denying serious errors and leading abusive organisations. It is disrespectful to NHS staff and patients that Paula Vennells remains in her NHS position at Imperial, almost a year on from the original referral to the Care Quality Commission."
Dr Alexander doesn't mince her words. Last week, Computer Weekly reported that Imperial College NHS Trust had commissioned its own review into Ms Vennells' appointment. A trust spokesman told Computer Weekly:
"Given our chair’s previous role at the Post Office and the complexity of the situation with the Horizon computer system, we have taken external legal advice to ensure our processes are sufficiently comprehensive. We continue to take into consideration developments in the Horizons legal action and related inquiries since our chair’s appointment.”
The trust hasn't quite yet managed to sort out how it's going to conduct its review, telling Computer Weekly:
"We are currently working up a process to provide an additional level of independent scrutiny. We will publish details of this process once established.”
Dr Alexander notes: 
"It is a failure that an external review is only now being reluctantly commissioned, causing expense and further delay. There can be limited confidence in the external review given that Imperial control the terms of reference. Imperial staff and patients should not be further exposed to potential harm. Dido Harding helped appoint Paula Vennells to Imperial and should show leadership by seeking her resignation in light of all the adverse court judgments, CCRC findings of multiple unsafe convictions of postmasters and the ministerial concerns about Paula Vennells' fitness."

I asked Ms Vennells about Lord Callanan's letter. She told me, through her lawyers, that it would not be appropriate for her to comment.

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* Reasons for Refusing Permission to Appeal the Common Issues judgment: par 26 "The challenge in paragraphs 35 and 38 of the Grounds to the findings that the Post Office was not entitled to suspend and/or terminate SPMs’ [Subpostmasters] engagements “arbitrarily, irrationally or capriciously” can only logically amount to an argument by the Post Office that it was contractually entitled to act arbitrarily, irrationally and capriciously in suspending or terminating the engagement of the SPMs. Such points are not reasonably arguable."

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Letter follows:


Lord Callanan Letter to Lor... by Nick Wallis

Monday, 26 October 2020

Effective scrutiny of the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry

Sir Wyn Williams

Next month, the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, chaired by retired High Court judge, Sir Wyn Williams, will issue a Call for Evidence.

On 5 October, in response to an email about what it intends to do with that evidence, the inquiry secretariat laid out a number of points. On oral evidence, it said:

"The evidence taken will not be transcribed, but a thorough record of the Inquiry’s progress will be kept and reflected in the final Report." [my emphasis]

And with regards to all the evidence, the secretariat said Sir Wyn Williams' final report:

"will refer to evidence it has relied on, but the Inquiry will not publish the evidence it has received, it will provide a thorough summary of the Inquiry’s findings." [my emphasis]

I replied, expressing my concern, and I forwarded the secretariat's email to a number of parliamentarians who sit on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Post Offices. 

On 13 October, the business minister, Paul Scully, met with the All Party Parliamentary Group. Lord Arbuthnot expressed his disquiet at the inquiry's position. 

On 18 October, I wrote a short piece about the inquiry's clearly stated decision on publishing and transcribing evidence.

On 20 October, I received an email from Sir Wyn Williams stating:

"I plan to make an announcement on or before 6th November about the approach the Inquiry will take to collecting evidence. I am content to receive written representations from you and other journalists by 17:30 on Friday 23rd October 2020. I will consider these representations and... When I make my decision about the process I will acknowledge any representations that have been made."

On 22 October, Mr Scully wrote to Lord Arbuthnot. He said:

"Sir Wyn has been working to develop his approach. I can confirm that to my knowledge he has made no statement about an intention not to publish evidence."

This is only true if:

a) Mr Scully was not aware of the inquiry secretariat's email and my publication of its key points 

b) he considers an email to a journalist from the inquiry secretariat stating unequivocally that "the Inquiry will not publish the evidence it has received" is different to a statement from Sir Wyn himself.

Sir Wyn has now received representations from a number of media organisations - including the Press Association, BBC, Daily Mail, Financial Times, Computer Weekly and Private Eye - all of whom are requesting proper access and the ability to scrutinise evidence.

It will be interesting to see if the inquiry's current position, as stated by its secretariat at the beginning of this month, evolves. 

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Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Court of Appeal: Battle Royale

The Royal Courts of Justice

When the Criminal Cases Review Commission referred 47 former Postmaster cases to the Court of Appeal earlier this year, it did so for two main reasons.

Reason 1: It believed there were issues of "significance to the safety" of 47 convictions because:

a) the Horizon evidence used by the Post Office was potentially dodgy.

b) the Post Office failed to disclose to Postmasters what it knew about Horizon's reliability.

c) the Post Office did not investigate shortfalls properly before leaping to the conclusion that Postmasters had stolen money (something Second Sight pointed out seven years previously, which the Post Office ignored).

Reason 2: It believed the whole approach to prosecuting Subpostmasters was an "affront to the public conscience", because:

a) it was not possible for Subpostmasters to have a fair trial when evidence about the reliability of Horizon was not presented to court.

b) the Post Office knew it was not possible for Subpostmasters to have a fair trial, but proceeded anyway. 

So what?

Well. It's already widely known that of the 47 cases going before the Court of Appeal, the Post Office has made it clear it rejects the idea that three of the convictions are unsafe

What is less widely known is that whilst the Post Office accepts 44 convictions are unsafe, in all but four of those 44 cases, it rejects the idea there has been an affront to the public conscience.

And this is where it gets interesting, because now the appellant Subpostmasters have a choice. 

They could either accept their convictions only are unsafe because of potentially dodgy, uncorroborated and undisclosed evidence (Reason 1), or they could choose to push for a ruling from their Lordships that they were also victims of abuse of process and this whole thing is an affront to the public conscience (Reason 2).

The Noble Cause argument

There are some who say that going for the latter, whilst trickier in the short term, would make it far easier for a malicious prosecution claim to succeed when everything goes back to the High Court (the next battle after the criminal convictions are quashed).

Added to this there is the argument that winning a generic "affront to the public conscience" argument would make the path to the Court of Appeal easier for the 14 cases the CCRC didn't refer earlier this year, the fresh cohort it is currently considering, and the many other cases who have yet to apply or be accepted onto the Commission's books.

Finally there is the public relations situation. If the Court of Appeal isn't asked to make a ruling on affronts etc, the Post Office will be able to tell the world that, yes, they made mistakes with regards to disclosure and perhaps their investigations were not as thorough as they might have been, but there was nothing legally wrong with their decision to prosecute 900 people over a 14 year period and whilst regrettably, some people were wrongfully convicted, what's a few miscarriages of justice between friends?

The Big Risk to the above approach is that if the Court of Appeal decides the Post Office is right - that there has been no affront to the public conscience - it throws a spanner in the works of any malicious prosecution claim at the High Court. The claim could still be lodged, but it would have less of a following wind. The lawyers and Subpostmasters who pushed for this approach would face some stick for having potentially compromised the chances of every Subpostmaster's opportunity to get some proper compensation.

Another downside to the Noble Cause approach is that whilst it in no way threatens the overturning of 44 convictions, it will take longer to go through the Court of Appeal, as the arguments for and against Reason 2 are heard. This is likely to be a matter of months, though, rather than years.

The Low Hanging Fruit argument

The other argument is more simple. It suggests pushing at the door being held open by the Post Office to get the 44 convictions quashed in the Court of Appeal as soon as possible, and then retrain the guns over the Reason 2 arguments in a malicious prosecution claim at the High Court.

The downside to this approach is that it's great for the 44 appellants who are at the front of the queue banging at that door, but it could slow things up for the cases struggling behind them, as they will not be able to rely on a finding that using obviously ropey Horizon IT evidence (and what's more, actively hiding the truth of the matter) to pursue criminal prosecutions of Subpostmasters was an affront to public conscience.

On 18 November, the Court of Appeal will hear all the arguments from the interested parties and come to a conclusion. If the court thinks it doesn't need to make a ruling about abuse of process, it won't. It will hear the arguments made by the CCRC and the appellants over dodgy IT evidence and its disclosure (Reason 1) and likely go away quash between 44 and 47 convictions, leaving discussions over Reason 2 for a civil claim. 

If the Court of Appeal thinks it is important to consider the arguments on Reason 2 it will set a hearing date for that and we'll be a good few months into next year before the first Subpostmaster conviction is officially overturned.

These arguments are being made behind the scenes between the legal teams representing the 47 appellants to the court of appeal, and every single person I have spoken to is acutely aware that this is not an academic exercise, they know this is about peoples lives. 

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Sunday, 18 October 2020

Post Office inquiry will not publish or transcribe evidence


The Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, which is due to issue a call for evidence next month, has a transparency problem.

In response to a query about media access, the inquiry secretariat told me:

"The final Report will refer to evidence it has relied on, but the Inquiry will not publish the evidence it has received, it will provide a thorough summary of the Inquiry’s findings." [my emphasis]

Furthermore, whilst there will be provision for those affected by the Horizon IT scandal to give evidence orally: "the evidence taken will not be transcribed."

There was also the unnerving prospect of participants giving evidence "via a combination of formal and informal consultations and information requests." [my emphasis]

Inquiry participants include the Post Office, Fujitsu, the Communications Workers Union, current and former Postmasters, the Department for Business, Enterprise, Innovation and Skills (BEIS), third parties who have represented postmasters’ interests and who have been involved in mediation and/or dispute resolution processes with the Post Office.

But not Alan Bates from the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, Second Sight, or, as far as I can see, any former Post Office executives such as Alice Perkins, Paula Vennells, Angela van den Bogerd, Mark Davies, Kevin Gilliland or the relevant former General Counsel - Susan Crichton and Chris Aujard. Or the former NFSP General Secretary George Thomson. Nor does the inquiry have the capacity to compel the above to attend/give evidence, or cross-examine them if they do.

Sir Wyn Williams, a retired High Court judge, is chairing the inquiry. His findings will be published in the summer of next year.

Let's all respect confidentiality rather than get things out in the open because time and again that has proved to be a brilliant idea

When I got my first reply from the secretariat, I raised a number of concerns over the publication of evidence, the nature of these "informal" chats and how they would be recorded and used differently to "formal" evidence. 

I also made a plea for the inquiry to record and transcribe all witness testimony gathered orally, as this would be a valuable primary source for historians of the future. I also repeated my original request, which had gone unanswered - where do journalists fit into all of this? How are we expected to cover the inquiry?

The email I got back was worrying:

"While we agree that gathering original testimony about the impact that this matter has had on the lives of many postmasters is important, we will also seek to do this in a way that respects the content and confidentiality of such accounts, as indicated by individuals."

So essentially, people can give evidence in secret.

With regards to the media:

"We are actively considering how to enable openness and media scrutiny while paying appropriate attention to the confidentiality concerns of individuals who provide information."

My comments about the necessity to transcribe oral evidence, the secretariat responded, had been noted. 

We know politicians of all stripes are set against this inquiry in its current format. I suspect the above information will further exercise them.

I have written again to the secretariat, this time asking if journalists can make formal representations to Sir Wyn before any further decisions about access to evidence and media coverage are finalised.

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Saturday, 3 October 2020

It was nothing to do with me, guv

On 15 July this year, during an on-line board meeting, Paula Vennells was asked to justify her employment by the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, given her involvement in the Post Office Horizon scandal. 

The question came from a Mr "Alan Wilson". Mr "Wilson" very kindly sent me her response. You can watch it above or read it below.

Ms Vennells' view seems to be that the Horizon scandal started well before she came along, so she can't be held responsible for any decision she took whilst it was ongoing. During the board meeting, she hands the subject over to a plummy fellow who reads a prepared statement.

The plummy fellow gives the impression that Imperial College NHS Trust board members don't want to have to ask Ms Vennells any direct questions about her role in the Post Office Horizon scandal. And as they don't have to, they won't. Besides, she seems like a good egg.

That's not to say Nothing Has Been Done. The board has apparently "reviewed the situation carefully and thoroughly" and satisfied themselves that whatever moved NHS Improvements to appoint Paula Vennells in the first place, still stands. Even though at the precise time of her appointment, her organisation was actively and expensively asserting the legal right to treat its Subpostmasters "arbitrarily" "irrationally" and/or "capriciously".

This ask-no-questions approach is the Horizon fiasco in a nutshell. 

I sincerely hope a huge medical scandal doesn't surface at Imperial College NHS Trust whilst Ms Vennells is in charge. Her track record, and the lack of inquisitiveness shown by her colleagues, suggests she will attempt to cover it up, and carefully wash her hands of it, whilst they all look the other way.

Transcript:

Paula Vennells: "The next question is from Alan Wilson and it refers to me in my role when I was chief executive of the Post Office. What I would just say is that the Post Office issues relating to its Horizon computer system are very well documented, they're very complex and they began in 1998, long before I joined the Post Office. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to answer this question, so I'm going to hand over to my colleague, our deputy chair Sir Gerald Acher. Gerry, if you're there and you'd like to take this one for me then hand it back, I'd be grateful. Thank you"

Sir Gerald: "Thank you, thank you very much indeed Paula. Mr Wilson, thank you for your question. [he reads] Indeed no one could follow what has happened to many of the Subpostmasters using the Horizon system without being profoundly moved, but when Paula was appointed by NHS Improvement, just over a year ago, she was open about the ongoing Horizon issues during her time at the Post Office. And following the Post Office legal ruling and settlement at the end of 2019, and subsequent developments. our board has reviewed the situation carefully and thoroughly. All of the information we have remains in line with what was understood by NHS Improvements at the time of Paula's appointment in April 2019. And the board has no additional insight into the complexities of the Post Office issues over the past 20 years and we are only able to draw on our own direct experience of Paula's conduct and contribution to this Trust, which has been entirely positive. Thank you Paula, back to you."

Paula Vennells: "Thank you Gerry very much indeed, that's much appreciated. And for complete clarity I am also extremely sorry for the distress that was caused to those people over such a long period of time. I am also very proud of what this Trust is doing."

For more on the specifics of the Post Office cover-up whilst Paula Vennells was chief executive and her selective memory about it, please see: The Post Office cover up, part 1: How and when it happened.

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Friday, 2 October 2020

First Postmaster convictions to be uncontested by the Post Office

Jo Hamilton and Seema Misra

The Post Office will not be contesting 44 of the 47 convictions referred back to the Court of Appeal and Crown Courts by the Criminal Cases Review Commission in March and June of this year.

That means 44 convicted Subpostmasters are on significant step further along the road to having their convictions formally quashed. 

Some of those who heard the news today have been waiting nearly 20 years for justice. 

Seema Misra, jailed whilst pregnant ten years ago next month said: "Thank you very much to everyone for your support. I don't have many words apart from a tear of joy."

Jo Hamilton, convicted of false accounting in 2008, said: "I am over the moon, but part of me is sad because of people like Tara [who was not recommended for appeal] who still have it all to do. What a journey we've all been on, and they needn't think for one minutes we are not going to expose the whole rotten lot. I am so so happy for us all."

Wendy Buffrey
Wendy Buffrey, who first told her story in detail on this website, before going on to give evidence in parliament said:

"It feels wonderful to have the news that the conviction will be quashed, tinged with a little sadness that we were not all given the same news. I would describe it as an empty feeling as I had geared myself for another fight."

Janet Skinner, who was convicted of false accounting in 2007 said: "This morning opening the email just absolutely floored me, in a good way. I didn’t expect it to be positive at all. Now, my emotions are all the place."

I asked Alan Bates from the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance for a comment. He wants to wait until he knows more about the three cases the Post Office intend to contest.

Lord Arbuthnot, whose former constituent Jo Hamilton alerted him to the Horizon scandal said:

"The Post Office’s decision to contest only three of the cases referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission is an admission of how very badly things went wrong over this saga.  That admission means that the Post Office and the Government must now address the issue of compensation, by putting these subpostmasters back into the position that they would have been in had the Post Office and the Government behaved properly and decently.  The Court Settlement does not cut it.  More now needs to be done."

Lord Arbuthnot also paid tribute to Jo Hamilton, who has been a tireless supporter of other Subpostmasters caught-up in the same horrible nightmare:

"Jo Hamilton’s victory is wonderful, wonderful news.  It is an astonishing achievement and very much the result of her own personality.  It was because of the sort of person she is that her village turned out to support her at her trial, and ever since then she has cheerfully, optimistically, pursued this outstanding result.  I don’t know whether it is the first time in history that a guilty plea has been overturned like this, but she deserves even more praise than I can express for her steadfast leadership of this campaign in the face of one of the largest injustices in British history."

Neil Hudgell, a solicitor representing 33 of the 47 referred Postmasters said:

“We are today obviously delighted for the people we represent. Clearing their names has been their driving goal from day one, as their reputations and livelihoods were so unfairly destroyed. For the Post Office to concede defeat and not oppose these cases is a landmark moment, not only for these individuals, but in time, potentially hundreds of others. The door to justice has been opened."

He added:

"We must never forget that these people endured years of suffering, and these allegations and convictions affected not only the individuals themselves, but their loved ones too."

Scott Darlington

Scott Darlington, who was convicted of false accounting in 2010, said:

"I am genuinely surprised that the Post Office are not going to oppose the appeal against my conviction. I'm used to it now but the first few years of walking around as convicted
criminal and the devastation to my life that this dealt me are difficult to put into words. I knew I was innocent, my family and friends also believed I was innocent. But the public and former customers and colleagues and the people of the town where I live must have thought I was guilty, I was after all convicted in a Crown Court of false accounting.

Next step... [suing them for] malicious prosecution, which I know is a whole different ball game. For today, I'm happy. Very happy."  

The Post Office sent out a press release acknowledging their decision, but not explaining it. The best the Chairman, Tim Parker, could come up with was:

“I am sincerely sorry on behalf of the Post Office for historical failings which seriously affected some postmasters. Post Office is resetting its relationship with postmasters with reforms that prevent such past events ever happening again.”

I am grateful to those Subpostmasters who have contacted me, full of joy, relief and anger at today's news. Many are only just gearing up to telling their stories publicly. There is so much more of this to come. 

*******************

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Wednesday, 30 September 2020

73 Postmaster convictions referred to Scottish CCRC

The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission has written to 73 former Subpostmasters suggesting they might want to request the SCCRC reviews their criminal convictions.

According to the BBC a letter has gone out to 73 addressees stating:

"We think that it is possible that your case is one [where Horizon evidence was used]. If it is, we would like to make sure that you have the chance to apply to us. The Post Office identified your case as a Scottish prosecution during the relevant period (from 1999) in which they may have been involved."

According to the chap from the SCRCC quoted on the BBC website:

"We're talking about 73 cases which may be affected - not definitely - but we are fairly sure the data is not complete, so it's entirely possible there may be other people involved. The 73 individuals, so far as we know, were people convicted in Scotland. There's a whole range of convictions involved, but in the main they were for fraud and false accounting. Some of them suffered penalties of imprisonment, the majority received community sentences and fines."

This means I have been labouring under two misapprehensions for the last ten years.

a) there weren't very many Subpostmaster prosecutions in Scotland

b) all private prosecutions have to be scrutinised by the Procurator Fiscal (the Scottish equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service).

I thought point a) because I had tried to find some cases in Scotland and couldn't. 

I thought point b) might be the reason for point a) ie because the Post Office knew it would have to get its prosecutions past the Procurator Fiscal it didn't often try. Or it did try and the Procurator Fiscal told the Post Office on various occasions where to stick it.

Turns out both presumptions were wrong. 

a) 73 convictions in Scotland where Horizon evidence may have been used is a lot.

b) the Procurator Fiscal doesn't give the nod to private prosecutions, it takes them on

Not knowing this till today is just plain ignorance on my part, but what it means is that all Subpostmaster prosecutions in Scotland (which were referred directly by the Post Office to the SCRCC) were handled by the state - and therefore had some kind of external scrutiny.

I must admit to still being a little confused by the statement from the SCRCC about false accounting as I was led to believe that in Scotland there is no crime called false accounting - it falls under the wider catch-all of fraud. 

Anyway - the fact the SCRCC has taken the step of contacting all 73 people referred to it by the Post Office is interesting. It could be that 72 of those convictions are bang to rights. I still haven't heard from or spoken to any Subpostmaster with a criminal conviction from a Scottish court who is claiming miscarriage of justice. I have been made aware today that one such person definitely exists, but cannot yet bring themselves to go public.

In a way that doesn't matter. What does matter - to paraphrase someone quite close to this story - is that "if the Post Office have sent one innocent person, just one, to prison, they should be crawling towards them on their knees to beg their forgiveness."

Maybe this letter from the SCCRC will provoke someone to come forward. Either to the media, to the SCCRC, or to both. 

If you are in receipt of the SCCRC's communication and think it's time to tell people what happened to you, please get in contact via the form on this website. All information you send will be treated in absolute confidence until such time as you feel comfortable and ready.

*******************

This website is entirely funded by donation. You can contribute any amount through the tip jar via a secure payment portal I have set up for the purpose (click here for more info or to donate).

If you are able to give £20 or more you will be added to the secret email list. This alerts you to upcoming developments on this scandal before they are made public, as well as links to articles and stories posted here on this blog or elsewhere. 

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Tuesday, 29 September 2020

"Whitewash" inquiry branded "a cynical cop-out by the Government"


Sir Wyn Williams

The government has announced retired judge Sir Wyn Williams will chair its review into the Post Office Horizon scandal. The Williams Inquiry is active as of today.

The minister responsible for setting it up, Paul Scully says:

"It is essential that we determine precisely what went wrong at the Post Office during this period, so we can ensure the right lessons have been learnt, and establish what must change to make sure this cannot happen again.

That is why, having listened to former postmasters, we are expanding the scope of our inquiry to ensure it gathers evidence to build on Mr Justice Fraser’s findings, and have invited a retired High Court judge with a wealth of experience to lead it."

The government says the expansion of the scope of the inquiry from the terms laid down in June includes:

"a new commitment to build upon the findings of the court case by establishing a clear account of the implementation and failings of Horizon over its lifecycle.

and

"the governance and whistleblowing controls now in place at Post Office Ltd and whether they are sufficient to ensure that the failings that led to the Horizon case do not happen again."

According to the government it is this "additional focus" which allows it to upgrade the review to an inquiry.

Sir Wyn says he can't wait: 

"I am determined that the inquiry will provide the forum for a thorough and rigorous examination of all the evidence presented and that a report will be produced which all participants in the Inquiry and the wider public will recognise as having addressed the terms of reference constructively and in detail.

I fully understand that my engagement with participants in the inquiry will be crucial to achieving my aims."

He could already be doomed to fail, as the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance, led by Alan Bates, is not playing ball. Mr Bates told me:

"Post Office are only bothered about whether it has learnt anything from our exposing the truth. It has no interest in putting right what it has done to individuals over the years, and we have no interest in taking part in its whitewash inquiry."

James Arbuthnot, who has been a tireless campaigner for Subpostmasters caught up in the Horizon scandal, told me he was pleased the government had appointed a retired high court judge to chair the inquiry, as his experience "will be needed", but:

"there has been no change to the nature of the inquiry - it remains non-statutory and has no power to summon witnesses.  Neither has there been a significant change to the terms of reference.  It seems that the roles of the Government and of Fujitsu, both crucial to the awful things inflicted on the subpostmasters, still form no part of these terms of reference, so they remain a cynical cop-out by the Government."

Lord Arbuthnot added:

"This "review" will not get to the bottom of the scandal as the Prime Minister said he wanted to do."

Labour's take on this is very interesting. Ed Miliband, former Labour leader and current Shadow Business Secretary says:

"It's right that the government has finally announced a judge-led inquiry into the Horizon Post Office scandal, which Labour called for months ago. I pay tribute to the campaign of the sub-postmasters to make it happen. We must uncover the truth about how this appalling miscarriage of justice could ever have happened. The victims need answers, but they deserve so much more than that. The inquiry's terms of reference should include how those affected will be compensated for the decades-long ordeal they have endured."

I want to know when the open hearings are going to start. 

There will be open hearings, won't there...?

-------------------------- 

Thanks for reading. This website is entirely funded by donation. You can contribute any amount through the tip jar via a secure payment portal I have set up for the purpose (click here for more info or to donate).

If you are able to give £20 or more you will be added to the secret email list. This alerts you to upcoming developments on this scandal before they are made public, as well as links to articles and stories posted here on this blog or elsewhere. 

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Sunday, 27 September 2020

Trouble up North (of England) pt2

In Trouble up North part 1 we met our anonymous Post Office assistant who, after several alarming adventures, has been promoted to the job of temporary Subpostmaster.

As part of the deal, she has received assurances from a Post Office middle manager called Liz Morgan that the money she will get from the Post Office as her Postmaster salary will cover the branch's rent, staff costs and miscellaneous expenses. She was also guaranteed a £1500 "overscale" which would form the basis of her take-home pay.

Ambitious and competent, our hero takes on the job as a way of saving the branch from closure and a possible route to becoming permanent Subpostmaster, if she can complete a successful application.

The author was made temporary Subpostmaster of her branch at the end of August 2012. By the end of the September, she experienced her first catastrophe...

Trouble up North (of England) pt 2

Underfunding

"I had been told by Liz that my branch's outgoings were around £7,200 a month. That meant with my agreed overscale of £1500 I needed and was expecting a minimum payment of £8,700 a month. Obviously if the branch continued trading well or even improved, I would generate commission and my income could increase. I found an accountant and set up a payroll system for the staff.

My first payment from the Post Office, on 29 Sep 2012, was for £3,737.76.

Not only was my "overscale" absent, a large amount of tax and National Insurance had been deducted.

I immediately contacted Liz and she apologised for the error. She emailed me on 4 October acknowledging the Post Office had erroneously deducted tax and national insurance at source. 

Liz’s email included an attachment with the figures for the rent (which I had not seen prior to signing my contract). The rent due to the property agent was £2999.09 per month and staff salaries came in at anything between £2,500 to £2,800. Then there was staff PAYE and payroll expenses, plus insurances and a few miscellaenous expenses. It was clear that unless my income from the Post Office income increased significantly there would not be enough money for the outgoings. In order to pay the staff, I did not pay myself, or the rent.

I then went on a holiday which had been booked before I was appointed. Shortly after my return, on 31 October, I received my second payment. It was for £6,614.83. This included my backdated overscale but it was still way below the level which would allow for the outgoings to be covered. I paid the staff, paid myself £1500 and after a third payment in November for £6,747.50, I was able to pay £4000 towards the rent. But the branch was still £5,497.32 in arrears.

This was serious. I got onto Liz, who informed me that she was dealing with it and it would be sorted soon. Shortly after this I was informed Liz had gone on sick leave. She passed away within days.

I attended my first meeting on 4 January 2013 with Liz's replacement (a Field Change Advisor). My Sales Manager was present, as was a Post Office Area Manager for Network Services. I went with my brother and my partner. The Area Manager dismissed my recollection of my conversations with Liz Morgan and said there is no way Liz would have agreed to pay me a Postmaster salary which covered staff costs and rent.

The Area Manager also stated that I should pay all the bills and rent arrears and assured me I would get it back at some point in some unspecified way in the future. I pointed out that I had no contract with the landlord. I was a temporary Postmaster and I was not going to pay off a debt for a business which was not mine. 

Applying to take over the business

Despite my concerns at the Post Office's failure to pay me enough money to cover the branch's outgoings, I thought these were hiccups which could be ironed out. Everything else at the branch was running smoothly, so I proceeded with my plans to apply to take on the Postmaster role full time.

This became very problematic, with the online application process not working properly and Post Office spreadsheets not calculating accurately. Having finally managed to get the online application to work, when I hit send on the application it failed and I had to start from scratch. I sent it off a second time, but the Post Office then told me to send what I submitted online by post. Then, when I had submitted everything by post, its legitimacy was questioned.

There was also the issue of my security check. I should have had one when I took over the Post Office. When I applied for one to support my application to take over the business, the Post Office told me I was not able to apply for a security check on myself. Eventually I found someone to speak to who I told me they would sort everything out. I sent my forms off. They were never returned, and I was left waiting for confirmation anyone had done anything whilst I was being blamed by my area manager for delaying my application.

Horizon discrepancy

The post office Horizon computer system had serious deficiencies, which made it easy to fiddle when it was working well [see Trouble up North pt 1]. I thought it was totally unfit for purpose. Small unexplained losses and discrepancies were not uncommon, but in early 2013 I witnessed an occasion when a larger discrepancy appeared on the system at our branch. 

Having spent the evening balancing the cash and stock against the system totals, as I usually did, I was concerned to come in the next morning and find that the system was registering a loss of £1,000. I called the helpdesk and was told the procedure for dealing with it. Coming off the phone I followed the helpdesk’s instructions, and the system loss doubled to £2,000. 

I rang the helpdesk again, who gave me the same advice as before. I told them if I did the same thing the loss would increase. I was told it wasn’t their problem and that I would have to make up the loss myself.

I came off the phone and spent much of the rest of the day trying to reverse the loss by undoing what the helpline had told me to do. When I managed to do this, I followed the same procedure again which removed my £1000 discrepancy. An issue of this size did not occur again during my Postmastership, but I understand just how so many other Postmasters have got themselves into such difficulties. It also occurred to me that if I followed the same procedure a third time I could create a £1000 surplus. Then what?

Since I got my first incorrect remittance advice, I had been attempting to sort out, with considerable difficulty, the problems with the deductions of national insurance and tax. The incorrectly deducted tax was returned to me early in 2013 (resulting in January and February's remuneration reaching £7,694 and £7,903 respectively). But the national insurance, which was more than £3,000, was never reimbursed. A Post Office manager stated this would come back to the branch from HMRC, and I requested this be put in writing. Although the exact amount was not stated, I was sent a letter by the Post Office HR Advice Centre which confirmed the national insurance would be reimbursed.

My income from the Post Office for March and April dipped back below £7K. I was still paying myself £1500 as a salary, doing the staff payroll and then writing a cheque to the landlord with the remainder of the cash. They were expecting nearly £3,000 a month, they were getting sporadic lump sums which averaged around £1500 a month.  

In spite of all of this the business itself continued to run smoothly. My Sales Manager told me my branch had become the No 1 performer in the local post office league table. To my knowledge, this had never been achieved by the branch before. When my Sales Manager visited with his boss, she told me she was amazed I had been doing so well with so many problems in the background.

Personally, I was really struggling to deal with everything that was going on. I couldn't understand why the Post Office couldn't give me the money they promised me, and the obstacles they were putting in place of my application to take over the branch didn't make sense. 

Going nowhere

On 24 May 2013 I had another difficult meeting with the Field Change Advisor, which lasted in excess of 3 hours.

At this meeting the Advisor told me that I had to re-apply for my overscale, as the procedures around overscale payments had changed in April. Naturally I objected to this, pointing out my contract had not changed and there was no mention of re-applying for the overscale in the contract. 

I also told her that the problems with remuneration were deeper than just my pay (she did not say at this point that the overscale was not my pay – my Area Manager was to assert this later) and that the branch continued to be underfunded whilst the rent arrears were building up.

The Advisor demonstrated her ignorance of how I became Postmaster by stating that if I was unable to run the branch with the existing level of income I should have chosen a more suitable building to house the branch! I discussed the tax and national insurance situation with the Advisor. Getting this straightened out would go some way to clearing some of the rent arrears. We also discussed my application to take over the business and why this was being delayed.

I told her 4 things were currently holding my application up: 

a) my Post Office security check,

b) the Post Office accepting that my brother’s bank statements (previously sent electronically and by post) were actually his, 

c) evidence of our finance,

d) a letter from the property agents stating we were in negotiations to take over the building lease.

On the latter point the agents were in a difficult position. They were expecting me, as tenant, to pay the rent, but I didn't actually have a contract with them. We were technically squatting in the branch. I told them I had been promised enough money by the Post Office to cover the rent, but I wasn't getting enough. 

The agent I was dealing with was getting increasingly annoyed with the Post Office and said to me he wanted them out of the building because of how often he'd been messed about before (the rest of the ground floor was just wasted space with no retail offering), but we were building trust with him and hoped to persuade him that the application we were putting before the Post Office to take over the branch full time would result in a long term viable business. 

My partner had commissioned an architect to look at how we might be able to utilise the whole building, with a café downstairs and rentable studio space upstairs. But the agent was still reluctant to commit anything to paper until the arrears had been sorted.

On the issue of the security check, I told the Advisor that I had been waiting for the Post Office to process my security checks for almost three months. I also said I did not know what more I could do to prove the veracity of my brother's bank statements. We had shown them his ID, given them copies of his statements and the Post Office was still wanting us to prove they weren't forgeries in some unspecified way.

As far as having the funds to take over the branch was concerned, until everything else was sorted out I was not prepared to shift my family's capital into one place to sit there waiting for the Post Office to sort its side of the deal out. I said as soon as my security check was sorted, it would take a matter of days to shift our resources into one account and provide evidence of the funds.

After hearing all this the Advisor agreed she would:

a) get the Area Manager to ensure the ‘overscale’ continued.

b) find out about the ongoing tax national insurance situation.

c) investigate the rent arrears and see what could be done.

d) find out why there seemed to be an issue accepting my brother’s bank statements weren't forgeries.

e) find out why my security check had still not come through.

f) confirm there was nothing else required of me to complete my application to take over the business.

After the meeting the Advisor only communicated with me on the national insurance issue. She informed me on 10 June that I would receive a payment sometime in June or July, although it would only be for national insurance up to January 2013 as POL had not been deducting it since February. I told her it had been, and continued to be, deducted. The Advisor said it hadn’t, until I pointed out I had clear evidence for it on my payslips. 

I was so angry I told my Sales Manager and the Field Change Advisor that I was closing the branch until someone got in touch to confirm, in writing, that the situation was being resolved. The Field Change Advisor called me that afternoon and repeated the assurances she had made two weeks earlier. I asked her to confirm the detail in writing, but she clearly did not want to do this, as she sent an email which did not confirm any of the details discussed.

On 11 June I received a phone call from my Area Manager who refused to listen to the facts of the situation. I suggested having a meeting with all concerned to try to find a way forward. She said she would get back to me. 

I was at my wits end and didn't know what more I could do. I wasn't sleeping very well and was asking myself why I was doing all this work to go nowhere. I was also getting seriously worried about putting any of my family's money into a business partnership with the Post Office. 

On 12 June I learned that the Field Change Advisor had been in touch with the property agent. 

The agent relayed this to me later that day, stating the Field Change Advisor had told the property agent that I was doing an excellent job, but I may be removed from my position. He told me he could not understand the logic of this and what the Post Office was up to. He asked me what the branch’s approximate monthly income from the Post Office was. I told him we were receiving, at most, £7,000. He asked me to send him figures. He also stated that he was aware of what previous Postmasters had been receiving to run my branch, and although he did not give a figure, he said that it was a great deal more than the remuneration I was getting. He even suggested that the Post Office might have actively sought to ensure I did not succeed, so they could close the branch down.

Surprise audit

Following this conversation I engaged a solicitor. I emailed my Field Change Advisor, suggesting a meeting on 17 June. I stated this should be at my accountant’s office rather than the branch, as I was expecting the Field Change Advisor, my Area Manager, my contracts manager and my Sales Manager, plus myself, my partner and my accountant to attend. I was also thinking of including my solicitor. I was so stressed. I couldn't understand what was going on.

On 13 June 2013 I arrived at the branch to find that my branch was being audited. It was extremely thorough, almost forensic in comparison to the regular audits I had witnessed under previous Postmasters. The audit was ‘clean’, although I was told I would be issued with a warning because some compliance documentation could not be found. 

On leaving the premises, one of the auditors said “you’re doing a great job, keep it up”. 

I subsequently responded to a letter from the Post Office regarding the audit, requesting the compliance documentation that should have been in my branch. I never received a response.

On the same day as the audit, I received an email from my Area Manager about the rent arrears in which she stated: “It is your business and you are liable for any debt”. 

If this was true, then the Post Office had handed branch to someone with no formal application, no business plan, no evidence of funds to invest, no credit or bankruptcy searches carried out and no security checks.

Also, no one would take on a business as their own and accept a 7 day notice period on either side, which was in the contract I signed.

The Area Manager's email also stated: “As you have previously confirmed you have taken the decision to use money intended for your rent for other purposes”. 

This was a reference to my overscale payment of £1500, which I was explicitly told by Liz Morgan would be for me to live off. 

My Area Manager said that if I did not pay the rent arrears myself I would be “in breach of your temporary postmaster’s contract through not being in a position to provide suitable premises from which to operate a post office”. 

At this point I started to believe I was being set up to fail, and began to feel almost paranoid about what was happening.

On Friday 14 June I sent the property agent a breakdown of income and outgoings, and evidence of salaries and hours from my accountant as he had requested. He said he would call me straight back. He did not, and never responded to subsequent emails and messages ever again.

Late that same afternoon I was informed by my Field Change Advisor that only she and my Area Manager would be attending the meeting on Monday morning and therefore the three of us should meet at my branch. 

I told her this was not acceptable, as I did not feel comfortable meeting them alone (because all previous meetings had been so difficult) and that the meeting should be postponed. I told her I would contact them later in the day. I requested they suggest a selection of alternative dates/times when everyone could be present (especially my Sales Manager, who had been witness to the events leading up to my appointment in August last year) and could attend a meeting at my accountants.

The Field Change Advisor emailed to confirm the meeting's postponement, saying that “correspondence will follow”. No meeting suggestions or further communication on this was received. I had been isolated.

The Big Guns

During the week beginning 17 June I was in my third week of being unpaid, due to the overscale being removed. My partner wondered who we could go to for help and hit on the idea of going to our local MP. 

He set up the meeting and told the MP about everything that was going on with the Post Office. He also mentioned the previous underhand practices at the branch. Following this meeting, we sent our MP a breakdown of events. 

On 18 June, a letter from my MP was sent to Paula Vennells, Chief Executive of the Post Office, who passed it to her Senior Stakeholder Manager for the area.

On 21 June I received an email from my MP's caseworker stating she would be in touch as soon as the Post Office's Senior Stakeholder Manager contacted her with an update. 

The caseworker did not call, so I emailed on 26 June suggesting I contact the Secretary of State as my MP didn't appear to have done anything. Five minutes later I received a phone call (then email) from my MP's caseworker saying the Post Office's Senior Stakeholder Manager had been in touch with her on 24 June and 26 June and that she had received a letter from him. 

According to the Senior Stakeholder Manager, the matter was being looked into and taken seriously. It would have been nice to know that. I informed my MP's caseworker that if I heard nothing by 28 June I would escalate matters.

Unrecorded euros

On 26 June there was a further disturbing development. Following an order I made for currency, I was sent the money I required plus an extra, unrecorded €14,000. I could tell from the weight of the package when I received it that something was not right, so I opened it immediately with witnesses present.

This was a serious error. Effectively this money did not exist. I reported it immediately to the manager at the Post Office's money order department, who seemed unconcerned. He told me he would inform the cash centre in Hemel Hempstead and get someone to contact me. A man from the cash centre department called a few minutes later, and told me that small errors can be made from time to time, but such a large error as this has never happened before. There would be an investigation.

To my mind the unaccounted-for cash was suspicious to say the least; if I had put the cash delivery in the safe for two hours (as per Post Office security guidelines), and auditors had turned up for a spot check there would have been no evidence of where the cash came from. 

I called the Postmaster of another local post office who told me that the €14,000 was meant for their branch, but no one would have known if I didn’t report it, because the system does not protect the Post Office against these serious errors. They also stated that mistakes are made on a regular basis – for example their branch had recently received four thousand 1st class stamps in error. They were surprised I had reported the unaccounted for cash, and said most would not bother.

I was becoming so paranoid I thought this was a deliberate attempt at entrapment by the Post Office. The fact that, out of 11,500 post offices, this apparently unique ‘mistake’ was made and this large amount of money came to our branch at this particular time played on my thoughts. Was it perhaps a coincidence that the Sterling value of this €14,000 roughly equated to the rent arrears at that time which had been building up since 2012?

On 29 June I received my June pay advice from the Post Office, and was surprised to find the overscale of £1,500 had been included. Whilst that gave some relief - at least until the end of June - the bewildering silence from the Post Office and the property agent, no direct contact whatsoever from those to whom MP had written, and the fact that the rent arrears continued to rise because the branch was being underfunded, continued to be deeply concerning.

No minister

By 2 July I had still heard nothing from anyone at the Post Office regarding the rent arrears situation. I decided I had waited long enough, so as per my warning to the MP’s caseworker, I sent an email to the then Secretary of State, Vince Cable, with an account of events. Copies were sent to Jo Swinson (then Minister for Postal Affairs) and my MP. Even as I pressed "send" I couldn't quite believe what was happening. I felt I was watching myself do it.

In the email, as well as detailing my tribulations with my rent arrears and underpayment, I pointed out that I had improved the performance of the branch and stopped the rampant "theft, fraud and money laundering" which had been going on under the previous regime. I also said I thought the Post Office had deliberately tried to entrap me by delivering €14,000 unasked for, a sum which happened to exactly match the amount of rent which was now outstanding.

Almost immediately, I received a phone call from a man at my MP's office - not the caseworker I was used to dealing with. The man maintained, wrongly, that my email contained allegations regarding crimes in my name at my post office and these were a police matter. I told him this was inaccurate and suggested he read the attachment with the full account of events. He would not hear it and dismissed everything I attempted to say to him. He said he was obliged to report everything to the police. It was clear he had not read the account, and did not understand the situation. He said if I didn't report my "allegations" to the police by the end of the day, he would. 

Although this was farcical, I felt under considerable pressure, so I tried to contact my solicitor. Unfortunately he was not at work that day, so his colleague, who did not know anything about my case, called the man at MP's office to request that he hold off reporting anything to the police until I was able to speak to my solicitor the following morning. My solicitor's colleague emailed me to confirm he had asked the “unpleasant” man at my MP's office to hold off, but could not guarantee he would not go to the police.

The next day my solicitor called me at the branch and said Vince Cable and my MP had spoken and needed to know within the hour "if you stand by your allegations”.

We discussed the consequences if I maintained my allegations. He said there was a small chance the Post Office could attempt to sue me for defamation, but that was the worst that could happen.

I said I could not take back my allegations, because I had to do the right thing. He said “I understand that and we will fight this”. Indeed, in my opinion, he was quite enthusiastic about the prospect of seeing how the Post Office reacted and acting accordingly.

The same day I called my contact at the cash centre for confirmation of the results of the investigation into the unrecorded €14,000 arriving at my branch. He could only confirm that disciplinary action was being taken, that it was a mistake and nothing else was going on. I said I hoped that the Post Office had procedures in place to deal with this issue and no further action would need to be taken on my part. 

I called my solicitor again briefly to inform him that the cash centre had told me the €14,000 was a mistake. He replied “yes, but do you believe that?” I said no.

I confirmed once again that I stood by my allegations and instructed my solicitor that I welcomed an independent investigation into the Post Office. I confirmed this in writing in an email at 12:54pm.

However, shortly after this email, my solicitor called and told me he had spoken to my MP. 

My MP apparently wanted me to "back down" and retract my allegations. I was told he had said that if I wanted to take over the branch permanently I couldn't also be trying to accuse my business partner of acting disingenusously.

I could not believe what I was hearing. I said this was blackmail. My solicitor asked me if I still wanted to be a full time Postmaster. I said yes, but I also had to do the right thing and could not "back down". 

He told me I could not have both and that if I maintained my allegation, my MP was obliged to pass on those allegations to the police. My solicitor said I needed the MP (who had never met or spoken to me) as my ally and gave me a deadline to get back to my MP later that day and confirm in writing that I withdrew my allegations. I said I could not do that.

The solicitor then said “I think you should know the only reason [the MP] did not go to the police yesterday was because he is friends with a partner in this firm”. He continued to put pressure on me to withdraw my allegations, calling and emailing several times (the emails were timed at 1.38pm, 2.47pm, 4.05pm and 6.18pm). 

In his final attempt he spoke to my partner and tried to convince him to persuade me to back down, saying that I was showing signs of weakening (which was untrue). 

I now believed my solicitor was acting in the best interests of my MP, not me, his client. In an email at 6.32pm he extended the MP’s deadline once again and I was given until the following morning to withdraw my allegations.

Having slept on it, the next day I sent an email to my solicitor stating my dismay at his partisan change in advice and the non-disclosure of the firm’s relationship with my MP. Because of this I told him I no longer wanted him to represent me. 

Five hours later my now-former solicitor responded. This email detailed a highly inaccurate version of events, contained a number fabricated statements, and denied any relationship between the firm and the MP. 

The same day, I sent a letter by special delivery to Paula Vennells enclosing an updated account of events, requesting she investigate the issues I had raised.

"Can I be naughty?"

It's almost impossible to state how low I was feeling at this point. I really felt I might be going mad.  Nothing was making sense. All I wanted to do was manage my branch and put the business on a more stable footing.

Unforunately, things got worse.

On 5 July a customer came in with €150 euros and the cashier friend of the previous manager went to the bureau counter to serve him. I was serving a customer and noticed the cashier went silent for a while. I looked over and saw the cashier give a quote to the customer to exchange for sterling. He accepted, she paid him £113 and took the €150. 

After he had left, the cashier put her hands on her knees and said “can I be naughty and have those euros?” I was very taken aback at this and said “What?! You know you can’t do that!” The cashier immediately realised I was going to take this very seriously and said “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.” 

The cashier said it was the first time she had served a customer since I took over who had euros to buy back. She said she went into “automatic pilot”, as this is what she did when the previous manager was there. She said “I don’t know why I said that to you, I’m sorry to put you in that position. Forget what I said, I’m sorry”. 

Then she went back to the bureau till and I saw her put the transaction through. The CCTV would have shown there were no customers at the bureau when the cashier processed the transaction. The customer would not have received a receipt. As far as I knew the cashier had never done this before whilst I was Postmaster, but it was very strange to me that this happened at that particular time. 

I knew I had to deal with this serious situation in some way, as the cashier had asked me for permission to commit a crime. It also crossed my mind that perhaps the cashier had been put up to it by someone in an attempt to entrap me.

Bizarre conversations

Just after 3pm the same day, I received a phone call from the previous manager. This was the first time she had telephoned since I became Postmaster. She asked if I was leaving the post office and if I was OK. I asked what she meant. She told me she had been asked by the former Postmaster if she was interested in coming back to work at my branch as manager.

I was gobsmacked by what she said and told her I was going to have to come off the call. The ex-manager told me she knew about the rent arrears and other problems in the branch.  She also told me to be careful what I said to the cashier with whom she had been friends. 

I was in shock. I called my Sales Manager and asked him if he had spoken to any proposed new Postmaster or my previous manager. He said no, and wanted to know why I asked. Bizarrely, he also seemed to pretend not to know who the previous manager was, and I had to repeat her name several times, reminding him that she had been the previous manager. As soon as I told him someone had informed me I was being replaced he demanded to know who was making this allegation, and said it was not true. However, I believed from his change in tone he was being disingenuous.

I then called the proposed new Postmaster and left a message for him to call me urgently. He called me back immediately. When I asked him what he knew about my branch he confirmed he had been asked by my Sales Manager to take over from me on 12 July (in a week!) and that notice had been served on me. I told him I had not been served notice, and had not heard anything from the Post Office for a month.

He also said he had been told that a member of staff had done something wrong. He didn’t understand what was going on because he had seen the sales figures and I had done so well. He also told me the property agent played a big part in getting me out because he’d had his eye on the post office and wanted it for himself. 

He then surprised me by asking if he did get installed as Postmaster, would I run the branch for him? I was stunned but said nothing. He took my mobile number, telling me he would ring me back on Monday (8 July). 

That evening I reflected on the the cashier's behaviour with the euros, and decided I would have to get her set of keys for the branch from her as soon as possible in the morning. I had witnessed her trying to take some euros. If she decided to steal some money when my back was turned, I might be held responsible. The downside of stopping her from coming from work would be that I could not open the branch as I did not have enough staff. 

The next morning - a Saturday - I called the cashier and told her I was on the way to her house. When my partner and I got there I told her I could not risk anything happening to my stock, and because of what had happened the day before, I needed the branch keys back. 

She gave her set of keys to me, and we went into her dining room. I told her that we wouldn’t be opening the post office today. The cashier apologised again for the euros situation, and said again that she had been “on autopilot”, like when she worked with the previous manager. 

She said she knew she broke the law but it was only once and the previous manager was the one who laundered €65,000 through the post office, not her. I said it didn’t matter, “theft is theft”. 

The cashier looked extremely worried and she started asking a lot of questions, wanting to know “exactly how much do people know, what has been said?” I said outside our branch only the Sales Manager knew. 

Just before I left the cashier said “what proof do you have?” and “it’s your word against ours”. Ten minutes later she sent me a text to tell me that she had felt obliged to tell the Sales Manager the branch wasn’t going to be opening that morning.

I later found out that, at the instruction of Sales Manager, the cashier had set off for my branch very soon after we had left her house, picking up another part-time member of staff on the way. 

They sat in the car outside the branch and were there when my partner put up a ‘closed’ notice on the branch shutters at 9:30am. 

My Sales Manager then called my Area Manager and told them I had taken the keys from one of my assistants and gone missing, and he was concerned I might go to the branch and behind closed doors “do some damage”. This was detailed in an internal Post Office email dated 8 July which I received much later as part of my legal action. 

On Sunday I got in touch with another solicitor, this time one who had been recommended by a friend of my partner. We had a long phone conversation in which I gave him a full account of what had been happening. The solicitor said he would try to assist, but the nature of my situation was outside his professional experience and that I must understand his assistance would be limited.

In the evening two police constables visited me to take a statement about the theft under my old manager, the Post Office's attempt at entrapment and my MP's attempt to blackmail me. My new solicitor was present to witness this with my partner. I told the police that in my opinion the branch was a crime scene and should stay closed. 

The police officers did not take the situation seriously, and wouldn't take documentary evidence with them, although they told me they would pass their report on to CID and someone would be in touch soon.

Unceremonious ejection

I was unwell as the stress was taking its toll. On the morning of Monday 8 July, I informed the Post Office that I would not be opening the branch. 

Later that morning I received a phone call from Elaine Ridge at the Post Office to discuss my branch handover on Friday 12 July. I told her that I had not yet been told officially of the termination. Ms Ridge was apologetic that official notification had not been received, and emailed a copy of the termination notice to me. I suggested that as the branch was closed anyway the audit be brought forward.

Ms Ridge called back later to tell me the audit and handover could be brought forward to the following morning. I agreed. I called my solicitor and asked him to witness the audit as I was afraid that the Post Office might attempt to ‘plant’ or fabricate evidence against me.

When they arrived on 9 July, the auditors were clearly not happy my solicitor was there, but the audit went relatively well. They found a small deficit of £18.48, which I repaid. I signed forms to transfer the branch stock and equipment (including keys) and I left, after the new Postmaster’s representative came to the branch to take over.

I witnessed the new manager have phone conversations with my Sales Manager and the cashier who had asked to keep the euros. The cashier was asked to come in and start work. 

In the following weeks, I tried to recover my health, although it was difficult because I learnt that my reputation was actively being besmirched by staff in the branch. They were maintaining that I was sacked because of irregularities. As it is a relatively small community, the effect of this was tangible. 

When I had been Postmaster, local customers would cross the road to speak to me, but now they crossed the road to avoid me. 

Called by the cops

Following my initial statement  to the police on Sunday 7 July, I was contacted by a detective constable who wanted to speak to me about my allegations. He told me that he had seen “emails” regarding the matter. I was suffering from exhaustion and stress so I did not feel up to meeting with the police straight away.

In late July I received a letter from a detective inspector requesting I meet with an officer to discuss my email of 2 July to Vince Cable regarding criminal allegations of theft, money laundering and blackmail which were “very serious and important” and which needed to be “fully explored” to determine if an investigation was required. Again, feeling unwell and remaining suspicious of everyone, I declined.

Early in September I received a phone message from a different detective constable. I again declined the invitation to meet. I requested details of what documentation the police had received and from whom. 

The officer wrote back saying he was in possession of material "provided by one of the subjects of your allegations, on the basis of 'self referral'". This subject would turn out to be my MP. He also said there was "no active investigation" and that I should meet an officer to discuss things. 

In October I wrote to the police to request a meeting with someone outside my local force who “fully understands the law of blackmail". In November, a police officer contacted me to arrange a meeting which was finally set for 13 December.

Legal action

Although I was utterly exhausted and in spite of being told by an expert I had “less than a 0.0001% chance of success”, I decided to initiate an unfair dismissal case against the Post Office. 

There was a high bar for me to have my case accepted, because Postmasters were usually classed as agents, rather than employees or workers. However, I knew that in this case I could prove I had employee status because of the way the branch was handed to me, and because I did not own any part of the business.

My claim was accepted on 13 November 2013 and there followed a protracted series of preliminary hearings brought by the Post Office in an effort to have my case dismissed on the basis of my employment status. It was very tricky as I could not afford the services of a solicitor, so I had to prepare the case myself.

The Post Office also vehemently denied that the chief executive, Paula Vennells, had any involvement in or knowledge of my situation. This was despite the fact that I had written – twice - to Ms Vennells directly. When material relevant to my legal action was disclosed to me, I was given an internal Post Office email dated 25 June, written by Janet Worsley, Ms Vennells’ assistant, which stated: 

"Paula will want to know the background and what was or was not ‘promised’ [as part of the branch handover]."

which likely suggests Paula Vennells did know about my case.

As my 13 December meeting with the police approached, I made a number of attempts to get in touch with and arrange a meeting with the local Police and Crime commissioner, to whom I had sent a breakdown of events.

We eventually met on 12 December. My partner attended and we were assured the meeting was confidential. 

The commissioner was made aware of our scheduled meeting with the police the following day and she told me that if I wasn’t taken seriously I should come back to her and she would help me go through the formal complaints process. She said there was a system, and there was no point in fighting it. She said “the secret is to manipulate the system”.

However, although the commissioner appeared concerned and supported me for my whistleblowing, when I brought up my allegations about the MP, she was dismissive. 

We were dismayed to find that it was clear the commissioner was partisan with regard to the MP. She then said that she would contact him and discuss the issues we had brought to her attention. When asked if this would be in writing she said no. 

Although she said she would do everything she could and that she would get back to us soon, we heard nothing further from her for months.

On 13 Dec two police officers, as scheduled, visited me and my partner. This was one of a series of meetings. Although the first meeting seemed quite positive, they went downhill after that. In spite of polite responses stating the investigating team would be in touch, nothing progressed until early 2014 when I received a visit from the main investigating officer. He told me categorically “the blackmail is dead” and advised me to to let my MP "off the hook", retract my allegations and put in writing that I did not understand what money laundering, theft and blackmail were. 

The police officer also said my MP would not think any less of me for what I had done and at some point in the future I could always make the allegations again and I would be taken seriously!

In April 2014, after much chasing, we received a letter from the Police and Crime commissioner confirming she had contacted the MP about my case. It stated her discussions with the MP were confidential. Somewhat cryptically, it went on to say “please be reassured that we are both committed to ensuring you receive the appropriate service from the authorities and will do our best to assist in this regard". She never contacted me again.

The tribunal

The Post Office solicitors spent the first few months of 2014 trying to have my unfair dismissal case struck out. I was still representing myself. In a hearing on 22 May, I was faced with a different judge to the one who had been presiding at my other hearings. The Post Office quickly persuaded him to have Paula Vennells removed as Second Respondent. 

The judge, for reasons I cannot fathom, was extremely hostile towards me throughout the hearing. He took it upon himself to harangue me and pour scorn on my claim. Thankfully, with some very succinct answers to his challenging questioning, I was able to demonstrate I had a case to argue.

A month later, I received a preliminary judgment. I was dismayed to discover that the judge removed my claim for detriment. This would have allowed me, in the event of my claim being successful, to request a theoretically unlimited financial award for compensation. Detriment had been accepted at a previous preliminary hearing by a different judge, so I believed this judge’s removal of detriment was arbitrary and unfair. However there was some very welcome news. On the issue of my status, the judge was clear. He ruled I was an employee and therefore: “entitled to pursue a claim of unfair dismissal and/or breach of contract (wrongful dismissal) against the First Respondent.” 

The Post Office immediately got rid of the team of local solicitors they were using to try to get my claim kicked out and appointed Eversheds, one of the top ten law firms in the UK. I was still representing myself, but by borrowing some money I was able to secure the limited assistance of a QC to prepare for the full hearing.

In the end, the case did not go to a full hearing. Over a year later, prior to the scheduled hearing on 5 September 2015, I had to agree to come to what the Post Office termed a ‘resolution’. Whilst I had been adamant that I wanted to have my day in court and put all the above into the public arena, the Post Office made a financial offer which was the maximum I could hope to get from the tribunal, if it found in my favour. Refusing to accept the offer would count against me if we went to a full hearing. If the detriment aspect of my claim had not been removed by the hostile judge, things could have been different.

As part of the terms of the deal, I asked that the Post Office acknowledge and apologise for everything that had happened to me. A statement was agreed which only partially achieved what I wanted. The Post Office apologised for the way in which I had been sacked, but not for everything that had occurred before.

I was also obliged to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but I believe that as the issues raised by my case are a matter of public interest, this is invalid. Especially now, after what we have learned during the high court litigation about POL’s underhand culture. I feel vindicated."

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What a story. Bent branch managers, institutional incompetence and parochial pisspottery all vying with each other to be the most alarming strand of this narrative.

For the author to find the wherewithal to take on the Post Office at a tribunal, representing herself, and win, is beyond incredible. I guess if you're forced into an illegal marriage at gunpoint at the age of 16 very little else is going to faze you. But given what the Post Office did to her between August 2012 and July 2013, I am surprised she didn't completely lose her mind.

If anyone wants to look deeper into this, there is lots of evidence which is well worth ploughing through. As I said at the beginning of part 1, I have verified much of this story with source documentation. I am satisfied what I cannot verify is an honestly-held recollection of events. 

And below, in case you're interested, is what our hero fought so hard to get inserted into her settlement agreement - partial recognition from the Post Office that she had been treated very shabbily indeed. 

Given the Post Office went to the High Court three years later on the basis it should be able to treat its Subpostmasters "arbitrarily", "irrationally" and/or "capriciously", you can probably guess how heartfelt the letter is:

My profound thanks to the author. I have been wanting to tell her story since I met her back in 2014. I am grateful to her and her partner for all their assistance in providing documentation, and their forbearance in waiting patiently for six years before it finally found its way to publication.

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