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
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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."
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:
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