|Shann Rodgers, Subpostmaster at Goldsithney, Cornwall|
I have finally got round to watching and reading the transcript of the first (and so far only) focus group session to be posted up on the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry website. It happened in January.
Oral testimony can sometimes be more powerful than the written word. It can also be surprising. Anyone who has taken part in a job interview or panel discussion will know the answers you give to questions can develop on the hoof into new ideas or novel expressions of existing ideas over the course of a sentence or two. Even if you start off pretty clear on what you want, your thoughts can change direction as they try to clamber over the language formulating in your brain, in real time.
In a loosely-structured three hour discussion, the contributors at this session were given free rein to visit and revisit various themes, and it was fascinating to watch. Two of the three contributors are well known to me, Pete Murray and Mark Baker.
Mark I have met many times. For years he has been doing tireless work defending Subpostmasters from the Post Office. He has never been a victim of Horizon, but through his work as the National Secretary for the Communications Workers Union Postmaster's Branch, he has clearly dealt with cases of such appalling mismanagement they would make your skin crawl.
You can read a piece Mark wrote for me back in January 2019, well before the Post Office announced it had changed its spots, and just after it had fought a court case during which it asserted its contractual right to treat Subpostmasters "arbitrarily, irrationally or capriciously".
For years Mark was one of the only people in the country actively working on a daily basis to stop Subpostmasters being suspended, or trying to get them reinstated, or point out to the Post Office that it was abusing its (already draconian) powers.
Mark used to be a bit of a cheese at the National Federation of Subpostmasters, but left when the NFSP would not be persuaded that siding with the Post Office over Horizon was destroying its members livelihoods and lives. He joined the CWU but has never been paid for his work. I have heard more than one Subpostmaster say Mark has literally saved their lives by intervening at their very lowest moment, when no one else seemed interested or able. During the inquiry session Mark spoke of the guilt he felt about not being able to help everybody, telling Sir Wyn:
"I do have this sense of being on a rescue boat and I've grabbed someone’s hand, who was drowning in the water and I've tried to get them on the boat to save them and they've slipped away. That is a recurring thought that goes through my mind."
Pete Murray's story was covered in a four part epic on this website. Pete took over Hope Farm Road Post Office after the previous incumbent took his own life. The Post Office did not tell him about the branch's past. The Horizon problems which led to Martin Griffiths' suicide continued for Pete. Just as Mr Griffiths was blamed, Pete was also blamed and suspended in 2018 without pay (in both his branches).
He has since suffered a stroke and multiple breakdowns, as well as losing goodness knows how many tens of thousands of pounds in lost income and forced repayments under the threat of legal action. In the oral session Pete describes his experience of being nearly ruined by the Post Office:
"It's left me completely devastated. It's caused absolute havoc in my family. I feel alienated from my children. I've had several nervous breakdowns... the last three Christmases have been destroyed by breakdowns.... Falling into tears at the drop of a hat over nothing... I feel ashamed, even though I still know that I've done nothing wrong... I've now had it confirmed that I'm suffering from PTSD, which has been a great weight off my shoulders, 'cause I've shared that information with my kids. I feel like they understand a bit more."
The third contributor was Shann Rodgers, Subpostmaster at Goldsithney Post Office in Cornwall. Shann is an extraordinary individual and an example of someone who, like Pete, has refused to be broken by her experience. She's a tough cookie, too. According to the BBC News website she once chased a knife-wielding robber out of her branch!
After 17 years working for Post Office HQ, Shann was bored. Newly divorced, she moved 300 miles west with her 9yo daughter, to start over as a Subpostmaster in the tiny village of Goldsithney.
Shann's "bubbly" personality made her a natural pillar of the community and she was quickly welcomed into the village. Life was good until Horizon started playing up. Despite regular "blue screen of death" crashes, she was told she was the only one having problems with the system, and she was held responsible for inexplicable Horizon discrepancies. Repayment threats meant that at one stage Shann ended up having to cash in a savings account she had set up for her daughter's first year at University.
During the oral evidence session Shann told Sir Wyn Williams that despite the fact she feels unable to give up her job because the village depends on her, she "dreads" going into Post Office. Without her, the branch would close - no one would take it on as a business, as it is no longer a going concern. And as for her employers:
"I hate the Post Office. I hate them... This was our dream and they turned my dream into a nightmare."
The Williams inquiry is accepting evidence from anyone and everyone until 23 February.
You can read the full transcript of the three hour session here. You can watch it here.
Read Mark Baker's story for this website: ""Be careful", he said to me as he left."
Read the first of Pete Murray's pieces for this website here: "The Post Office claim I owe them £35,000, despite never showing or telling me what I have done wrong."
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