Sunday National, 15th May 2022.
This week, the Post Office scandal came to Glasgow. Sir Wyn Williams brought his inquiry to Scotland to hear about the human impact of the scandal on Scottish postmasters. I was privileged to be able to sit through some of their evidence. I want to share some of what they said with you.
These men and women worked in communities you live in – from Inverness to Auchtermuchty, Greenock to Edinburgh. They are folk you would recognise. I defy anyone to walk out of that hearing in Glasgow this week without every nerve in their body trembling with anger and sadness for the terrible injustice this greedy, reckless, feckless corporation visited on hundreds of decent people who did nothing wrong.
First, some context. The Post Office operates its network of local offices via subpostmasters and mistresses. They work in communities across the country, paying out pensions and benefits, selling stamps, processing packages. After 2000, postmasters were required to use new software – called Horizon – in store. This was intended to upgrade the Post Office’s old pen-and-paper accounting for a new millennium and reduce fraud in local branches. Instead, the installation of Horizon set in train one of the most significant frauds on justice in British legal history.
Horizon was unreliable. This is a dramatic understatement. Horizon would routinely generate artificial shortfalls between the money in the system and the money taken in store. “Nothing balanced. I don’t think I ever balanced to the penny,” one postmistress said. If postmasters found their money in branch and on Horizon clashing, they were told to call the helpline.
Postmasters querying the figures were routinely told “that’s strange, you’re the only ones with these issues”. This was a lie. There was a pattern of evidence that the software was miscounting money from as early as 2006 – yet the Post Office continued to treat Horizon as gospel, using its data to accuse its employees of dishonesty. They demanded repayment from them under threat of suspension and termination of their contracts – and in some cases with prosecutions for theft, fraud and false accounting. And so more than 700 postmasters “made good” debts they did not owe, for money which wasn’t missing.
First we heard from Vinod Sharma, 74. He became a postmaster in Balornock in 1977 – and 38 years later, the Post Office accused him of being £28,000 short. Sharma was looking forward to retiring and anticipating a lump sum of more than £50,000. He told the inquiry he “watched 10 days of CCTV and that kind of money did not leave the Post Office”. But the calculation was brutal: he could either pay up, or face suspension, lose his retirement payoff and face debt recovery. So Sharma paid over more than half of the pension pot he spent a lifetime accumulating – just so he didn’t lose everything.
Then there was Peter Worsfold. As a parent to three small children, he borrowed money from his mother to buy out a Post Office franchise in Muirtown, Inverness. Now 77, he told the inquiry that he believed the job would be “a solid base to raise my three children”. In the Autumn of 2001, a £20,000 shortfall was recorded in Worsfold’s store. This was accompanied by no breakdown, no paper trail, no audit. The Post Office just deduced the sum from his wages. Speaking with that familiar sense of powerless and resignation, he said: “I had to accept it.”
Worse was yet to come. In February 2002 came a knock at the door. Two Post Office security men appeared at his house, cautioned him, told him they had “the same jurisdiction as the police” and, no, he had no right of access to a lawyer. Without being presented with a scrap of proof, they told him if he “signed a statement admitting to false accounting” and “paid the shortfalls, then the other charges would be dropped”. They gave him “a couple of hours” to raise the money. Once Worsfold paid it over, his contract was terminated for false accounting. Since, his financial life has been characterised by constant struggles. “I’ve never been on holiday with my children,” he said.
Serving the Lenzie community she’d grown up in was also important to Louise Dar, 39. She had a new husband, too.
Dar had anxieties about Horizon early, feeling she hadn’t been properly trained. On the day her branch first opened, as the Post Office rep set up the hardware and Horizon logins in store, a shortfall of just over £970 appeared on the system. The rep immediately asked Dar if she’d taken it – a foreshadowing of the culture of suspicion which would blight the lives of Dar and her fellow postmasters. She settled this non-debt, thinking it would work itself out in the end. It didn’t. Dar’s store was subject to three audits.
The first identified a shortfall of £10,641. Economists call it the fallacy of sunk costs. Your granny probably called it “throwing good money after bad”. But you can understand why they did it. “We’ll do whatever we can to try and save this, save our future really.” So Dar and her husband paid the shortfall from their own money. Then a second audit hit. This time, the figure was £2684. They were told they couldn’t reopen the branch unless they agreed to pay over the sum. So they did. The third and final audit in 2017 found just shy of £7000 “missing” from the store. This time, Dar couldn’t and wouldn’t pay. The Post Office insisted she attended a disciplinary hearing the day before her mother’s funeral. The interview was adversarial and accusatory. Dar denied dishonesty, and was dismissed.
Injustice does different things to different people. Some like Myra Philp – whose mother Mary was falsely accused of false accounting in her Auchtermuchty Post Office – burn with anger. And rightly so. Myra’s mum went to her grave without knowing the allegations against her had been disproven, that Horizon had – as she always suspected – been bust. She hasn’t seen a penny in compensation. At the inquiry, Myra heard her mother’s voice – “you’re always at your best when you’re angry, get your dander up”. But listening to their stories this week, it is clear the Post Office has broken many of its former employees.
Keith Macaldownie is now 49. He was a subpostmaster in Greenock between 2006 and 2011. Like his colleagues, he dug deep into his family’s pockets to fund the investment. And like them, he began to have problems with Horizon. In 2009, it reported a £5000 shortfall. He re-mortgaged his house to foot the bill.
In November 2011, a Horizon audit found a new shortfall of more than £9300. Macaldownie was suspended and summoned for interview. His father is a forensic accountant with experience of giving expert evidence in court. He asked the Post Office disciplinary panel if he could see the numbers for himself. He was told they “weren’t entitled” to see the accounts. Not only this, they said they “didn’t like people like him”. People who ask inconvenient questions, presumably.
A private man, Macaldownie spoke movingly about the devastating impact this has had on his mental health. He told the judge: “It has been very difficult for me to give evidence to you today. Part of the way in which I cope with these events is to shut down.” You felt the emotion of it trembling through the room as he spoke about what this has meant for his life. Everyone sat there felt it. Macaldownie’s conclusions resonated too. “The basis of our legal system is supposed to be innocent until proved guilty,” he said, but “the Post Office case has shown we are guilty from the outset and denied the means to prove our innocence. The Post Office scandal undermines my faith in our justice system. I would like to have my faith in that restored by your inquiry.”
For Sir Wyn Williams, this is a heavy responsibility. But it is also a responsibility our society and its political institutions must bear – including those responsible for criminal justice. As Myra Philp said: “It was nothing short of extortion. We’re not the thieves. The Post Office was.” The Post Office wrecked their lives, enriched itself, gaslit them, destroying families and friendships in the process.
It robbed these postmasters not only of their material comforts they had earned over years of service – but of their security of mind, of their dignity, of their sense of self, of their good names in their communities, and of their right to a decent future. Not content with plundering their assets and accepting payment for fictional shortfalls, the corporation saddled them with decades of debt – debts which the Post Office still has not made good. That injustice must be answered.