Delivered into hell: Wronged Subpostmasters were branded criminals, jailed and even driven to suicide – all thanks to a failed Post Office IT system… now a shattering new book reveals the true human cost
Between sobs, Wendy Buffrey poured out her relief — and her anger. ‘I can’t believe it’s all over,’ she declared at the Royal Courts of Justice in Londra in April this year.
‘Nearly 14 anni . . . It’s horrendous we were all put in this position in the first place. How do you replace that time? It’s just . . . gone.’
She pulled herself up and said a little more clearly: ‘Now all we need is for the people who are responsible for this to be held accountable.’
Just minutes earlier, Lord Justice Holroyde had overturned the convictions of Wendy and 38 other Subpostmasters who had been prosecuted by the Post Office — and some of them even jailed — for fraud, theft and false accounting offences they didn’t commit but which, as had finally been dragged out of the Post Office, were due to flaws in its computerised IT accounting system.
As the cork popped on a bottle of prosecco, I looked on from the sidelines. I had followed this story for the past decade as a journalist and broadcaster, reporting on every move in the campaign to correct a terrible miscarriage of justice.
Invecchiato 19, Tracy Felstead, 38 from Telford, found that £11,500 had ‘gone missing’ from her south London post office when she returned from holiday.
Those 39 now exonerated in court were just the tip of the iceberg. Più di 700 were hauled before the courts between 2000 e 2015 while hundreds more lost their jobs, their homes and their reputations in a massive scandal encompassing incompetence, buck-passing and cover-up.
Others were thousands of pounds out of pocket after making up supposed losses from their own savings. A number had died with convictions still hanging over them. There was at least one suicide.
And all because the Post Office management persisted blindly in its belief that its so-called Horizon computer system — whose touch-screen terminals sat on every counter — was robust and reliable when it manifestly wasn’t.
As Lord Justice Holroyde summed it up, instead of trying to work out why discrepancies were occurring, the Post Office management ‘effectively steamrolled over any Subpostmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy’.
The problem was a glaring one.
In the four years before the rollout of the Horizon system, the Post Office had prosecuted 52 Subpostmasters or Post Office staff for shortfall-related offences.
In the four years after the rollout, the number more than quadrupled to 220. No one outside the Post Office queried this leap because no one was aware of it: the Post Office was not required to publish its numbers.
So no alarm bells rang.
Using techniques which began with telling confused and frightened people they were the only ones having problems with Horizon, di 2010 the Post Office had turned the criminalisation of its Postmasters into a mini-industry.
They were put at the mercy of an organisation stuffed with managerial incompetents who exercised their responsibilities with a toxic mixture of prejudice and indifference.
The Post Office’s blanket denial of IT faults and the vast institutional firepower at its disposal meant that anyone racking up mysterious discrepancies didn’t stand a chance, innocent or not.
Those who panicked and either hid their discrepancies or just gave up were criminally prosecuted. Those who tried to work with the Post Office to get their problems resolved were either sacked, criminally prosecuted anyway, or pursued through the civil courts.
Former post office worker Wendy Buffrey (sinistra), di Cheltenham, celebrates outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Londra, after having her conviction overturned by the Court of Appeal
Thirty-nine former subpostmasters who were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting because of the Post Office’s defective Horizon accounting system have had their names cleared by the Court of Appeal, including Wendy Buffrey, nella foto a sinistra
To expose this scandal and right this grievous wrong would take organised resistance by a group of brave Subpostmasters led by Alan Bates who set up the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance — cynically dismissed by Post Office executives as a tiny bunch of cranks with imaginary grievances.
There would be several parliamentary inquiries, an epic High Court litigation, two BBC Panorama programmes and newspaper campaigns with the Daily Mail in the forefront. The scandal would end up costing the Post Office and the Government (which owns it) half a billion pounds.
But the greatest cost was in ruined lives. The distress that those who fell foul of the system went through was immense, their stories harrowing in the extreme. Not least because they could not understand why it was happening to them when they had done nothing wrong.
Wendy Buffrey’s case was a typical one. Subpostmaster at Up Hatherley Post Office in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, a partire dal 1998 per 2008, she and her husband Doug bought the business from the outgoing Subpostmaster and it wasn’t long before they were enjoying life at the centre of the community.
One afternoon Wendy did a cash-and-stock balance and was horrified to see her Horizon terminal showing she had an extra £9,000 worth of stamps in stock. She never had anything like £9,000 worth of stamps in her branch and knew this was some kind of error.
She reversed the stock out of the balance. In doing so, her Horizon discrepancy doubled to £18,000. When she tried the procedure again, the discrepancy doubled again — to £36,000.
Terrified to do anything else in case the discrepancy doubled, Wendy spent hours going through her transaction receipts. A high-value error of this nature should be easy to spot. But Wendy couldn’t find anything. She looked again the next morning before the Post Office opened. And again that evening. And again the following day.
Niente. Every waking moment Wendy wasn’t actually serving customers she was ploughing through 3½in strips of records and receipts, stock and cash with a rising sense of panic. Doug was very ill and Wendy did not want to burden him with a worry which might turn out to be nothing.
At the end of her four-weekly trading period, rather than call the helpline, Wendy made what she now describes as ‘the single biggest mistake of my life’. She balanced to zero, quale, in the Post Office’s eyes, meant she was accepting she had £36,000 worth of stamps on the premises.
Non l'ha fatto. If Wendy was audited, stamps to the value of £36,000 would be found to be ‘missing’ and she would be held liable. (Her business contract with the Post Office — as for all Subpostmasters — stated she alone was responsible if money went missing and would have to make up the difference ‘without delay’.)
Feeling ‘sick, in the pit of my stomach every day’, Wendy continued to hope Horizon would come up with a correction. Over a period of seven months, she pumped £10,000 of her own and borrowed money into the system. But still there was no transaction correction, and she didn’t find the error.
In ottobre 2008, three Post Office auditors knocked at the door. Wendy told them they would find a £26,000 discrepancy in the accounts. She was suspended on the spot.
Four weeks later, she was called for an interview at which for three hours Post Office investigators repeatedly asked her where the money was. She replied there was no missing money. It looked to her like some kind of computer error.
‘I kept asking them why the stamps appeared like they did and why the reversal doubled. But they wouldn’t admit the computer system had messed up. They couldn’t even tell me how I’d messed up.’ Despite this, she was fired.
Wendy went back to her old job with the ambulance service, helping to ferry elderly and sick patients around Birmingham. She made plans with her husband to sell their home in order to raise the money the Post Office said she owed.
Presto 2010, after more than a year of silence from the Post Office, Wendy received a summons to court. She was being prosecuted for theft and false accounting. Doug was still off sick.
Wendy’s mental health began to fall apart. ‘I was like a zombie,' lei disse. ‘But I had to work as we had no other income.’
With the demand for £26,000 still hanging over her, Wendy and Doug then received a letter from the Post Office’s solicitors informing them their assets would be frozen under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
Their home was sold at a knock-down price and the Post Office got their £26,000 but the Buffreys were left homeless.
Former subpostmasters Janet Skinner, Seema Misra and Tracy Felstead outside the Royal Courts of Justice in March this year
They moved in with their son.
Wendy had pleaded not guilty all the way — she knew she hadn’t stolen anything. But on the day the trial began she was advised by her solicitor that if she pleaded guilty to false accounting, the theft charge would be dropped and she would likely avoid going to jail.
Traumatised by the prospect of prison, she agreed and was sentenced to 150 hours’ community service and costs of £1,500.
The next day she was sacked from her job with the ambulance service. She was also told by St John Ambulance (where she volunteered) that she was no longer welcome. ‘That hit me worse than losing my job,' lei dice.
Eight weeks after receiving her sentence, Wendy had a complete breakdown. ‘I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to do anything,’ she remembers.
Wendy made it to her GP. ‘I remember the doctor saying to me: “Have you ever had serious thoughts of suicide?” and I can remember saying to him: “If you’re saying people don’t think about it all the time, then you don’t know what you’re talking about!” That’s how off the edge I was. I was obviously thinking about it all the time and . . . I thought that was normal.’
A novembre 1999, 17-year-old Tracy Felstead nervously stepped through the door of her local Crown Post Office in Camberwell Green, A sud di Londra. She was young, keen, just out of school and had been invited to an interview for the post of counter assistant. The interview went well. She was offered the job. Tracy was sent on a two-day training course to learn her way round Horizon, the new computerised till system, and she was soon using it to
After each shift, Tracy would cash up, checking the money in her till against the figures on the Horizon screen. She would then sign a receipt displaying the till balance.
Un giorno, she found herself with a small deficit but her manager was not concerned. 'Lei disse: "Oh, it’s fine, it will rectify itself.”’ Tracy was a popular employee and she flew through the hectic pre-Christmas period without any serious mishaps. Then half way through 2000 she suffered another spate of discrepancies. ‘I did a cash up at the end of the week and I had a £1,300 loss.’
Ancora, her boss seemed relaxed. She took over at the terminal, ‘did something’ and the loss went up to £1,800. ‘And then she said: "Oh, lascialo, I’ll sort it out.”’
A febbraio 2001 Tracy locked her till tray in the office safe and went on a family holiday. It was her parents’ 15th wedding anniversary, so they chose somewhere special — the Dominican Republic.
The day before Tracy got back from holiday, a loss of £11,503.28 was found on her stock record. On her return to work, Tracy was asked if she knew how the discrepancy had come about. She remembers shaking her head and firmly telling her manager she had ‘no idea’.
Il giorno successivo, she cashed up and signed off her stock unit with the £11,503.28 discrepancy still outstanding. As nothing more was said, she put it to the back of her mind. Two weeks later she walked into work and was given a shock.
‘I’ve got two strapping, great big guys sitting there waiting for me, and they want to interview me. And I said: “OK, that’s absolutely fine.” They asked whether I wanted legal representation and I told them: “No, I haven’t done anything wrong, so I don’t need anybody.” ’
The men were from the Post Office’s internal security unit.
The interview turned into an interrogation. ‘They were constantly asking: “What did you spend the money on?” I remember looking at them and saying: “Seriously, I haven’t taken any money. You can have access to anything you want. Bank accounts, qualunque cosa. I haven’t taken any money.” ’
Tracy was suspended. ‘I was absolutely distraught. But part of me actually thought — well, they’ll get me sorted because I haven’t stolen any money.’ Three weeks later the same Post Office investigators knocked on the door of her boyfriend’s parents’ home, where she was staying. With them ‘to keep the peace’ were two police officers. ‘I’m not sure what they thought I was going to do. I’m only 5ft 3in and these were massive, intimidatorio, huge men.’
Martin Griffiths tragically took his own life after being wrongly accused in the Post Office Horizon scandal. He ran Hope Farm Road Subpost Office in Great Sutton, Cheshire for 13 anni
The investigators seemed fascinated by the family holiday. 'Loro hanno detto: “Did you pay for everybody to go?” '.
Tracy’s mum and dad got involved. ‘We said: “You can have access to everybody’s bank accounts so you can see exactly how people have paid and where the money’s come from.”’
The investigators were not satisfied. Three weeks later, at the end of April 2001, Tracy was sacked.
She was charged by the Post Office’s criminal prosecutors with theft and false accounting. Tracy’s solicitor was unamused. The Post Office investigators had no evidence of theft. The prosecution didn’t make sense.
Word of the prosecution leaked into the local community and Tracy found herself the victim of a whispering campaign. ‘I had people looking at me as if I was a thief.’
Her self-belief began to crumble quickly. ‘The only way to explain it is that you’re in a black hole. You feel trapped . . . suffocated. I couldn’t understand how anyone could think I would steal. My mental health took a hit.’
Over the summer of 2001, Tracy took an overdose in her room. She was found by a friend and rushed to hospital, where she had her stomach pumped. A few weeks later she took another overdose.
‘I thought I can’t deal with this any more. I just didn’t want to be alive. I didn’t want to feel the pain.’ Again, she was found just in time. She was committed to a secure psychiatric unit where she responded well to treatment but once she was out, she had to deal with being prosecuted.
Tracy was clearly not a well woman, but the Post Office still felt it was important to nail her. She was sent for trial in front of a jury at Kingston Crown Court.
She remembers shivering in the dock as she watched the trial happen around her. She can’t recall much about what was said, but she remembers a moment during her cross-examination.
Janet Skinner (sinistra) and Tracy Felstead outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Londra, ahead of their appeal against a conviction of theft, fraud and false accounting
‘They were saying: “Your signature is there. It’s your till. You’ve taken the money.” I said: “I went to the manager and explained, and I was told it would be OK.” But it didn’t seem like they wanted to listen.’ She was convicted by a majority verdict. ‘I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.’
Tracy wasn’t sentenced immediately. Because of her fragile mental state the judge wanted psychiatric reports. Her family were told if they paid the Post Office the ‘missing’ £11,503.28, a prison sentence was less likely. Between Tracy’s family and Jon’s parents they raised the money, and handed it over.
Tracy hit the roof. 'Ero come: “Why are you paying them something I haven’t taken?” I thought people would see it as a sign of guilt.’ At her sentencing, Tracy was told by the judge she was a liar, she had stolen money from pensioners and disgraced her family.
She was invited to apologise. She refused: ‘I’m not saying sorry for something I have not done.’
The judge decided this lack of remorse required a custodial sentence and sent her to prison for six months. Tracy’s father watched his daughter being led from the dock to the cells in handcuffs.
‘I was absolutely petrified,’ remembers Tracy. ‘My barrister came and saw me. Egli ha detto: “Something’s not right, but I don’t know how to prove it.” ’
Tracy was taken in an armoured van to Holloway where she was put on suicide watch and given medication to calm her down. ‘I was in a high-security prison at the age of 19. I walked in and . . . you’ve got to strip. You’ve got to be searched.’
She was brought before the prison governor. ‘He said to me: What are you doing here? A girl like you shouldn’t be here.” ’
She became even more desperate listening to the tales of prisoners who had murdered people. One afternoon, she walked into a cell to find the body of a girl who had hanged herself. She began to have nightmares. ‘There were fights — people screaming they’re going to kill someone,' lei dice.
Tracy spent three months in Holloway. On the day of her release, her fiancé Jon and her parents were waiting. ‘Jon gave me my engagement ring back and I put it on my finger. When I got home, ho detto: “Don’t close the door.” And still to this day I can’t have doors closed in my house because it takes me back to that sound of the prison door slamming.’
Tracy spent the next 20 years battling the mental health repercussions of her experience. Nel 2020, the Post Office admitted her prosecution was an abuse of process. L'anno seguente, the Court of Appeal ruled it was more than that. It was an affront to the entire justice system and should never have happened.
BUT at least Tracy survived. Martin Griffiths, a well-loved family man, did not. Nel 2008, he was running Hope Farm Road Subpost Office in Great Sutton, Cheshire.
He had been Subpostmaster there for 13 anni, while his wife Gina ran the retail side of their busy shop.
Martin was dedicated to his business — the first person to arrive and the last to leave. Martin and Gina built the business up and were doing well, taking home around £50,000 a year.
Nel 2009, the problems with Horizon began. Large discrepancies showed up on Martin’s computer screen.
First thousands, then tens of thousands of pounds went missing. Martin could not find out what was causing it.
Rather than declare a false balance, as other Subpostmasters had done in similar circumstances, he acknowledged his discrepancies to the Post Office. Their response was uncompromising: Horizon was functioning perfectly; Martin was not running his Post Office properly; he would have to make good his losses.
Which he did — by taking money from his savings. As Subpostmaster, Martin saw it as his responsibility to make good the discrepancies and discover their source. But the stress began to take its toll.
As Martin fought to make sense of the losses he could not explain, his state of mind started to deteriorate. Instead of coming back from a long day at work and being his normal garrulous self, he’d sit and brood in the family front room.
Nel 2011, Martin was audited. He had a £23,000 discrepancy. The Post Office suspended him. A temporary Subpostmaster was installed. This was another blow to Martin’s self-esteem.
After three months, he got his job back, but the losses continued to escalate, and Martin seemed unable to stop them.
Between January 2012 e ottobre 2013 another £57,000 went ‘missing’ from Hope Farm Road. Martin emptied the Griffiths’s savings accounts to make good the discrepancies, then turned to his parents, who gave him money from their life savings. It was swallowed up.
One day in May 2013, Martin opened the armoured door of his counter to hand over a large bag of parcels to a Royal Mail collection driver, when two balaclava-clad men burst in.
Martin tried to retreat behind the safety of the counter but one of the robbers brought the crowbar down hard on Martin’s hand and got into the secure area. He was told that if he didn’t hand over the contents of the safe he would be beaten to a pulp.
He complied. The robbers left with around £54,000 in cash.
Within days, one of the robbers was arrested and £15,000 in cash was returned to the Post Office.
But £39,000 remained unaccounted for. Interviewed by a Post Office investigator, Martin acknowledged his security door had been open —something a lot of subpostmasters did when handing over parcels for collection. But this was deemed a failure to secure his counter.
Non tanto dopo, he was sacked — on the grounds that he had failed to manage the discrepancies at his branch and still owed thousands of pounds to the Post Office. This was followed by a letter telling him he was being held responsible for £7,500 of the missing £39,000 stolen during the robbery. He was told to send the Post Office a cheque.
Martin was already broken. This was the final straw. One Monday morning in September 2013, he deliberately stepped into the path of an oncoming bus.
A note was found in which Martin apologised to Gina and his family and told them he loved them. He died in hospital three weeks later. The coroner at his inquest returned a verdict of suicide.
Adapted from The Great Post Office Scandal by Nick Wallis, published by Bath Publishing at £25. © Nick Wallis 2021 To order a copy for £22.50 (offerta valida fino a 28/11/21; Regno Unito P&P free), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.