Official hearing page

10 March 2022 – Carol Edmondson, Pauline Stonehouse, Marion Holmes and Sally Stringer

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(10.00 am)

Sir Wyn Williams: Good morning. This northern air is making my voice a bit flaky, so excuse me.

Ms Kennedy: Chair, our first witness today is Ms Carol Edmondson.

Sir Wyn Williams: Good morning, Ms Edmondson.

The Witness: Good morning.

Sir Wyn Williams: Over to you, Ms Kennedy.

Carol Edmondson


Questioned by Ms Kennedy

Ms Kennedy: Hello. As I think you know, my name is Ruth Kennedy and I ask questions on behalf of the Inquiry. Could you state your name, please?

Carol Edmondson: Carol Edmondson.

Ms Kennedy: Have you got a copy of your witness statement there?

Carol Edmondson: Yes, I have.

Ms Kennedy: I think it should be dated 8 January 2022; is that right?

Carol Edmondson: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: Is that your signature on page 12?

Carol Edmondson: Yes, it is.

Ms Kennedy: Have you read through this statement recently?

Carol Edmondson: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: Is it true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Carol Edmondson: It is.

Ms Kennedy: I’m going to start by asking a couple of introductory questions about you. How old are you now?

Carol Edmondson: I’m just turned 70 in December gone.

Ms Kennedy: Where did you grow up?

Carol Edmondson: I grew up in Golborne near Warrington, where I still live.

Ms Kennedy: What did you do after finishing school?

Carol Edmondson: I went to college and I studied accountancy and maths and then I got a job in a wages office of a local company that made seating for cinemas.

Ms Kennedy: When did you start working for the Post Office?

Carol Edmondson: After I had had my family, I got a part-time job in our local post office and that was in 1978. That was in the Wigan area, yes.

Ms Kennedy: How long did you work there part-time?

Carol Edmondson: I worked there until 1984 when I took my first post office on myself.

Ms Kennedy: Which post office did you decide to take on yourself?

Carol Edmondson: Well, even though I had been working in the very busy post office in Wigan, I thought it would be sort of better to start off smaller, so I took a rural office in the outskirts of Tarporley, Cheshire, a little place called Duddon.

Ms Kennedy: Why that shop specifically?

Carol Edmondson: Well, at the time, my husband was looking for a different vocation as well and the shop itself was – although in a village – was very busy. It was open from 6.00 in the morning until 6.00 at night, so he came into the business with me. I was the subpostmistress and he worked on the retail side of the shop.

Ms Kennedy: How did you like working for the Post Office then?

Carol Edmondson: Oh, it was fine. The people were lovely. The job was fine. I wouldn’t have gone into my own business if I hadn’t enjoyed working as a part-time assistant in Wigan. I wouldn’t have entertained that, but I took to the job so well and I enjoyed it so much, that’s why I ventured into my own business as a subpostmistress.

Ms Kennedy: How long did you run that particular post office for?

Carol Edmondson: From 1984 until 1988.

Ms Kennedy: Which post office did you go to next?

Carol Edmondson: I moved on then back towards – back in the Wigan area and I took a bigger post office then and I moved into St Helens, Robins Lane Post Office.

Ms Kennedy: Can you describe that business that you had at Robins Lane?

Carol Edmondson: It was very busy. It was a three counter position. Smaller retail side, no groceries and things like that, and no newspapers, but still very busy and we were kept – yes, it was a very busy time. We were kept going, so we kept busy.

Ms Kennedy: How many staff did you have?

Carol Edmondson: I had three staff on the post office side with me and one staff on the retail side as well.

Ms Kennedy: I think you say in your statement that Horizon came in during your time as subpostmistress at Robins Lane; is that right?

Carol Edmondson: It did.

Ms Kennedy: What computer system accounting did you use prior to Horizon coming in?

Carol Edmondson: Well, at first I used to just use a normal adding machine, like we all did, to add up all the pension dockets. It was pension books at that time. And then later on I purchased my own computer system, the Edward Jackson system for sub-post offices and I worked on that one.

Ms Kennedy: What training did you receive on Horizon when it was introduced?

Carol Edmondson: I remember going to a local hotel with some other subpostmasters and we had roughly around two and a half days.

Ms Kennedy: How useful did you find that training?

Carol Edmondson: The actual balancing side of the training was very lacking. The concentration was more on the running of the computer, how to install paper rolls, and things like that, you know, like the technical side of it, you could say. The actual training on the system itself was very lacking.

Ms Kennedy: How did you find Horizon to use in comparison to the previous systems?

Carol Edmondson: More complicated. I don’t think it had been designed by anyone that had stood behind a post office counter.

Ms Kennedy: How soon after the installation of Horizon did you start to notice shortfalls?

Carol Edmondson: Well, not very long into the system and, of course, with being new, I thought “Well, there’s something I’m doing wrong here”.

Ms Kennedy: What use, if any, would you make of the helpline?

Carol Edmondson: Very little use. We would ring for help Wednesday evenings, when I could see that things weren’t right, and it was as if you were just given a time slot because – I mean, little did we know there were so many people in the same boat. So they gave us a time slot of about five minutes and if it they couldn’t resolve it, which they couldn’t, then they left us to our own devices.

Ms Kennedy: What types of sums in terms of discrepancies or shortfalls did you start to notice?

Carol Edmondson: Some weeks I would be lucky and it wasn’t very much, say about £20, £30. Other weeks it would go into £100, £150. I could never – we would never know how much it was going to be.

Ms Kennedy: What would you do to correct the shortfalls, or to remove them from the system?

Carol Edmondson: We had to make them good, as was put down in – by the Post Office in the wording and when the Horizon System was put into operation. And shortfalls were to be made good.

Ms Kennedy: How much money do you estimate that you paid to the Post Office to make good those shortfalls?

Carol Edmondson: Over the term that it was in, until I managed to sell the office in 2010, I’ve assumed around £30,000.

Ms Kennedy: Was there anybody else that you reported your difficulties with Horizon to, other than the helpline?

Carol Edmondson: Well, at that time I was a Federation member and I went to Federation meetings and I used to voice the fact that I had had a bad balance the week before, or I was having bad balances and people would comment that they were the same, but we never found out, even in the Federation, a way of help.

Sir Wyn Williams: Were these meetings local Federation meetings, or area meetings, or even national meetings that you’re now talking about?

Carol Edmondson: They were local meetings and then we would move on then to area meetings as well.

Sir Wyn Williams: Thank you.

Carol Edmondson: Thank you.

Ms Kennedy: What was your experience of audits?

Carol Edmondson: Well, the auditors used to arrive before the post office opened and they used to go in with us as we unlocked and then they would take over and they would audit the office and, if there were any discrepancies, we weren’t allowed to audit then or look into the system ourselves. We just had to accept what the auditors found. If there was a discrepancy, of course, before they left we were expected to make that good.

Ms Kennedy: How did you feel treated by the auditors?

Carol Edmondson: Well, they weren’t helpful at all. If I asked them questions as to why the Horizon System was wanting, they didn’t answer any questions regarding that. They were only interested in what they found on the day in coming in, doing what they had to do and going.

Ms Kennedy: What other problems did you have with Horizon?

Carol Edmondson: One of the problems that I found was the issuing of foreign currency at that time. The Post Office were getting involved a lot more into issuing of foreign currency and the Horizon System just could not cope with that at all.

I knew if I had had transactions for foreign currency in that particular trading week, I knew on the Wednesday night that the system would be faulting and I would be probably down and having to put money in.

I would ring the helpline about it, I would enquire as to what the rate was for the currency involved at that time and I would recheck and recheck, but I always knew if I had done foreign currency transactions I would have a problem.

Ms Kennedy: You mentioned a moment ago that you sold your post office in 2010. Why did you decide to resign from your position?

Carol Edmondson: I couldn’t have carried on. I couldn’t have carried on. It was not sustainable. I was the main breadwinner by that time and the post office was not sustaining the family.

Ms Kennedy: Do you mean financially?

Carol Edmondson: Financially.

Ms Kennedy: I’m now going to ask you some questions about the impact that this has had on you. Other than the shortfalls, which I think you mentioned you put money into the post office to make good, what other financial impacts has this had on you?

Carol Edmondson: Well, I found that there were many weeks that I couldn’t take a wage for myself because, over the period of time, having to sustain putting the shortfalls – the shortages in, it was chipping away at any profit that had been made on the shop. Of course, I had wages to pay for the girls, but I couldn’t pay myself.

I was living with – my elderly father was living with me at the time and, unfortunately, there were times when regularly I had to go to him for help, which I didn’t like doing. It was embarrassing. At my time of life, I should have been helping him, not him resorting to having to help me to carry on.

Ms Kennedy: What impact did that have on your family?

Carol Edmondson: Well, of course, there was a spin off on my son and daughter who were still living with me then. It was just causing stress within the family. The fact that I was so worried about the situation all the time.

Ms Kennedy: What about the impact on your health?

Carol Edmondson: I became really, really stressed over the situation and I developed very bad IBS symptoms. Wednesday night I would – my stomach would be churning and, so much so, the pain that I – that was involved I finished up being sent to a consultant at Wigan Infirmary because it was suspected that it could possibly be other things. So after tests, and the results came back that it was chronic IBS, brought on by stress.

Ms Kennedy: What about the impact that all of this has had on your relationship with your husband?

Carol Edmondson: We separated three years into moving to Hindley.

Ms Kennedy: What would you like from the Post Office now?

Carol Edmondson: I would like recognition of the fact that this is just not a one-off situation, that there are other people, so many other subpostmasters who have experienced the same problems at the time, though we were all meant to believe that we were alone in this.

We were all led to believe it was just us, it was something we were doing wrong on a regular basis and it could not possibly be this infallible, super duper system that they had put in for us that was at fault.

I would like the recognition regarding that from the Post Office. I would like people to realise what subpostmasters have gone through and I would like the path of justice to be taken so that the truth will win out in the end for all those who have suffered. That’s all we’re asking for: the truth.

Ms Kennedy: Is there anything else you would like to say to the Chair?

Carol Edmondson: I would just like to say thanks for being able to give this witness statement. I would like to be able to move forward with justice and this is what we all look for. We don’t want anything else but for justice in this and the truth and so that every subpostmaster can be repaid what we rightfully deserve and what they have lost over time, and that’s all we’re asking.

Ms Kennedy: Thank you. I don’t have any more questions for you.

Chair, do you have any questions?

Questions From Sir Wyn Williams

Sir Wyn Williams: Just one. In your witness statement you mentioned that you took part in a mediation in 2013, but nothing came of that. Could you just tell me a bit about that process, please?

Carol Edmondson: Well, it was just an enquiry as to what had happened and how I had felt over the Horizon System and then it moved on to the Post Office just – just questions, similar to how the Horizon System had worked and the impact. It was just –

Sir Wyn Williams: But did it get to the point in time where, for example – not the point in time. Did it get to the point where, for example, you set out what losses you thought Horizon had caused you?

Carol Edmondson: No, I never got to that.

Sir Wyn Williams: You never got even to that point?

Carol Edmondson: I never got to that, no. I never got to that.

Sir Wyn Williams: Thank you very much.

Carol Edmondson: Thank you.

Sir Wyn Williams: Ms Edmondson, thank you very much for taking the time and trouble to come and give evidence to us this morning. Many people will have heard me thank people in your position for doing that and I extend my thanks personally to you.

Carol Edmondson: Thank you. Thank you, Sir Wyn.

Ms Kennedy: Chair, I think we’re now going to have some witness statement summaries read by Ms Patrick.

Sir Wyn Williams: Yes. Do you want us to disappear for a minute or two to get yourself ready, or are you actually ready, Ms Patrick?

Ms Patrick: (Inaudible).

Sir Wyn Williams: Fine, great. Thank you.

I think – in total, I think you have 15 summaries to read in, so in order to break up the process perhaps I would suggest that you read seven or eight of them and then I think it is your client who is giving evidence next, so we could take that evidence and see where we go from there.

Ms Patrick: Sir. Thank you for that guidance. My name is Angela Patrick, I read summaries on behalf of the clients represented as core participants in the Inquiry by Hudgell solicitors and the full statements, we understand, sir, are with the Inquiry and the summaries are only a brief snippet of their story and their experiences.

Sir Wyn Williams: Yes.

Ms Patrick: We start with a summary of the evidence of Mr Gregory Charles Harding.

Summary of witness statement of Gregory Harding

Summary of witness statement of GREGORY CHARLES HARDING.


Ms Patrick: Mr Harding and his wife bought the Hipperholme Post Office and he was subpostmaster there between 2004 and 2009. When Mr Harding noticed shortfalls they were small at first, perhaps five quid here or there. He was just topping up with his takings from the retail side of the business.

The shortfalls then increased to 10 quid here or there, which then increased further.

When the total shortfall reached £1,000, Mr Harding called the helpline. He says:

“They told me not to worry and that they would put it in the suspense account and allow me to balance.”

The following month Horizon was down £2,000. Mr Harding phoned the helpline again but this time they told him that he should pay this himself.

Mr Harding tried to keep the business going but the shortfalls continued to rise dramatically. He and his wife decided to remortgage the house with the hope of making some improvements to the home, but instead the majority of this money was used to meet shortfalls.

He subsequently remembers settling two further shortfalls of at least £2,500 each.

On 30 September 2009, an audit was conducted and it identified a shortfall in the region of £20,000. Following that audit, he was suspended. He says:

“I couldn’t believe it. I had to keep pinching myself. I told the auditors I hadn’t taken the money. It was beyond belief. I couldn’t even describe to anyone what it was really like.”

He says now:

“I still get stressed now thinking about it all. I’m used to that stress. I don’t class it as an illness. It was just part of my life and had become normal.”

He goes on to explain he was charged with theft following his suspension. He was interviewed on 6 October 2009 and there were two members of the National Federation of SubPostmasters present at the interview. Of the interview, he says:

“They tried to grind me down and trip me up, which they couldn’t because I was telling the truth. I had no idea where that money could have gone.”

Mr Harding recalls he received his court summons on his wife’s birthday. After his suspension, his former post office was ram raided and people locally thought he was responsible. He remembers they shouted at him saying “Haven’t you stolen enough?” He says it was horrible. He found himself constantly living with a bitter feeling and a feeling of “What have I done wrong?”

He says:

“I really didn’t know who I could trust. My mental health was really suffering at this time.”

Ultimately, he was offered a plea deal by the Post Office and, on the advice of his legal team, pleaded guilty and was given a suspended sentence and ordered to undertake 200 hours of unpaid work.

He had to sell the post office and the retail business to pay the shortfall prior to his conviction.

After a period of unemployment post-conviction, he secured a job doing welding and he felt doing this, he says, like he was a “fish out of water.” His reputation in the community was lost and he recalls, while shopping at the supermarket, he would be called names. He recalls people threw eggs at his car.

He wants the Inquiry to know that he and his wife are very close and helped each other through the tough times but he says:

“For a time after my conviction I struggled to enjoy family occasions like birthdays and Christmas. I didn’t feel happy.”

Revisiting that time for Mr Harding, he says, is still very difficult and he says he suffered from periods of depression. He wants to say to the Inquiry that he will never forget what happened to him and to his family.

Chair, next we have a summary of the evidence of Ms Alison Hall and Ms Hall is actually present here today – Sir Wyn.

Sir Wyn Williams: Don’t worry about me. Nice to see that you are present.

Summary of witness statement of Alison Hall

Summary of witness statement of ALISON HALL (read).

Ms Patrick: Alison Hall began working for the Post Office as a subpostmaster at the Hightown branch on 16 February 2005. In April 2010 she applied for and was approved to take over a second disused branch in Roberttown.

The plan had been for her daughter to run that branch with Ms Hall, splitting her time between the two. On 28 August 2010 Ms Hall had a visit from a member of staff from the Post Office, coming to update the Horizon System.

Ms Hall then told that agent she had received approximately 36 transaction correction slips and that the system was showing a shortfall of £13,000.

Ms Hall was relieved that someone had come who could help her to rectify the system. Instead Ms Hall was told to close the post office immediately. She was audited in September 2010 and suspended. She appealed her suspension but was terminated on Christmas Eve 2010. She was then summoned to appear at Batley and Dewsbury Magistrates’ Court charged with theft, and then to appear at the Leeds Crown Court.

Ms Hall says she had evidence to prove there was no shortfall and says she was frustrated and angry at every step because no one was prepared to look at her evidence.

At court Ms Hall was told that if she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge she would avoid prison. She felt pressure to accept the advice of her legal team. She pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of false accounting to avoid a full trial and the probability of a custodial sentence.

Ms Hall was ordered to perform 120 hours of community service. She was subject to a confiscation order for £14,842.57 and ordered to pay costs in the sum of £1,000.

Ms Hall’s conviction was overturned on 23 April 2021.

She no longer felt, following her conviction, that she could be an active member of her community. She withdrew from all community activities. She wants to say her daughter suffered financially too, as she was going to be running that new branch at Roberttown.

Ms Hall has suffered problems with her mental health because of this injustice and she has recently been assessed by a counsellor and recommended to have 15 sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy.

She adds that she had employed family members and friends to work in her post office and her shop. She was no longer able to work there and she could not keep all of her team working there as they had previously. She was forced to reduce hours or let people go. Relationships became very strained and this was extremely stressful. The experience changed who she was. She says this was very difficult. She wants the Inquiry to know, she says, she always felt as though she was:

“… an important member of our local community and enjoyed helping wherever possible.”

She adds:

“I had lived in the area for most of my life and spent the last – well, more than ten years actively participating in that community life.”

She goes on:

“My mother died in September 2020 and she died without knowing that I was not a criminal and that I had done nothing wrong.”

She wants the Inquiry to know:

“Nothing can undo what me and my family have been subjected to. I can only hope that this Inquiry makes findings and recommendations that are taken on board and organisations like the Post Office learn lessons to ensure that law abiding citizens, such as me, do not have to face such an injustice again.”

Sir Wyn Williams: Thank you.

Again, thank you for coming, Ms Hall.

Ms Patrick: Next, Chair, we move to a summary of the evidence of Mr Khayyam Ishaq.

Summary of witness statement of Khayyam Ishaq

Summary of witness statement of KHAYYAM ISHAQ (read).

Ms Patrick: Khayyam Ishaq began work as a subpostmaster of the Birkenshaw branch of the Post Office on 15 July 2008. His contract terminated on 14 February 2011.

He had a number of issues from the very start with Horizon. Each time he found an error or a shortfall he would contact the helpline to let them know. Each time he says he would have the amount taken out of his salary to cover the cost.

The Post Office undertook a formal audit on 8 February 2011. The shortfall amount identified was £21,168.64. Mr Ishaq disputed these figures. He was prosecuted by the Post Office for theft and he was told by his barrister he would be unable to raise Horizon in his defence. Mr Ishaq recalls the judge also told him Horizon could not be discussed.

Mr Ishaq felt he had no option other than to plead guilty.

On 22 April 2013 he was sentenced to 54 weeks immediate imprisonment for theft. By the time of his conviction he had not been able to pay back the shortfall. He was in Armley prison for three months. He says he knew he was in the same prison as rapists and murderers. He remembers feeling watched by other people and he says he did not know who they were, or why they were there.

In prison he saw acts of violence and did not sleep properly. He says:

“I did not know if I would wake up.”

His conviction was overturned on 23 April 2021.

Following his release, Mr Ishaq says he struggled to find work. He says:

“My whole personality changed as a result of my conviction.”

He says he has been diagnosed as suffering a depressive disorder and is told that it is likely to be something that will affect him for the rest of his life. He says publicity around his conviction brought shame on his family as a whole. Due to the stigma, he stopped going to pray and only prayed at home.

His children were aged 3, 5 and 7 at the time of his conviction and their family told them that he had just gone on holiday to protect them from the truth.

Mr Ishaq’s father became ill whilst he was in prison and had to have his leg amputated. Mr Ishaq says:

“I wasn’t there for him. I felt like I had let him down massively.”

He says his father took the conviction very hard as he was a religious man, and he passed away in 2018 before Mr Ishaq’s conviction was overturned.

Mr Ishaq also wants the Inquiry to know his brother gave up time and effort to help him and his family. He wants to say he will never be able to forgive the Post Office.

Next, we move to the summary of the evidence of Mr Nicholas Clark.

Summary of witness statement of Nicholas Clark

Summary of witness statement of NICHOLAS CLARK (read).

Ms Patrick: Before he became a subpostmaster Nicholas Clark had been a postman for ten years. His mum was the subpostmistress at Barrow-upon-Humber branch and he took on a role as a counter clerk. He and his mum ran the shop and the post office effectively together as partners. He became subpostmaster himself in November 2005.

He started to use the helpline less as time went by because they couldn’t help him resolve the issues he was experiencing. He did not continue to report shortfalls and accepted that as they happened he must make them good and he was under the belief they must be caused by human error.

Following an audit in March 2009, a shortfall in the sum of around £7,500 was found. During that audit he says he personally covered an estimated £4,500 shortfall.

He says he was told he was the only person they had ever come across who had had an issue with Horizon. Mr Clark suspected that there must have been an issue with the IT system and immediately pointed to the unreliability of Horizon. He says after the audit he burst into tears when he received a summons in the summer of 2009. He says “it felt surreal”.

He was charged with theft towards the end of that year and, prior to his trial, Mr Clark’s legal team informed him that the Post Office wanted to offer him a plea bargain. He was told theft would be dropped if he pleaded guilty to false accounting.

Having advised this would likely result in him being less likely to receive a custodial sentence, Mr Clark opted to plead guilty. It was a difficult decision at the time because he wanted to fight to prove his innocence but, at the same time, the hope of not going to prison was such that he really had no choice.

On 23 February 2010, he was given a six-month sentence, suspended for two years and 150 hours of community service. Since his conviction, Mr Clark has become a recluse and does not wish to be seen in the local community.

Whenever he goes out he ensures it is either at night when it is dark, or he goes to a different village or town so that he is not recognised. After his conviction, he visited his local GP as he was struggling with the repercussions of the negative and often inaccurate way he was being portrayed in the media and he was prescribed medication for anxiety.

Mr Clark says his mental health has been seriously impacted since his conviction. Prior to this, he was a fairly reserved person who sometimes lacked confidence, but he had a well paid job, with no significant history of mental health issues.

When Mr Clark first received his summons, he says he suffered suicidal thoughts and twice considered taking his own life. To this day, he still suffers from anxiety when appearing in his local community. He has been diagnosed with PTSD, severe depression and severe anxiety and it has been recommended that he undergo a course of counselling.

He would like the Inquiry to know his relationship with his brother has also deteriorated to the point they have not spoken since.

Mr Clark says he thought that he ruined everyone’s lives as well as his own.

The next statement is the summary of the statement of Mohammad Rasul.

Summary of witness statement of Mohammad Rasul

Summary of witness statement of MOHAMMAD RASUL (read).

Ms Patrick: Mohammad Rasul was born in Pakistan and emigrated to the UK in 1964. He married in 1977 and has three daughters and a son.

In 1985 he was offered the position of postal officer working behind a counter at the Post Office. In 1990 he moved from the counter to the back office.

In 1997 an area manager asked if he would like to run the local sub-post office. He became subpostmaster of the Tootal Drive Post Office in March 1997. He initially experienced some small, unexplained shortfalls, which he would cover with his own money, but by 2004 those shortfalls had grown much larger.

In late 2004, he experienced a large shortfall of around £12,000. He could not afford to pay this. He called the helpline but they were not helpful.

In March 2005 there was an audit carried out along with his area manager present. Mr Rasul was suspended on the spot and says he was shocked and horrified. He had been given the impression he was the only subpostmaster having issues with the Horizon System.

Mr Rasul approached his union, who we understand, to explain, was the National Federation of SubPostmasters, but he was told that if Horizon said the money was missing, then the money was missing.

He had to visit his GP as he was struggling to sleep due to the situation, and his ability to concentrate significantly declined. He says he found himself feeling worthless and hopeless and wishing he was dead.

Following a brief suspension, his contract was terminated and he was charged with theft and false accounting in 2006. He was summoned to Salford Magistrates’ Court in July 2006 and he pleaded not guilty, he says “as I had done nothing wrong”. His case was transferred to Manchester Crown Court and an initial hearing was adjourned on 8 May 2007, and he was charged with an additional 40 offences of theft and false accounting.

He wants the Inquiry to know he could not imagine having to leave his family and to go to prison. After receiving legal advice and an assessment from a psychologist, he decided to plead guilty to 22 counts of theft. He was sentenced at Manchester Crown Court and received 100-hour community service order, a three-month curfew and was required to wear an electronic tag and ordered to pay £500 in court costs.

He was also forced to pay all unexplained shortfalls back to the Post Office.

Mr Rasul wants to tell the Inquiry that he had to submit a request for his curfew hours to be varied as the curfew would have included the three months which coincided with Ramadan. This was agreed and varied to allow him to attend the mosque for prayer, but it meant that his curfew was then extended by a further three months.

In July 2007, Mr Rasul was diagnosed with depression and PTSD and, at worst, he felt feelings of suicide. He wants the Inquiry to know that thoughts of his family and his religion stopped him going through with that.

He says he felt constant guilt and if anything went wrong he immediately accepted responsibility. His sleep continued to be disturbed with vivid dreams and nightmares three or four times every month following his conviction.

As to financial impact, he was unable to obtain a loan, could not open a bank account and his insurance premiums increased.

He recounts one particular issue for the Inquiry. His curfew was due to be over on 19 February 2008. His father passed away on 13 February 2008. He was not able to see his father in the last hours of his life. He was also unable to arrange or to assist in arranging his burial. He will never forget this. It is still incredibly upsetting.

Mr Rasul talks about his wife and the impact upon her. He gives detail of some impacts on her health and Mr Rasul says that he believes that these impacts on her were due to the stress that she was under, all caused by his conviction. He says it was horrible having to tell his loved ones about the dreadful experiences he went through. He says his youngest daughter struggled at university because she was so worried about him and her mum while he was going through the court proceedings. He had to ask his eldest daughter to fund his youngest daughter’s law degree which he now carries tremendous guilt about.

Of his own health, he says in 2015 he had a triple heart bypass and he has also, since his conviction, developed asthma. In his view, he thinks these impacts were in part due to the stress of the situation with the Post Office.

Finally, Mr Rasul’s mum passed away in 2018 before he could tell her his conviction had been overturned. His conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal on 23 April 2021.

Next we move to a summary of the evidence of Mrs Jacqueline McDonald.

Summary of witness statement of Jacqueline McDonald

Summary of witness statement of JACQUELINE McDONALD (read).

Ms Patrick: Mrs McDonald was brought up in Preston but lived in America for 21 years. Her husband is a US citizen who worked for the military and Presidential Guard. She moved back to England with her family in 2005 and became subpostmistress of the Broughton Post Office in 2006.

She first experienced a shortfall on the Horizon System of 2,000 euros and was made to pay back that shortfall. This was after the installation of a second Horizon System at her branch.

Mrs McDonald says she would sometimes telephone the system helpline up to five times a week, but ultimately found this was unhelpful. The usual response she says was “it will work itself out”.

By the end of September 2008 Horizon was showing an excess cash amount at her branch of £50,000. Mrs McDonald was suspended following an audit on 1 October 2008 and she says she was relieved when auditors arrived because she thought they would help. She says “but then the mood quickly changed”.

Following the audit, Mrs McDonald was asked to repay a total of £93,947.93. Investigators attended and searched their home. She says this was horrible.

She attended an interview in October 2008. Her contract was terminated a month later and she describes being devastated.

Her husband and three children all worked in the shop so lost their livelihoods when it closed.

Mrs McDonald subsequently had to declare herself bankrupt, as did her husband. She was prosecuted for theft and false accounting.

Whilst waiting for her case to go to the Crown Court she experienced stress, anger and problems sleeping. She was terrified at the prospect of going to prison. She says:

“The Post Office just seemed focused on getting a conviction and did not even agree to a forensic accountant being instructed.”

Mrs McDonald attended the trial of another subpostmistress who had pleaded not guilty but who had been found guilty after trial and was sentenced to imprisonment. Mrs McDonald was deeply disturbed by that experience and so then pleaded guilty to theft and false accounting.

She says the whole situation significantly impacted her mental health and she did consider suicide at one stage. Mrs McDonald has now been diagnosed as having suffered with an adjustment disorder in the form of mixed anxiety and depression.

Following conviction, the Post Office commenced Proceeds of Crime Act proceedings. She says they took her car and, after a second hearing, it was agreed she could repay their debt to them for £1 as she was by then bankrupt.

In January 2011, Mrs McDonald was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, with the judge telling her that she “had breached the community and the Post Office’s trust”. She was shocked and couldn’t believe it. She describes being taken away from her family as the worst form of punishment. She says she never felt so lonely in her life. She tried to be brave but was petrified.

She spent parts of her imprisonment with violent offenders and says she witnessed fights. She was in prison for four and a half months and spent another four and a half months on curfew with a tag.

When she and her family decided to go back to America, her application for a green card was initially refused because of her conviction. The US Embassy allowed her second application but only on notice that she had to travel to America within a week.

She wants the Inquiry to know her first grandchild was born while she was in prison. Tragically, her daughter died in November 2011 and Mrs McDonald wants the Inquiry to know that she was unable to spend her daughter’s last birthday with her because she was in prison.

Whilst her conviction was quashed in April 2021, she says:

“I honestly don’t know if my family will ever be the same again. I know I certainly won’t be.”

Her relationship with her mum, her dad and her sister has never been the same. On returning to England and the prospect of doing so, Mrs McDonald states:

“The thought of going back to England makes me feel sick because every time I have to come back to the States I have been taken into the interrogation room because my conviction is attached to my passport.”

Sir Wyn Williams: Ms Patrick, will you read two more and then we will give your voice a rest.

Ms Patrick: Sir, I’m very sure everybody will be, by that time, very full of hearing from me.

Sir Wyn Williams: That’s fine.

Ms Patrick: We next move to a summary of the evidence of Abiodun Omotoso.

Summary of witness statement of Abiodun Omotoso

Summary of witness statement of ABIODUN OMOTOSO (read).

Ms Patrick: Before working for the Post Office Abiodun Omotoso was a management consultant. He has an economics degree and began working as a subpostmaster at the Walsworth Post Office at around August 2005.

On 26 October 2006 the branch was audited and £50,000 was alleged to have been short. He had always paid smaller shortfalls when they were worth £40 or £50 but as they got larger, he could not afford to pay and so rolled it over. He was spending hours counting money and, at the end, the figure was still not right.

Mr Omotoso says:

“During this time my mood was very low and I even contemplated taking my own life. I was ashamed and angry.”

He says investigators visited his house but he refused to let them search his house. He says he was told that if he tried to get a solicitor they would make things difficult for him. He says investigators even tried to speak to his neighbours to ask them questions about him. He says of this:

“I felt degraded.”

He attended his interview with the Post Office without legal representation. He says he was informed that if he was to comply then everything would be fine. He had no idea others were going through the same things as him. His contract was terminated and he was charged with theft.

Mr Omotoso says:

“I was told that if I complied I would ‘get a slap on the wrist’.”

However, he told them he was not pleading guilty for something he did not do. On 28 August 2008, he was found guilty of theft at Luton Crown Court. He was sentenced to 28 months in prison, which was a complete shock to him. He says:

“It was heartbreaking to lose everything.”

At his sentencing, the judge accused him, he says, of trying to malign the integrity of professionals. He wants the Inquiry to know his health has suffered massively in prison, where his eyesight deteriorated and his blood pressure shot up. He says he has been diagnosed since with adjustment disorder, mixed anxiety and depressed mood. He has been told that his glaucoma, hypertension and diabetes may have been caused by prolonged acute stress.

His wife left him when he was in prison and they’re now divorced.

Following his conviction, he was prevented from seeing his children. This absolutely devastated him. He had been a very hands-on father, doing school runs and accompanying both children on sporting activities. He says not being able to do this “broke my heart”.

He says that before his conviction he used to go out of his way to help people in the community but he says “now the local community is wary of me”. He says “They think I am a thief”.

Mr Omotoso says:

“To think people thought these things about me brought me deep shame.”

Before his conviction he had been asked to consider becoming a school governor. This was no longer an option afterwards. He was subject to a confiscation order to pay back the entire shortfall of over £50,000. He was forced to sell the family home, his business and to declare bankruptcy.

He found it difficult to get another job following conviction and he says he suffered terribly financially.

He says now he feels vindicated but he wants the Inquiry to know, he says:

“I will have to live with this harrowing experience forever.”

Chair, we move finally to the statement – the summary of the statement of Mr Ian Warren.

Summary of witness statement of Ian Warren

Summary of witness statement of IAN WARREN (read).

Ms Patrick: Ian Warren qualified as a chartered accountant in the early 1970s and he had worked as a financial controller and he had also worked in management.

In 2004, after the death of his father, this presented an opportunity for him to reappraise his career. He and his partner bought a village shop with a post office branch in a village they both loved. He began work as a subpostmaster of the St James’ Street branch in Essex in October 2004.

Shortly after taking over, he was trying to balance the account and could not get the figures to match. The figure was short by £1,800. He called the helpline who wrote this off as “human error” as he was new.

It happened again several months later with a figure of around £2,400. He had to repay this from his salary.

The Post Office never explained why this happened.

In 2007, an error appeared on Horizon with a shortfall of £17,500. It disappeared the next morning.

He contacted the helpline and they told him to keep an eye on it. He made various requests through the helpline and the area manager for more training but says these fell on deaf ears. He says it was infuriating.

In April 2008 he was audited. He says he was more than happy to allow them to conduct an audit. It was discovered there was a shortfall of £24,520.45 and it was later said he owed £18,412.50.

Of the investigation, Mr Warren says investigators arrived at the house and treated him like a criminal. He felt they had already made their minds up. He agreed to them searching his house but he said he felt so degraded. He was suspended on the same day and the Post Office sought to prosecute him for theft and false accounting. His contract was terminated on 4 June 2008 but it took effect earlier, from April of that year.

A restraining order was placed on his assets and he paid back the shortfall with an inheritance. He pleaded guilty to theft after being informed if he did so he may avoid a custodial sentence. He wants the Inquiry to know he was particularly concerned he may receive a higher sentence because he was a qualified accountant.

He felt like he was committing perjury when he pleaded guilty. He had to go on to notify the Institute of Chartered Accountants and he was stripped of his membership. This conviction prevented him from reverting to that old career.

He was sentenced to nine months imprisonment, suspended for 18 months and was subject to a community service order of 75 hours.

He became depressed and has since taken various anti-depressants. He had a previous diagnosis of alcohol abuse, which worsened with stress and being charged with an offence, he says “charged with an offence I knew I had not committed”.

There was a newspaper article about him published in 2009 and he had to sell papers in his shop which labelled him as a criminal and he says “This was so hurtful”.

He wants the Inquiry to know he is particularly concerned that he is no longer able to practice as an accountant. He no longer has a problem with alcohol. After his conviction he required therapy. After his conviction he did what he could to advise local people and local organisations that he had been wronged. He told them he would be challenging the outcome. However, he says he found this very draining, both emotionally and physically.

In 2014 he was diagnosed with bowel cancer and after several months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy this resulted in the need for a stoma and catheterisation. He thinks the stress of the Post Office scandal has contributed to his health outcomes.

He wants the Inquiry to know he remains in a state of disbelief at what happened and for the events for which he was not responsible.

Sir Wyn Williams: Thank you very much.

Ms Patrick: Thank you, Chair.

Sir Wyn Williams: So I think we will have a shortish break and then we will hear the two next witnesses back-to-back so to speak, yes? Fine.

(11.02 am)

(Short Break)

(11.16 am)

Ms Kennedy: Chair, our next witness is Mrs Pauline Stonehouse.

Pauline Stonehouse


Questioned by Ms Kennedy

Ms Kennedy: My name is Ruth Kennedy and I ask questions on behalf of the Inquiry.

Could you confirm your name, please?

Pauline Stonehouse: Yes, Pauline Ann Stonehouse.

Ms Kennedy: Have you got a copy of your witness statement there?

Pauline Stonehouse: I have, yes.

Ms Kennedy: I think it should be dated 13 January 2022?

Pauline Stonehouse: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: Is that your signature on page 9, the last page of the statement?

Pauline Stonehouse: It is, yes.

Ms Kennedy: Have you read this statement through recently?

Pauline Stonehouse: I have.

Ms Kennedy: Is it true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Pauline Stonehouse: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: I’m going to start by asking you a couple of introductory questions about you. How old are you now?

Pauline Stonehouse: 49.

Ms Kennedy: How long have you been married?

Pauline Stonehouse: This year it will be 28 years.

Ms Kennedy: How many children do you have?

Pauline Stonehouse: Two.

Ms Kennedy: When did you start working for the Post Office?

Pauline Stonehouse: I first started working for them – oh, God, 1993-ish. I think before me and Chris got married. We first met, I think I was still with him, worked for a franchise Post Office for Ryman stationers. Started off in their Holborn branch, not far from the Chancery law courts and then moved around a bit to various other branches and ultimately ended up as branch manager of lower Regent Street, a busy six counter office.

Ms Kennedy: What role did you start in initially?

Pauline Stonehouse: Just started off as a counter assistant.

Ms Kennedy: Why did you want to then become a subpostmistress?

Pauline Stonehouse: We moved from London up to Sunderland. I had left the Post Office there because I felt I couldn’t go any further and took a job temporarily with the London Underground. That didn’t work out for me as my health at the time wasn’t too great, with ladies’ problems, and I got dismissed before my yearly contract was up for renewal and, because of those consequences, we could no longer keep our house in London.

So we chose to relocate back to Sunderland where my husband is from and, at that point, our daughter was 11 months old and we got about – she was about three, I suppose. I saw a job advertised for a small post office inside a small convenience store, took that on, got back into it, really enjoyed myself, moved there – from there, a short while later, to another small post office, and then it was while I was there that we came up with the idea of starting a business of our own.

We toyed with a few ideas and we decided to go down the post office retail route. We searched a few and then decided upon the one that we eventually purchased.

Ms Kennedy: Which one was that?

Pauline Stonehouse: That was Seaburn Post Office in Sunderland.

Ms Kennedy: I think you say in your statement that was around November 2004 –

Pauline Stonehouse: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: – would that be about right? How much did you pay for that?

Pauline Stonehouse: I think we paid 80,000 for the business as a whole.

Ms Kennedy: Can you just describe in a bit more detail that business?

Pauline Stonehouse: It was an old-style post office counter, so behind glass at the back, when we first purchased it, with a retail unit at the front that sold sweets, candy, rock, usual typical seaside little store, off licence, that sort of thing. We did then put new tills in, we put a slush machine in, put different things in and it was a good little business.

Ms Kennedy: How many staff did you have?

Pauline Stonehouse: Me, Chris and two or three – three others.

Ms Kennedy: How did you feel about becoming a subpostmistress and working for the Post Office at that time?

Pauline Stonehouse: I was excited. It was a new challenge, more responsibility. I felt like I was ready for that. Yes, excited, definitely the word.

Ms Kennedy: What training did you receive on Horizon?

Pauline Stonehouse: The previous post office I worked in had Horizon and I think I was given basic training there, not on the balancing side of things, that was somebody else’s job to do that, but basic counter – you know, and my own stock then at the end of the week, but not as in office balance. It wasn’t until, obviously, we got our own that then it became more involved.

Ms Kennedy: When you took over your own what training did you receive then?

Pauline Stonehouse: Next to nothing. They just presumed I knew what I was doing. I think it was a short – short instructions. It might have been a day, probably, if that, to show me how to balance and I was just left to my own devices.

Ms Kennedy: How did you find balancing on Horizon?

Pauline Stonehouse: Initially it was fine. I had no problems while it was still the old-style counter. And then the Post Office requested, almost demanded, that we change the style of counter to an open, shared-usage, out-of-hours counter, so it had the shop till as well as the Post Office till side by side, and you would use that the majority of the time. So in the day there wasn’t really any set hours. You still had a back small, little counter where the safe was, but then you had a RollerCash safe at the front. Once that was installed, then the balancing started going wrong, from that point onwards.

Ms Kennedy: How long was that after you took over your own, just roughly?

Pauline Stonehouse: Youngest daughter was born 2006, so it was while that was being installed – it wasn’t long after that that I discovered I was pregnant after five hard years of trying for a second child, and it was – it was while I was pregnant. So it would have been 2005 that the issues started happening, as in the bigger differences.

Ms Kennedy: What were those issues or bigger differences?

Pauline Stonehouse: It would have been – whereas before you would have had shortages before, it would have been 5, 10 – you expect small, small shortages, but when that got put in it was 100, 200, 300, and it just kept on mounting up and up, and it was going out of the shop till. And you were fine at first but it was coming to a Wednesday night and I would still be there 10 o’clock in the evening searching through everything, counting everything back and never finding it.

Ms Kennedy: How did that make you feel?

Pauline Stonehouse: Frustrated, incompetent, like I didn’t know what I was doing. Sought help and didn’t get any satisfaction from them.

Ms Kennedy: Did you make use of the helpline?

Pauline Stonehouse: Yes, jokingly, laughingly, yes. They weren’t very helpful. It was always “Oh, it will” – you know, “a transaction correction will come back”, and it never did. They always reassured – working in previous post offices, it had happened, you would get shortages and they would come back. It may take a couple of weeks but they would come back. But none of mine ever did, none of them ever came back.

Ms Kennedy: What did you do in order to get these shortfalls or discrepancies to go away?

Pauline Stonehouse: Initially, it was putting money in from our own shop takings and they would go in, and it was getting to the point where it was just too much money. There’s no way you can run a business and be taking out of your till every week £200 or £300. You add that up over a month, that’s a lot of money that’s not going into my bank account, that’s not buying more stock, that’s not feeding my children.

Ms Kennedy: I think you say in your statement you spoke to a Post Office business manager around 29 May 2007; is that right?

Pauline Stonehouse: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: What did you say to that person?

Pauline Stonehouse: I was – it was at a meeting in the hotel just down the road. It was like a monthly – it may not have been monthly. It was just a meeting that had been arranged for postmasters and I basically told her that, over the last period of time, I had been showing the figures as being correct when they weren’t because I could no longer keep the money – no, put the money in, and I told her how stressed out I was over it, and she says, “You do know that I will have to suspend you”. And I said “I understand that”, I said – you know, “until I investigate”. And then the following morning – I think it was the following morning, the auditors came in and basically threw me out.

Ms Kennedy: How did you feel at that time before the audit?

Pauline Stonehouse: Worried, but I honestly thought they would find something to find the money, to find where it had gone. They’re meant to be the experts and they’re supposed to know what they’re doing and they would find where my problems arised, but they didn’t. They just ended up showing more money than what I expected.

Ms Kennedy: When you spoke to the Post Office business manager what did you expect her to say?

Pauline Stonehouse: I don’t know, to be honest. I think reassurance that they could solve the problem, the fact that I had sought out their help previously, the fact that they sent a trainer in and they confirmed that everything I was doing was correct and that I was an experienced postmistress and that I was doing nothing wrong. So if I was doing everything correctly then how could I be having all of these shortages and there was no explanation for that.

Ms Kennedy: What was the alleged shortfall at that time, do you remember, roughly?

Pauline Stonehouse: I think – initially, I think I thought it was about 14,000 but I think when the audit was done it was over 15.

Ms Kennedy: What were the auditors like?

Pauline Stonehouse: I honestly can’t remember. I think it was two men, I think, but I honestly don’t remember. I think I was in shock and denial, I think, that they were there, and once they were there they told me – they basically grabbed my keys off me and that was it, I was no longer allowed access to the post office.

Ms Kennedy: I think a week later in your statement you say you were then interviewed by the Post Office; is that right?

Pauline Stonehouse: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: Who were you interviewed by?

Pauline Stonehouse: It was a woman, that’s all I can tell you. I don’t remember her name. It was just a woman, as part of the Post Office investigation team. I think my husband informed me it was in Gateshead, I think, not that I remember that. I could have sworn it was somewhere else, but I could be anywhere. And I was there for hours, hours, and hours, and hours, and she kept repeating the same questions all the time.

Ms Kennedy: What were those questions?

Pauline Stonehouse: Always “What have you done with the money? Are you sure you haven’t stolen it?” And I said “If I had stolen the money, why would I be seeking your help, why would I be asking all the questions of the helpline, why would I be pleading if I was stealing the money? I would be trying to hide my misdoings, not confessing to them. So, yes, I had false accounted but there’s no way I would have stolen it”.

And then she went on from there then to try to accuse my husband of taking it instead and lying to me and taking – she said the shop couldn’t have been doing well and how do I know he wasn’t taking the money to inflate the shop till. I said, “Well, he wouldn’t do that”, but she kept on going on about that as well.

Ms Kennedy: What representation or support did you have at that interview?

Pauline Stonehouse: I think I took a member of the Federation with me, I think. But I honestly can’t remember his name either. I think I had – I had somebody with me definitely. It wasn’t a solicitor or anything like that.

Ms Kennedy: How did you feel after that interview?

Pauline Stonehouse: Shocked, more than anything, at the way I had been treated. I felt like I was – they made me feel like I was some master criminal and, to quote the words that she said, “I have to prosecute you to set an example so others – so others won’t do it because you are essentially the first”, which obviously we now know that was a complete pack of lies.

Ms Kennedy: What were you charged with at that interview?

Pauline Stonehouse: I was charged with false accounting. It went on to be six counts of false accounting.

Ms Kennedy: What did you plead?

Pauline Stonehouse: I pled guilty.

Ms Kennedy: Why did you plead guilty?

Pauline Stonehouse: I felt like I had no choice. I think I was fearful of going to prison. I was made to feel like it was the only option. My eldest daughter was only, at the time, eight coming up to nine, youngest daughter was only two. I wasn’t going to leave them. I couldn’t have coped without my girls.

Ms Kennedy: What were you sentenced to?

Pauline Stonehouse: A six-month suspended sentence.

Ms Kennedy: How did that feel?

Pauline Stonehouse: Awful, because they made me feel – like I said before, like I was some horrible, master criminal and I had done nothing wrong, apart from probably being slightly naive and not understanding the full consequences of my actions but I felt like I had no other choice.

Ms Kennedy: Your conviction was recently overturned; is that right?

Pauline Stonehouse: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: I’m going to now ask you some questions about the impact that all of this has had on you. What happened to you financially as a result of all of this?

Pauline Stonehouse: We had to declare ourselves bankrupt, so we lost our business. We could no longer pay the mortgage. So we lost our home too. Luckily – I mean, the mortgage company went after us to get us out of the house but we had to go to – we had to go to court and the judge, luckily, wouldn’t grant them permission to throw us out. He gave us time to find somewhere else, with the children being still small.

Sir Wyn Williams: When you say “we”, do I take it both your husband and you declared bankruptcy?

Pauline Stonehouse: Yes, we both went bankrupt, yes. It was a joint business, so we were both as much impacted.

Ms Kennedy: Who did you ask for financial help?

Pauline Stonehouse: We’re lucky that we have both got good parents. My parents were able to help out with bits and bobs. I think, once we did get rehomed, my father paid for flooring. We had no flooring – we had no carpet on the floor for, oh, a good three/four months. I’m asthmatic, I’ve got eczema, I can’t cope with all that dust. My father said – he used to call me “Chick”, he said “Come on Chick”, he says “I’ll buy you the floor”, and I’m like, “No, Dad, you can’t do that”. He says “No, I’m not having you ill, either, I will buy you the floor”, and he paid for the flooring for us.

It was little things like that, and without them I don’t know how we would have coped. Even buying us groceries and we didn’t know what else to do.

Ms Kennedy: I think you mention in your statement your husband got another job.

Pauline Stonehouse: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: What was that?

Pauline Stonehouse: He trained to be a bus driver for Go North East. Within two weeks, I think it was, of the bankruptcy he managed to find a job.

Ms Kennedy: You mention in your statement that your story was covered in the local paper; is that right?

Pauline Stonehouse: Mm-hm.

Ms Kennedy: Could you tell us a bit about that?

Pauline Stonehouse: They caught me leaving the court at Newcastle Crown Court. Never spoke to me but they tried to speak to me but I refused to speak. But they caught my picture, took my picture and put it on the front page of the Sunderland Echo, “Local postmistress charged and found guilty of false accounting”, and gave numerous details about myself and my family, and it was horrible.

Ms Kennedy: How did it feel to see yourself on the front page of a newspaper?

Pauline Stonehouse: Awful because people – people read a story and they judge you accordingly, and no one knew the story. My friends did and my family did, yes, but not anybody else who would have known me through coming into the shop. Ex-customers, and so on, will look at that and be judge, jury and executioner, wouldn’t they, and they basically just presume that what’s reported in that paper was correct.

Ms Kennedy: Did you feel an impact on your reputation in the community because of that?

Pauline Stonehouse: Not really, nothing was ever said to my face. I think I shied away from going out as much. It was taking the girls to school and back home again, or being with my parents, but I was never – I never went down the seafront to where the shop was for ages. Chris never went down there for a good six, seven years. He refused to even walk past the shop. It was too hurtful for us.

Ms Kennedy: What was the impact of all of this on your husband?

Pauline Stonehouse: It’s hard to say. He is a quiet man. He speaks when he has to. But yes, it hurt him as well. It knocked his confidence just as much as mine. I think the fact that we’ve got each other was enough to get us through but it hurt us both so much.

Ms Kennedy: Did it impact on your marriage as well?

Pauline Stonehouse: No. Luckily, we have a really strong marriage. I think the accusations that the investigators threw at him was enough to make me question him myself, and I mulled over it for a couple of days and, eventually, I asked the question “Did you steal the money?” and I knew he didn’t, but they put so much doubt into my mind, that I knew I hadn’t took it and, if I hadn’t took it, then who did? And if it wasn’t the computer thing and it was theft, then who else do you blame, apart from your own member of staff.

And that could have ended my marriage. But, luckily, we’re strong and, as I said, this year is 28 years marriage. We have been together 30 and I don’t know what I would do without him.

Ms Kennedy: What about the impact on your children? Did you feel it had an impact on them or your relationship with them?

Pauline Stonehouse: The youngest one, no. She was too young to know what was going on. It’s only in the last – it was since November when the conviction was overturned that she is old enough now at 15 to understand and ask questions and ask questions she did. God, did she ask questions! And I think she was very understanding and I was more worried about, with it being raised in the paper again and me being on the local news, that it would have some impact on her, in case anybody said anything to her and it didn’t, thankfully.

As for the oldest one, so 2008 she would have been coming up to nine. We had to move her school, so she lost her friends and that had a big impact. I don’t remember her being an anxious child before that. She was quite confident. After that, I think it did knock her, having to move and lose everything really, lose our home and lose her friends and have to restart in a new school and be bullied and picked on because she was the new girl, and I don’t think she ever recovered from that, I don’t think, to be honest.

Ms Kennedy: What would you like from the Post Office now?

Pauline Stonehouse: I would like somebody to hold their hands up and say “I’m sorry”. Someone has had to have made – whoever that first person was that made that decision has ruined so many lives and that person had a knock-on effect to everybody else’s decisions after that, and someone’s got to be held accountable for that, someone has to be.

I mean, an apology is never going to be enough. Compensation is never going to be enough because none of us are ever going to get over this, ever. But somebody has to be held accountable.

Ms Kennedy: Is there anything else you would like to say to the Chair?

Pauline Stonehouse: No. I had written something on my phone on the way down here in the car and I had a cry reading it to my husband reading it out. It is fine typing something but, once you read it out you get overly emotional. But, no, I think we have covered most of that in our – in talking to you here.

What I would like to say is I used to be such a really confident woman and I never expected my life to take the turn it did and, since all this has happened, I have lost both my parents, my father through cancer, my mother through a heart attack, so they never saw me have my name cleared. And then, since then, gone on to be diagnosed with breast cancer. It has been three years, and I’m alive to tell the tale and that was life altering in itself, but what the Post Office did, no, I will never forget that.

I will never forget what they did to me and my family and the rest of us as well. So yes, I hope that all of us postmasters and branch managers, whoever else has been affected by this, get the compensation and the rightful acknowledgement that we’re all innocent and that we need something done and be held accountable for it.

And thank you for listening to me.

Thank you, Sir Wyn.

Sir Wyn Williams: Well, thank you for coming. It is very difficult to sit there and do what you have done, so thank you very much.

Pauline Stonehouse: You’re welcome.

Sir Wyn Williams: Thank you for introducing me to your husband.

Pauline Stonehouse: He is my rock.

Ms Kennedy: Thank you, Chair. Our next witness is Ms Marion Holmes.

Sir Wyn Williams: All right. Take your time, there’s no rush.


Ms Kennedy: Sorry. Yes, our next witness is Mrs Marion Holmes.

Marion Holmes


Questioned by Ms Kennedy

Sir Wyn Williams: Mrs Holmes, before Ms Kennedy asks you questions, I can see you’ve got a photograph and I can suspect who it is, so will you show us, please?

Thank you.

Ms Kennedy: My name is Ruth Kennedy and I ask questions on behalf of the Inquiry. Could you confirm your full name please?

Marion Holmes: Marion Holmes.

Ms Kennedy: Have you got – I think you’ve got two witness statements. Have you got a copy of both of those there?

Marion Holmes: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: Looking first at the first statement, I think it should be dated 8 February 2022; is that right?

Marion Holmes: That’s correct.

Ms Kennedy: If you turn to the last page, which I think is page 11, is that your signature?

Marion Holmes: That’s my signature.

Ms Kennedy: Have you read there you this statement recently?

Marion Holmes: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: Is it true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Marion Holmes: Yes. The only slight difference is at one point it says the – his conviction was on the front page of the paper and it wasn’t, it was further inside but other than that I think it’s right.

Ms Kennedy: Thank you. Turning then to your second statement, it is dated 8 March 2022?

Marion Holmes: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: It runs to two pages?

Marion Holmes: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: Is that your signature there?

Marion Holmes: That is.

Ms Kennedy: Have you read through this recently?

Marion Holmes: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: Is it true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Marion Holmes: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: I’m going to ask a couple of introductory questions about you. How old are you now?

Marion Holmes: Still 79.

Ms Kennedy: You talk in your statement about your late husband. What was his name?

Marion Holmes: Peter Anthony Holmes.

Ms Kennedy: How long were you married before he died?

Marion Holmes: 50 – nearly 52 years.

Ms Kennedy: How many children do you have?

Marion Holmes: Three.

Ms Kennedy: What jobs did Peter have before he became a subpostmaster and went on to work for the Post Office?

Marion Holmes: He was a policeman for 12 years and then we went his parent’s hotel, when they retired, and we were there for nearly 20 years and then he went in to be a subpostmaster for – I don’t – I can’t remember when he came out of being a subpostmaster, when we sold it, but then he went as relief postmaster when people went on holiday or when the Post Office wanted somebody to run an office. And then he was offered – in 1996, he was offered a job as manager of the Jesmond Post Office.

Ms Kennedy: Where was the hotel that he ran for many years?

Marion Holmes: It was in Jesmond where he had grown up. We say a hotel, it started off as a family house they took paying guests in and it increased, as most of the hotels do.

Ms Kennedy: Why did he want to work for the Post Office?

Marion Holmes: When we came out of the hotel – I mean he had been self-employed for best part of his working life, so he wanted to be self-employed but he also wanted to make sure that there was a steady income and in the hotel we had always – I mean, we say we ran it, but basically people came and stayed with us. So we were involved with the people and he wanted to continue that and in a post office you are, you’re very much involved with the people. And so I think that was probably the biggest motivation for taking a post office as opposed to anything else.

Ms Kennedy: When Horizon was introduced he was already working in Jesmond; is that right?

Marion Holmes: Yes.

Ms Kennedy: Do you know what training he received at that time?

Marion Holmes: According to his letter, he had two days, which he wrote and said was not adequate and nobody really knew what they were talking about.

Ms Kennedy: You have mentioned a letter, could you just explain a bit about that?

Marion Holmes: Yes, I came across a letter that Peter wrote in 1999, where he points out that the training that he got wasn’t accurate – wasn’t any good. There’s two different kinds of post office, there’s the sub-post offices but then there’s the Crown Offices, and a lot of the work that was done was on what a subpostmaster would never come across, but Crown Offices would, but they lumped it all together. So, obviously, the training was biased towards the Crown Offices and I think he states that it didn’t touch on how to balance, which is a major part of the post office and, really, when he asked questions, nobody knew what the answers were. He felt as if the trainers were training as they went along.

Ms Kennedy: Do you remember him talking about how he found using Horizon at the time?

Marion Holmes: Not really, because I had just set up my own business. For the first time in our lives, you know, we were running separate businesses, so yes, he – I remember him coming home – I think it was the second day, I think it was a short – he was home earlier than we had expected, and he says “Oh”, he says “It’s not – none of them know what they’re doing”. It had been a waste – and this must have been when the Horizon System was actually on trial because I think it didn’t actually go into live stream until into the 19 – 2000s, yes – I get mixed up. Yes.

Ms Kennedy: Did he ever talk to you about noticing shortfalls or discrepancies?

Marion Holmes: No, no.

Ms Kennedy: Do you know what he would do, did he ever tell you about what he would do when he noticed shortfalls or discrepancies?

Marion Holmes: Yes. It is hard to remember what he told me at the time and what I have found out after we had got into the process of, you know, after he had been sacked, but – I did know that when he had his own post office they had a system and I went with him to the – we did a day’s interview, I think, and I – before he got a post office and I went with him and the one thing I can remember them saying was “Any shortfalls you are responsible for”.

So Peter had a separate account which he had kept and if the weekend balance said £50 down, then he would put it in out of that account because he knew that maybe in two weeks’ time that would come back. And, evidently, he was waiting for error notices to come back, but I didn’t know this until afterwards.

Ms Kennedy: You mention in your statement that Peter’s post office was subjected to an audit, I think in 2008. Do you remember what they found?

Marion Holmes: Yes. They found that there was 46,000, so many hundred and so many pence short. Again, you know, I knew nothing of it until he came to the shop and called me out and said “I have just been kicked out of the post office”, and that was – yeah.

Ms Kennedy: How did that make you feel?

Marion Holmes: Dazed. You know, and I – yes, my assistant said “Look, Marion, get yourself home, you’re needed more at home than you are here”. So she took over the shop, cancelled the class that I was supposed to be taking that night, but we always thought that, well, he was innocent so, you know, I don’t think we really believed.

And I remember the next day I came back from – I used to keep a lot of spare equipment in the garage and I came back and the door was unlocked, and I said, “Oh, where’s your car”, and he said, “Oh, they have brought me home”. I said “Who”, and he said “Oh, they’re upstairs”, and three of the Post Office people had come to the – brought him home and were going through everything in his office. And Peter, being Peter, had said “Anybody fancy a brew?” which was his first words, whether it was a workman or anything, you know, “Anybody fancy a brew?”

“No”. He said “I’m going to have one”. So one of them came down and watched him in case he went and found some money and hid it, and I think that was when – I was on the stairs, and I said “They don’t seriously think you took that money?” and he said, “Yeah, they do”. Yes, and they did.

Ms Kennedy: How did it feel to have people like that in your home?

Marion Holmes: Awful. You know, you just can’t – you can’t comprehend it because, again, you know, the last person who would ever take anything was Peter, you know. It wasn’t – I remember – I mean, we were in Lincoln once and we had all gone out for a carvery and there was a mix-up in the bill. When we got back Peter realised that they had missed one of the meals off. He drove 20 minutes back to that pub and paid them, you know. That’s somebody who would take money from his own post office? But they believed him.

Ms Kennedy: What did they accuse him of doing? What crime?

Marion Holmes: To start with, it was theft of 46,000 and it wasn’t, you know, “Have you taken it?” but “What have you done with it?” Nobody said “Have you taken it?” They said “What have you done with it?” There was his – he worked for the father and the two sons, and there were the three of them and the three Post Office, evidently, in the room.

Fortunately, I heard a lot of them were taken to the police station. Peter wasn’t, he was taken to the Khans’ house and all they kept saying was “Have you bought this, have you bought that? What have you done with it? Where is the money?” It must have been awful, you know.

Ms Kennedy: What was he convicted of, I think you say, in the beginning of 2010?

Marion Holmes: Yes. I think it was December 2009. We had two appearances at the Crown Court and at the first one we were called in to the barrister’s office before and he said, “Oh, the Post Office have said if you admit false accounting we will drop the theft charge”. Well, as an ex-policeman, a 67-year old with diabetes, he did not want to go to the prison. I mean, he knew what ex-policemen’s lives were like if it they ever went into prison and naively, unfortunately, we were – we didn’t think if he pleaded guilty to false accounting – plus, as he said, he knew he had because the advice was always “Well, if you balance up, it will right itself”, so you write in a false number. That’s the way the system was taught. So that’s what he did.

So he knew, basically, yes, once you have done that you have false accounted, but one of the problems was that balances were always on the Wednesday and pension day and benefits day was on a Thursday. Well, if you didn’t balance, you couldn’t open the post office, so you had to balance, so the advice was balance it and it will sort itself out, and it didn’t.

Ms Kennedy: What sentence did he receive?

Marion Holmes: Three months curfew. He was supposed to be tagged but as one of our friends who had been a probation officer, he spoke to the defence barrister – the prosecuting barrister, sorry, and he had said “It’s the first time I have been in court when the prosecuting barrister, the judge and the defence barrister are all on the same side”. The judge – he basically said “I’ve got to give you a sentence”, and that was – he didn’t want to give him community service, so he tagged him for three months curfew for – from 7 o’clock at night until 7.00 the next morning. But they never did put a tag on him. They just trusted him to do it and he did.

Ms Kennedy: What was that curfew like? How did you find it?

Marion Holmes: It was difficult. I mean one of the first problems was that the first meeting we went to for the JFSA was in Bedford, and so Peter said to Alan Bates, “If I come down, can I see somebody straightaway because I can just about get from Newcastle to Bedford, see somebody and get back within the 12 hours that I’m allowed”, and, you know, things like that.

Friday night, we used to go and deliver – I did wedding cakes as part of my business, so we would deliver them on a Friday night, and then stop for a meal and spend the profit on the way back and we couldn’t do that, you know. There was lots of little – my youngest daughter was going visiting universities but, if Peter took her, he had to make sure that he could get back for 7 o’clock.

Yes, little things, you know, compared with what a lot of them did. We were lucky, but it was – it was things that just sort of impact on your life that you don’t realise, until you have lost your freedom, what it’s like to be able to come and go as you want.

Ms Kennedy: How was Peter after his conviction?

Marion Holmes: When you live with somebody as long as that – I mean, nothing happened overnight and, really, it was only when you’re looking back. I would think a simple way of saying it was he shut down. I was – I took on extra work so that we could keep our heads above the water, so really we didn’t see much of each other. I mean, three days a week I was going out at 8.00 in the morning and coming back at 10 o’clock at night and, really, he had nothing to do but sit around.

So, yes, I – it was only when he died and most of the letters that I got said “The thing I will miss is his sense of humour”, and I said to my daughter, I said “The sad thing is, I had forgotten he had got one”, and that really sums up what happened to him.

Ms Kennedy: You have mentioned your cake shop business, which you owned at the time that Peter was being investigated and I think you mention in your statement that you paid money into a joint account. Could you tell us a bit about that?

Marion Holmes: Yes, I mean it was a perfect storm. The way my business worked, I banked – I think it was Santander and I could pay as many cheques in – it was before the days of cards. Very few people used cards and I could pay as many cheques in as I wanted free of charge, but cash I could only pay a certain amount in and then I got charged. So we would put the cash into the joint account. Our accountant just took the whole lot and sorted it out at the end. And it was just unfortunate that almost the exact amount that went in in that year was the amount that went missing from the Post Office.

And, of course, Peter was one that he was always, always, early for anywhere, so when he was at work he was there by the time the shop – the post office was in the back of a Medicentre, so he was there when Sunil came to open up and he was in and he got everything sorted out, including paying my money into the bank, because of – Barclays bank with the post office, so he could do it there and then, all paid in, everything out, “Right, I’m ready for starting”.

And afterwards they said that that was why he had gone in early, was to pinch money.

Looked at from the outside, yes, you can see where they were coming from, but it was just the way he worked and it was just what he was like, you know. He knew that – he did a lot of foreign currency, so he knew that once – there was a travel agent in the street and so he knew once that door opened, it was heads down and often he didn’t look up until the door closed. So, you know, he was ready for it, but no, that was why he went in early, was to pinch money.

Ms Kennedy: You mention in your statement that his conviction was overturned after he died; is that right?

How does it feel to know that he wouldn’t get to see that?

Marion Holmes: Bitter sweet. I never thought I would become a campaigner, but once he had died I thought “There’s nothing I’m going to stop until everybody gets what they want, what they deserve”. And, yes, it – my son took me down – I shall be forever grateful that he took me down to London because I don’t think I would have gone on my own, but it was lovely just to hear somebody say “He is innocent”. But I just wish he had – he will know one day.

Ms Kennedy: I’m going to ask you some questions about the impact that all of this has had on you. In your statement you mention the loss of his salary. Is there anything else you wanted to mention in terms of the financial impact that you have suffered?

Marion Holmes: No. I mean, as I say, the one thing I could do extra was teaching and it was the one profitable bit of my business, so we were lucky because (a) we were on a – the end of our mortgage and it was an interest-only mortgage, so it actually matured just after Peter died. So I was then able to sell the house, buy a small bungalow, take equity out, and that’s what I’m living on now. I couldn’t have done it in the house but I was able to do it by selling down.

And, other than that, it’s really – well, you just think about everything you spend, you know. Can I afford this? Can I afford that? It’s something that is permanently on your mind, but, as I say, we didn’t go under. We didn’t lose our house. We were lucky. Lots of them weren’t.

Ms Kennedy: You mention in your statement that Peter’s story was covered in the local press. Can you just tell us a bit about that?

Marion Holmes: I think that was the bit that hurt him most because a friend rang us up the following day and said – I mean, one of our friends who had had a son who was killed in a car accident, and she said “Beware of doorstep press”. And Peter said “Right” – well, the doorbell went, Helen answered it, and she said “Oh, Dad, it’s for you”. You know, you think you’re ready and you’re not. And this person who was obviously press and said, you know, could he speak to him, and he said no. And our next door neighbour said “You realise when that person was at your door, there was somebody across the road taking a photograph”

So the next morning, friends said “Have you seen the Journal this morning?” and there is a big – awful photograph of Peter, with a full page “Ex-policeman guilty of false accounting”, and a full page about it, and I think that was the bit that really hurt him and he always said, really, all he wanted was his name cleared and an article in the paper the size of the one when he was convicted. And bless them, Sam Stein and crew, I just – throwaway remark, but they arranged for the paper to come down and his name has been cleared in the local paper, which was what he wanted.

Ms Kennedy: What impact did that have on his reputation in the community?

Marion Holmes: The people who knew us – and a lot of people who he hadn’t seen and had forgotten about, you know, ex-colleagues from the Police Force, got in touch and said “This is wrong, there’s no way you have stolen any money”. I mean, they all knew he was the last person to ever steal money. How many people thought that there was no smoke without fire, I don’t know. They’re the ones you never know but, certainly, the people that we knew, nobody even began to believe that he was guilty.

Ms Kennedy: You mention in your statement that he wanted to volunteer for Daft as a Brush, a charity. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Marion Holmes: Yes, I mean, it’s a charity that somebody set up and they go around and pick anybody up that’s going for chemotherapy to the local hospital and they have these blue vans with the yellow brushes all over. Daft as a Brush. Where the name came from, but it’s lovely, and they’re run by volunteer drivers with a volunteer helper, and they will take somebody to chemo and sit with them, if they want, and then bring them home. And he said, you know – the one thing he loved was driving and it was the one job he could have done was driving for that, and he said “I can’t because I will have to do a CRB check and they will find out I’ve got a conviction”, so he never even did that.

Ms Kennedy: Do you know how that made him feel?

Marion Holmes: Yes, he felt helpless and hopeless, you know, and worthless, I suppose, because – I mean the only thing that kept him going, really, was the JFSA because it was something he could get involved in. Other than that, he had nothing. I mean, his love was driving. Well, you can’t drive without money. He had to sell his beloved Subaru, his Scooby, and that was it, yes.

Ms Kennedy: What was the impact of all of this on his health?

Marion Holmes: Well, it didn’t do it any good. I mean, he died of a brain tumour, and there’s a lot of experiments, a lot of statements done, a lot of work done saying that stress is a big part of cancer. It’s easy – how long is a piece of string? We don’t know why he got cancer of the brain but it certainly didn’t help him and, yes, it – we used to tease him that he hasn’t got two legs, he’s got four wheels. But I think because we couldn’t go out, he hadn’t anything to do, so he did just sit around and, yes, it didn’t do his health any good whatsoever.

I mean he had been diabetic since he was 27 – 27, yes, but he had lived with that and lived with it well, but you get to your 70s and you think, well, is it just old age creeping in or is there something wrong. Yes, it’s difficult to quantify really.

Ms Kennedy: What about the impact on your health?

Marion Holmes: Well, again I had to have a mastectomy eight years ago. Again, some studies say stress causes that, but I – I’m a Yorkshire girl and a Yorkshire farmer’s daughter and I suppose our ethos is, well, you just keep going and yes, I have come through it. Just.

Ms Kennedy: Was there an impact on your marriage?

Marion Holmes: Yes. I mean, I think – I was thinking the other day and, really, you know, you start off married life and then the children come along and then when they have gone you join together. We never got that last bit. It just – we just chugged along together and, yes, we – I mean, I didn’t retire until 2012 and he died in 2015 and, in that time, basically, we had no money to do anything anyway, you know. You have lost a lot of life that you don’t realise at the time, until you look back and see what you have gone along, yeah.

Ms Kennedy: Did it have an impact on your children?

Marion Holmes: They had to go to work – the two older ones were at work. They had both left home, but they had to go to work the next day knowing that their father’s picture – and Pete was always – it wasn’t as if they didn’t know who was – I mean, Fiona was married, so she didn’t have the name Holmes, but people knew that he was her dad because he was always involved in their life.

Helen, the younger one, she was actually sitting an A-level exam the day he was convicted, or a AS-level or something, and she was hoping to go on to go to university, although as a mature student, and she said she wasn’t going because we couldn’t – she would have to get – she was going to get a job to help support us.

And we had a big job persuading her to go, but she went. She went to Huddersfield but, bless her, every Friday night she drove home and she worked as a dog groomer on a Saturday and a kennel maid on a Sunday and she drove back so that she could support herself, because we weren’t able to, and she nearly didn’t – she is now a successful pharmacist but she very nearly wasn’t.

Ms Kennedy: What would you like from the Post Office now?

Marion Holmes: Fairness, you know. I want them to acknowledge what they have done. They’re still fighting it. They’re not – they’re not now, you know, accepting that what they did was so wrong and I think that’s mostly what I want.

Ms Kennedy: Is there anything else you would like to say to the Chair?

Marion Holmes: I’m on my soap box now. I mean, one of the things I would like is everybody, whether it is Post Office, Fujitsu or the Government, that either had a hand in this or knew about it, to be made to sit in a room and see all these witness statements. They’re harrowing and, maybe at the end of that, they will realise that we weren’t just subpostmasters, we were people whose lives they actually devastated and there’s nothing that can really bring that back.

They say they’re sorry. Words are cheap. We couldn’t stand up in court and say “I’m ever so sorry” and then walk out and carry on as if nothing had happened. We had consequences to pay and so should anybody who was involved in this, you know. It was awful.

The other thing they say was, “Well, everybody is getting compensation”; they’re not. They’re still fighting compensation. You know, they have hired a top law firm and they have – if Mr Loophole isn’t one of them, he is a very close cousin, because they are looking into every single thing, every single case. They’re doing basically what the Post Office are very good at: spending money, other people’s money, to try and dig themselves out of a hole.

I think I heard one lady say that she had been turned down because it wasn’t the Horizon System. I was turned down because I hadn’t got the right probate. The JFSA are turned down, they’re frightened that the backers will want more money. They’re just finding loopholes. I mean, it’s – I think David said it was 1 September 2021 that they put my application for compensation in.

It’s now March and they keep saying, oh, yes, I can get it. Bless David, he – they only said that I could have compensation because he said I was coming here today and I would be talking about it and, suddenly, oh, I’m getting compensation. But that was two weeks, nearly three weeks ago, and I still – you know, they’re just fighting it and they shouldn’t be, you know.

We shouldn’t have to apply for compensation. The problem at the beginning was we had no money to fight them, it was this great big wall and we had got no money to fight them, so they just thought that they could walk all over us.

I remember James Hartley saying, when we were going for joint litigation, and he said the advantage of it being a public company, although they deny it is a public company, is that we can get backers because they can’t go bust. The disadvantage is they’ve got a bottomless pit to pay with and we haven’t, and they knew that and they priced us out of court then.

And, you know, I have been lucky. I don’t know whether everybody has, but David and his colleagues from Howe & Co are doing this, what is it called, pro bono, but we shouldn’t – because we couldn’t even apply for compensation if we didn’t have any money. We shouldn’t have to do that, you know. That’s – the Post Office should – they blithely say, “Oh, yes everybody is getting compensation”, but they’re not and I think, you know, everybody should immediately get a temporary – you know, I have forgotten the word. What’s compensation, is it, we’re getting before they send it out, before they decide –

Sir Wyn Williams: Do you mean interim compensation?

Marion Holmes: Interim, thank you very much. I have lost my words.

Sir Wyn Williams: Don’t worry –

Marion Holmes: Interim compensation, yes. Because we’re all getting old. I mean, I was in my 60s and working when this started. I’m 80 next month and a widow, and there’s more people like them and, really, you know, it’s as David said, we have to be like Oliver Twist, keep asking for this and asking for that. We have proved that we were right and they were wrong and we shouldn’t have to keep fighting for them.

Compensation won’t take away what’s happened, but at least it will help us pay our bills, you know. There’s energy bills and everything, and I just look at – I saw a bit of a clip of a thing that Peter made, a programme that Peter made and it started off with one of the early JFSA meetings and I just thought, you know, I have just seen most of those people. Those people have aged more than ten years in the last ten years. They all looked so young compared with what they do now and it’s because we have spent our time battling, and we’re all tired of it, you know. Yes.

The other thing I want to know is why they did it. Was it because they wanted to make more profit? I mean, I came – we used to drive down to Warwickshire and you’ve got four hours in the car coming home, we used to, you know, go over what we had talked about and there was one week I said “Do you know, I think it’s a bit of a conspiracy”, because it was at a time when they were trying to close post offices down and there were protests from everybody.

But there was – I think at that particular meeting there were two, if not three, people who said that they had actually found a buyer for their post office, but they were turned down by the Post Office as being unsuitable. One even had his own post office already but he was classed as unsuitable. Now, it is easy to say, “Oh, well you have lost your village post office, it’s not our fault, postmaster was pinching money and we can’t get anybody else to run it”. You know, or was it because they wanted to show profit and therefore it was – helped their bonuses?

I don’t know but I want to know why they did it because they knew, and Peter’s letter proves that they knew, so why did they keep on doing it? Why did they not stop?

I think – I hope I haven’t left anything out, but I think, apart from saying – I mean, there’s a lot of people helped me on my way. They all know who they are and I thank them greatly. David is here and David and co are here today and, without them, I wouldn’t be here, but also I would like to say thank you, Sir Wyn, because I feel that you’re not just listening to us, you’re hearing us and that makes a big difference.

Sir Wyn Williams: I’m supposed to say thank you to you, it’s the other way around. So thank you for coming. Thank you for explaining your own experiences but, perhaps mostly, thank you for being such an effective advocate on behalf of your late husband.

Right, we’re going to take a five-minute break. Then I’m going to invite Ms Patrick to read a few more statements, she has got her hand up, and then at around 12.45, we will have lunch, and then we will have our final witness at about 1.30, if that’s all right with everyone. Thank you very much.

(12.20 pm)

(Short Break)

(12.29 pm)

Sir Wyn Williams: By the machine in front of me it is – well, let’s go by the clock. It is nearly 12.30, and by the machine. So we will stop again at 12.45. Don’t rush it, just do as many as you can in that period, okay.

Ms Patrick: Thank you, Chair.

I will continue reading the summaries of the evidence of statements by Core Participants who are represented by Hudgells Solicitors.

I begin with a summary of the evidence of Mr Malcolm Watkins.

Summary of witness statement of Malcolm Watkins

Summary of witness statement of MALCOLM WATKINS (read).

Ms Patrick: Mr Watkins was appointed as subpostmaster of the Great Gransden branch in St Neots in December 2000.

He first experienced small shortfalls such as £60 or £65 and he would pay the shortfalls from his own pocket. He accepted that there was always going to be some element of shortfalls.

An audit occurred on 12 September 2003 and he was advised that £65,000 was missing. He tried to tell the auditor that there must be something wrong with the system. A couple of weeks later he was told that there had been a mistake and the shortfall was actually £50,000.

After the shortfall was alleged, his area manager arrived. He suspended Mr Watkins and took all the money and anything of value. He was charged with theft.

He pleaded guilty. His contract was terminated and he paid the value of the shortfall shortly afterwards. He was sentenced to an 18-month prison sentence, suspended for 18 months.

Mr Watkins was told by a solicitor that to stay out of prison he had to bite the bullet and pay the money back and put the shortages down to his lack of experience. He then instructed a different solicitor and they told him the same thing.

He was also told this by the National Federation of SubPostmasters.

To repay the shortfall, Mr Watkins had to remortgage his home. His payments went up. He suffered anxiety and depression. When he was prosecuted, he felt alone because no one believed him and everyone assumed he was guilty.

He told his wife that he had thought about killing himself. There were occasions when he wanted to end it and says he was in a “horrendously dark place”.

As a result of the events with the Post Office he suffered anxiety and depression and took anti-depressants. He tried and struggled to sleep.

After his conviction was publicised in the press his family experienced abuse. He says he went from being totally mortgage free to being on a debt management plan. The situation led to his divorce.

He wants the Inquiry to know he went from being respected in the community to being a social outcast.

On 19 July 2021 his conviction was overturned. He says:

“I was put through hell and I did nothing, absolutely nothing wrong.”

He feels the Post Office employees were blinkered and he wants to say to the Inquiry:

“They thought because [he] earned money and drove a nice car it must come from the money I had taken. It never occurred to them that I worked seven days a week and started at 5.00 am in the morning.”

He says to the Inquiry he cannot put a price on his life being destroyed.

Next we turn to a summary of the evidence of Mr Tahir Mahmood.

Summary of witness statement of Tahir Mahmood

Summary of witness statement of TAHIR MAHMOOD (read).

Ms Patrick: Mr Mahmood is married and a father of four. He was appointed subpostmaster at the Ten Acre branch in Selly Oak in May 1999. He liked the idea of serving the community.

After Horizon was installed in 2000, he received about two weeks’ very basic training. During that training, a shortfall of around £4,000 to £6,000 was showing on Horizon. The trainer told him to put it in a suspense account and this would eventually correct itself.

Mr Mahmood says of the helpline, “it was very unhelpful”. They indicated to him that the system was not at fault and that the shortfall would eventually resolve itself. He was eventually forced to pay the shortfall in full.

He tells the Inquiry that he experienced two robberies at the branch, which saw him and his sister both held at gunpoint. Throughout 2003 and 2004 shortfalls continued to occur, but the levels were increasing. He continued to put his own cash in to pay shortfalls but, by January 2005, Horizon was showing a shortfall of approximately £25,000.

He says “I knew I needed help”, and he asked his father to help pay. This really hurt Mr Mahmood because he did not want to tell his family and he did not want to let them down.

On 30 April he was audited. The shortfall was around £33,000 and the Post Office investigators interviewed him. He recalls an investigator saying things like “You’re a criminal, this was a criminal act and you took that money”. He says of that day:

“I was so ashamed when I went home. I broke down and told my family about what happened. I felt like I had let them down. I also felt like I had let my community down. It was one of the worst days of my life.”

He was interviewed again on 3 May 2005 with a representative from the National Federation of SubPostmasters who was not very helpful. Investigators suggested he was the only person to have experienced problems with Horizon.

When the Post Office demanded payment of the shortfall, he didn’t have the money to pay. On 18 July 2005 he pleaded not guilty to false accounting. On transfer to Birmingham Crown Court and on legal advice, he pleaded guilty in order to avoid a custodial sentence.

At the time, he had two young children and his wife was pregnant.

Mr Mahmood was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment and spent time at Winson Green and Sudbury prisons. He did not expect a custodial sentence and had attended court without his diabetes medication.

Of Winson Green prison, he says:

“You were kept in your cell for most of the day and only allowed out to shower in the morning, to eat and for very short exercise breaks.”

He refused his wife and children requests to visit him as he was ashamed. His third child was born while he was in prison and he wants the Inquiry to know this left him absolutely devastated.

He was released in February 2006 and wore a tag for another six months.

Once prospective employees find out about his conviction, they no longer wish to employ him. The family home was sold because he could no longer afford to pay the mortgage. He sold the post office branch at a loss of around £35,000. He and his family were homeless and had to rely on homeless hostels for around eight months.

His parents returned to Pakistan and his brother and sister moved away because he could no longer afford to support them.

Mr Mahmood is currently unemployed and reliant on benefits. He wants the Inquiry to know about the impact within his wider family. At family gatherings he would hear people gossipping about him and staring at him. He found this difficult as he thought some of them may have believed he did take the money.

He had not previously told his children about his conviction and only told them following its quashing by the Court of Appeal. Mr Mahmood says:

“Nothing can undo what I have been subjected to and the impact that this has had upon myself and my family.”

Next we turn to the summary of the evidence of Mr John Armstrong.

Summary of witness statement of John Armstrong

Summary of witness statement of JOHN ARMSTRONG (read).

Ms Patrick: In 1996 Mr Armstrong bought Weston Post Office and became subpostmaster there. He then later purchased Woolston Post Office in February 2003. He had been encouraged to buy Woolston by the Post Office, which he felt demonstrated that the management had confidence in his ability to increase its business successfully.

For a short period he was running both post offices. When shortfalls started appearing, the help desk told him how to adjust the shortfall and told him it would work itself out the next day. It never did.

This had also happened previously at the Weston branch. At that time he repaid a shortfall of approximately £3,000.

By the time the auditors visited his second branch, the shortfalls had risen to almost £10,000. Two auditors visited the Woolston branch on 28 June 2004, very early in the morning, at 8.10. He told them they would find a £10,000 shortfall. He was suspended on 28 June 2005. He was told he would have to pay the shortfall after the audit. This left him with no option but to sell the post office, as he had no funds elsewhere. He repaid the entire shortfall of around £10,000 and also £2,000 in costs.

On 30 June 2005 he was interviewed and accused of misusing his finances by having large boats and cars, of which he says “This was all incorrect and quite upsetting”. He was charged with theft and, on advice from his barrister, reluctantly agreed to plead guilty in order to secure a lesser sentence. He could not risk going to prison. He was sentenced at Southampton Crown Court on 19 May 2006, given 200 hours of community service and paid costs in the region of £2,000.

His conviction was overturned on 19 July 2021.

Of the impact upon him, Mr Armstrong says he has been recently seen by a psychologist who recommended psychological support. He says that after his conviction he became an introvert. He wouldn’t speak to anyone, he wouldn’t trust anyone. It was very lonely and he became, as he puts it, “completely the opposite to the extrovert I used to be”. He said:

“I had never had a problem speaking in public before.”

And during a previous marriage he had even been a district and a parish councillor. He said he would also swim, training youngsters at a local swimming club. He wants the Inquiry to know that he still now finds it difficult to have conversations with strangers. He says:

“Thankfully, my wife stood by me.”

It devastates him to think about the effect this has had on his wife. He said she became depressed and that their lives are very different now. He describes being exonerated as wonderful but he wants an explanation. He wants to tell the Inquiry he can’t remember what it feels like to be normal, although he tries. He does not think anything will erase the stress of the past few years.

Sir Wyn Williams: I think we’re quite close to 12.45, so you’ve got four summaries left?

Ms Patrick: Yes, sir.

Sir Wyn Williams: Were you intending to be here this afternoon? I’m not asking you to be, just –

Ms Patrick: No, sir, I’m very much intending to stay to the end of the day.

Sir Wyn Williams: Right, well, if you’re doing that and you don’t mind doing it, what I suggest is we start again at 1.30 with the witness and, depending how long that witness takes, there may be time for you to finish. But, as it happens, I do have to finish earlier than normal today, so there’s an outside chance that you would be left hanging over and then you would come to London next week, yes? Are you happy with that?

Ms Patrick: Sir, that is perfect – as I understand it, we have other summaries to read in London, in any event, so I think that if we keep to a timetable that’s appropriate for you and for the Inquiry …

Sir Wyn Williams: Well, as I say, if we have time this afternoon, we will hear you, since you’re good enough to stay, but otherwise it will be London next week.

Fine, great. See you at 1.30.

(12.44 pm)

(The luncheon adjournment)

(1.30 pm)

Ms Hodge: Good afternoon, sir. Our final witness for today is Mrs Sally Stringer.

Sir Wyn Williams: Yes.

Sally Stringer


Questioned by Ms Hodge

Ms Hodge: Mrs Stringer, as you know, my name is Catriona Hodge and I ask questions on behalf of the Inquiry. Please can you state your full name?

Sally Stringer: Sally Mary Kathleen Stringer.

Ms Hodge: Thank you. You made a witness statement on 1 February of this year; is that right?

Sally Stringer: That’s correct.

Ms Hodge: Do you have a copy of that before you?

Sally Stringer: I do.

Ms Hodge: Can I ask you please to turn to the final page of your statement. Can you see your signature there?

Sally Stringer: That’s correct.

Ms Hodge: Have you had a chance to re-read this statement since you made it –

Sally Stringer: Yes.

Ms Hodge: – at the beginning of February? Is its content true to the best of your –

Sally Stringer: It is, but I would just like to make a few corrections and it is my fault for not spotting them earlier, but having re-read and re-read, and I was – so may I, sir, ask –

Sir Wyn Williams: Of course.

Sally Stringer: Point 2, the year should be 2021, not 2020.

Sir Wyn Williams: Fine.

Sally Stringer: Point 48, it should add 2021, after the audits of 2012.

Sir Wyn Williams: Yes.

Sally Stringer: Point 94, it should be 2013 not 2016.

Sir Wyn Williams: Yes.

Sally Stringer: Point 120, it should have “after 4 January 2021”.

And 136 should delete “Post Office Limited”. It should just be “the group litigants”.

Sir Wyn Williams: Yes.

Ms Hodge: Is your statement of 1 February otherwise true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Sally Stringer: Yes. Sorry.

Ms Hodge: Not at all, thank you.

I’m going to begin, Mrs Stringer, by asking you a few questions about your background. Are you married?

Sally Stringer: Yes, I am.

Ms Hodge: For how long have you been married?

Sally Stringer: A long time. 30-plus years.

Ms Hodge: You currently live in Lincolnshire?

Sally Stringer: Correct.

Ms Hodge: When did you move there?

Sally Stringer: I beg your pardon?

Ms Hodge: When did you move there?

Sally Stringer: January last year, January 2021.

Ms Hodge: Before working in the Post Office you worked in the travel and airline industry; is that right?

Sally Stringer: Yes. I had a variety of jobs. I was a nurse and then I worked in the airline business. I worked in the wine trade for ten years and then in 1994 I got breast cancer, and I was 38 then, and we made a decision that we would buy a business and if I died it gave my husband something to fall back on.

So we bought a deli in Cheltenham with a short seven-year lease that was very successful. I had my chemotherapy and we worked hard at making that business work and then in 1995 my dear mother died, which wasn’t conducive to, you know, good health, but that’s how it was.

And our lease expired in 2002, so we thought we would move. We sold our house and moved to buy a trusted brand of a post office and village shop.

Ms Hodge: You have mentioned a trusted brand, what attracted you to working for the Post Office?

Sally Stringer: Post Office, in my mind then, was a trusted brand. I had a savings book when I was a child, which was always something that, you know, you would take to your post office, they would write down how much you’ve got saved. It’s something a generation doesn’t do any more, but it was always there for communities too and it seemed to be, you know, quite a nice idea to have a village shop with a community around it and that’s where we were at that particular time.

Ms Hodge: You have mentioned that you ran several businesses before you took on a post office and you worked in the wine trade. When you were doing that, who was responsible for managing the accounts?

Sally Stringer: I was. I managed two shops with a substantial income going through the company every week and, of course, large stocks held on shelves. We had stocktaking every month, which I had to be accountable for, and I carried a large staff with me as well. So, you know, it was very much a hands on, trust your staff – if they did something wrong, they were fired. But it was an interesting business to be in at the time.

Ms Hodge: You have mentioned a date of 2002. Is that when you applied to become a subpostmistress?

Sally Stringer: Yes, that’s when I suddenly realised – we had sold our house in Cheltenham in the January of 2002 and we had seen the post office and shop – it was a rundown post office and shop and we had expressed an interest in that, so when our house had been sold, we moved in with my mother-in-law because that sold quite quickly and then one had to apply to the Post Office for an interview.

We started that process in February 2002 and it took them until June – well, May, because when I finally got an interview, I had to actually go through the process and I got an interview in Chippenham on 21 May 2002, but my area manager was too busy to interview me on that day, so I was interviewed by his boss, which is fine.

We got confirmation a week later that the appointment was fine and we actually moved into the shop on 30 June 2002.

Ms Hodge: Where was the shop located?

Sally Stringer: It was in a little village between Cheltenham and Evesham, a little village called Beckford.

Ms Hodge: Can you describe the village, please?

Sally Stringer: Yes, in those days it was mainly farming community, farm workers who lived in tied cottages. The rich and affluent lived in their bit and the poor lived in their bit, but the twain always got on. They were never in each other’s pockets, per se. Things changed as the years went on but it was a small community which helped each other.

Ms Hodge: You have mentioned selling your home before moving. Is that how you purchased –

Sally Stringer: Yes.

Ms Hodge: – how you funded the purchase?

Sally Stringer: We sold our home and we took out a small business loan to top that up because we knew we had to buy stock and we wanted to change the rundown shop to have a deli counter, and bits and pieces, and the post office cage was alongside, then, our deli counter.

Ms Hodge: Please can you describe the property that you purchased?

Sally Stringer: Yes. It was a large village shop with a post office. The flat was above it. We had a three-bedroom flat above it, and it was actually attached to another house, which was separate from our business and in the courtyard we had an old stable block which we converted into holiday cottages, eventually, which, during the last few years was our saving grace, except for COVID, but I mean that moves on 20 years. But yes, we had plans to do all sorts of different things.

Ms Hodge: How did the business perform in the first few years?

Sally Stringer: It was fine. We had a – we had a great shop community and we actually won rural retailer of the year in 2005, which was quite prestigious. It was a prestigious award to have at that time for supplying local goods and dealing with local suppliers, et cetera, and the shop – we kept independent until 2012, when we needed to go into a brand, because retailing changes and you have to adapt retailing to change with the way things progress through the years.

And so in 2012 – 13 I think, we joined Londis as a brand but, prior to that, we stayed fairly independent.

Ms Hodge: What salary did you receive from the Post Office for your work as a subpostmistress?

Sally Stringer: Yes, they’re interesting, they paid me – I was earning, when I was in the wine trade, about £25,000 to £30,000 a year, so I took a pay cut of – well, I went down to about 11 – just over £11,000 for the Post Office. It is done on products, and the previous postmistress hadn’t done very much because they were divorcing. So the salary was quite low, so we thought we could build that up a bit and then I discovered, out of the salary game, that everybody has different levels and if you’re a Federation member you got extra products.

So you could have DVLA stuff, or bureau de change on demand, but if you were an ordinary rural office and you weren’t part of that conglomerate, you stayed on the basic salaries and that went down over the years.

Ms Hodge: Was the Horizon System installed in your branch before you purchased it?

Sally Stringer: Yes, it was.

Ms Hodge: Did you receive any training on this system before you took over?

Sally Stringer: No. They couldn’t arrange training. I was supposed to go to Cheltenham for training at the main post office prior to us buying the business at the end of June and no, that wasn’t part of Post Office’s remit to manage that. So I had no training at all on their computer system. I knew how to work a EPOS system because I had worked that for ten years in the wine trade. We had a state-of-the-art EPOS system with all the stock on and things, but no, I had not one iota of training before I set foot in that cage on 3 July.

Ms Hodge: What training did you then receive upon opening the branch?

Sally Stringer: Well, none, really. I had – when we opened the shop at the end of June – we obviously filled the shop shelves up with everything, but I couldn’t go into the post office because the previous postmistress had to run it until they could sort out an audit and that audit wasn’t until 3 July, so I didn’t actually go into the post office until 3 July and my trainer arrived on 4 July and was there for a day and a half. She arrived on the Thursday morning and she left at lunchtime on the Friday, and that was it.

I was left with a computer screen that I had no idea how to navigate. I really had no idea because you had to push a button here and push a button there, and whatever. It wasn’t simple, per se. It wasn’t too bad once you got to know it but you couldn’t actually do one transaction without having to go into another screen to finish it off.

So after the trainer left, I sat there and felt like an incompetent idiot because I couldn’t actually – I couldn’t function with it. I didn’t know what to do with it. Luckily, in those days, the pensioners – because Thursday is pension day – still had the pension books so you could tear a bit out of the pension book and “Okay, you’re owed 50 quid”, that’s fine 50 quid, and then you tap it into the machine. But when it got to the stage where it was all cards, that was a different ball game altogether. But no, my training was non-existent really.

Ms Hodge: Did you retain any paper records alongside using the Horizon System?

Sally Stringer: You – well, no. I mean, well, in the early days you did but when you had to start balancing monthly, no, because it was all on the computer.

Ms Hodge: Did you experience problems using the Horizon System?

Sally Stringer: Sorry?

Ms Hodge: Did you experience problems using the Horizon System?

Sally Stringer: Oh, it was an absolute nightmare. I mean, from day one – everything about it was convoluted, you know. There was no simplicity to it at all and I had errors over the years amounting to thousands. Some I got rectified through the helpline, some I didn’t. I mean are we going to get on to – we’re going to come to 2005 with that performance –

Ms Hodge: Yes, I was going to –

Sally Stringer: But with regard to the general operation of the computer in the early days, it was just awful.

Ms Hodge: When did these issues first start occurring to you in the branch?

Sally Stringer: Well, the day of the audit was an interesting one because that was my very first day I could get in – and I refer to my office now as a rat cage because that is exactly what it was. I was like a rat incarcerated in a cage. So I apologise for that but it’s easier to refer to it as a rat cage.

The day of my audit, which was the first day I was allowed to set foot in there, the previous postmistress was in there so her audit took place, and I was faffing around in the shop with my husband, you know, whatever, and then I was called in and this man said to me, who was the auditor, “Right, just sign this piece of paper” and he gave me a piece of paper. I looked at him and said “What?” He said “This is what we do, you sign this piece of paper”, and I said “Actually, I’m not signing anything until I count the stock. I want to count all the money, all the coins and anything else you’ve got to give, I don’t know about”, because I didn’t know what I was taking on, I knew that there might be postal orders and things.

Anyway he said, “I’m going to go in a minute”, and I said, “In that case I’m not signing your piece of paper, it’s quite simple”. And he said “You know, this is what we’ve got”, and I said “I’m still wanting to count it”, and the previous postmistress looked at me, and she then had to leave. And he said “Just sign” – I said “I’m not signing the piece of paper”. I said “Either you stay here and we go through this item by item, or it stays shut”. And he eventually gave in and he had to sit there. And I counted – it took hours, hours, all the stamps, all the books, all the money, down to the last bag of pennies and, eventually, I signed for the stock as a true stock because I had counted it, but he was quite happy for me not to count it, which I think – that put alarm bells with me from day one, which is fairly awful really.

Ms Hodge: You have mentioned in your statement that an issue arose in 2005 following the installation of new software.

Sally Stringer: Yes, that was an interesting one. I employed a previous postmistress, she worked in the shop in another village, just part-time, so that I could get out of the cage and we were told that we had to go forward with this new system that they were introducing which involved update in the software. So, bearing in mind that I had had issues with – I’m going to go back to when I – when the trainer was with me for the two days, she said “You won’t be able to balance because, you know, it’s not your stock”. I said, “Hang on, it is my stock because I counted it”.

“Oh, you might get errors from the previous postmistress.”

“Really? Fine”, we will go forward with that when we get to it.

So, in 2003, we’re going back, I had an audit and this woman – I shall never forget her, I will never forget – I can still see her. She arrived at 8 o’clock in the morning, and I don’t think she had washed for a week, which is also a bit of a problem. Anyway, she demanded to go into the rat cage, so I let her in and it was a question of – and we were busy in the shop with papers at 8 o’clock in the morning and it’s “What’s this, what’s that, where is this, where is that?” and I said “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about”.

“I want to see this piece of paper for this”, and I said “I genuinely have no idea what you’re talking about”.

“Well it’s this date”. I said, “Well I wasn’t actually here then”. And this progressed from being a sensible visit to being totally tortuous and, eventually, I burst into tears, walked out of the office, locked her in there and said “Well, you can get on with it, I really don’t care, can’t be doing with this. You cannot catch me for errors that I have not committed, that I wasn’t even here for”. So that was 2003.

So we move on to 2005. So, to get out of the rat cage, I employed Elaine and we knew we were going to have new software so we counted everything separately. She counted everything, the stock, the money, as you would for an audit. I did it, and my husband, Geoff, double-checked us both, so we all had three sets of paper because worked on paper.

So we knew we balanced and this bod turns in from the Post Office, “I have come to fit your software”, and he fiddled around with this computer and then he went. He had to go away quickly because he had been called off somewhere else, so he didn’t explain to us how it was going to work, which was another learning curve.

Then – so the next month, because we were then moving to monthly accounting, whereas before it was weekly. And, on a weekly basis, you’ve got a fairly good idea of what you’re doing week on week. Month on month, with no paperwork, it’s a problem.

And so we decided that we wouldn’t have any stock in – we wouldn’t take any cash deliveries – we wouldn’t order any cash for that month, we wouldn’t take any stamps in, so we would have a starting point of transactions and, at the end of the first month, we went through the training manual how to balance and it was out. It was out by double the stock and so I knew that there was a problem then and because we – we were so sure of what we had, with the transactions that we had done, we knew we hadn’t had large sums in and we hadn’t paid much out. Our cash was, you know, as it was but there was no way the stock – stamps could be out.

So I rang the helpline and this is probably the only time the helpline was actually helpful. I spoke to a chap called Alan and I explained the problem and I had shut because there’s clearly an issue because I wasn’t going to rollover, because if I had rolled over I would have to accept the errors. So I stayed in that particular accounting period and I rang this chap Alan and I said “Look, this is what’s happened”, da-di-da-di-da, and he said, “Okay, well, you’ve got to reverse all the transactions you have done and get back to square one”. So I spent all day reversing transactions on the telephone. Meanwhile, people are in for their pensions, “Sorry, shut”.

We took it back to square one and I, actually – to go forward, I actually met Alan in 2020 when I went up to Chesterfield, and I explain that later, and I did thank him for his help then because he actually knew what the problem was and was able to get me back to where I was. But I think that was an exception to the rule because I was pedantic about it, I wasn’t going to rollover until this had happened, so that’s where we were with that 2005.

Sir Wyn Williams: Before we move on, can I just ask you, in your statement when you are describing this, you use the word “I rang the Chesterfield helpline”?

Sally Stringer: Yes.

Sir Wyn Williams: Is that to be distinguished from the helpline, or is this a different team or what?

Sally Stringer: So when – I – I assumed, but – until I started to look into Post Office properly, I assumed that Chesterfield was the head office.

Sir Wyn Williams: Right.

Sally Stringer: Because that was the number I had got on a piece of paper. It was given to me by this woman who trained me for two days – well, a day and a half, “Just ring this number”, so I assumed that was the helpline. I later discovered later on in my time with Post Office that they have various offices all over the place, which I didn’t have any – well, I didn’t have much to do with any of them, except for written warnings, but that’s another story. But there were bases all over the place but Chesterfield was my port of call.

Sir Wyn Williams: That was your port of call. Thank you.

Yes, Ms Hodge.

Ms Hodge: Thank you. You have mentioned your contact with the helpline in 2005, or a contact at Chesterfield, in any event. Did you receive any help or support from your area manager?

Sally Stringer: Well, that’s a bit of a joke as well, because he – he was too busy to interview me in 2002. He didn’t sign my letter of appointment in 2002. That was signed, obviously, by his secretary, “C Williams”, from memory, and in the 20 years I was a postmistress he never set foot in the office. He never rang me. He was never available for help, and that is a sad indictment of how an organisation runs itself, or attempts to.

20 years – I met an area manager after I had been to Chesterfield for this reconciliation thing in 2020. When I said to the new bunch that are there, “Oh, I haven’t had an area manager in my office for 19 years”, or 20 years, whatever it was, and the next morning when I got back to the office, I had a phonecall from the new – “I’m your new – I’m your area manager”.

“Oh, great.”

“Can I come and see you?”

“Well, yes, it would be a real joy to see a representative from …” but no, he didn’t come anywhere near and he was only in Chippenham. It’s not exactly 100 miles away.

Ms Hodge: You have described issues arising in relation to discrepancies and error notices, which pre-dated you taking over the branch.

Sally Stringer: Mm-hm.

Ms Hodge: How were those resolved with the Post Office?

Sally Stringer: Well, they kept appearing and I kept saying “Well, I’m not paying it, sort it out”, and I would ring Chesterfield and they would say, “Oh, well, it’s on your office”.

“Well, it’s not my stock, it’s not my stuff”. So eventually I think they probably got rid of it, except for – no, they got rid of it because then I had error notices of my own, which took time to get rid of too, but I think they got rid of those because the auditor in 2003 was told quite clearly that they were not my errors. So I – and I didn’t get any paperwork back from her so I assume that they disappeared. Where? I don’t know.

Ms Hodge: You have mentioned two other shortfalls in your statement, one in 2008 and one in 2012. Did you make those sums good yourself?

Sally Stringer: Yes.

Ms Hodge: How did you do that?

Sally Stringer: The one in 2008, that was the one that appeared on 1 April, I thought it was April Fools Day. They used to just appear, you know, you would have this error – it was sent through the post. They had two ways of doing it. They would send you an error notice through the post, and I got one for £1,048, and I said, “Well, I don’t know where that is, I have no idea what it is”.

“Well, you’ve got to pay it.”

“Well, I can’t afford to pay it, you don’t pay me enough to pay that sort of stuff out”. That was more than a month’s salary. And they said “Well, we will take it out of your salary”, and I said “If you take it out of my salary it will be £10 a month because – until you resolve this”, and I had an argument with somebody, I think, at HR, and eventually we whittled that – because I had to pay the £1,000 eventually and that came out of the shop profits.

Eventually, it came back to be an error of £26 and you’re thinking “How do they manage it?” Different things were put together and I – it still haunts, it still haunts.

Ms Hodge: Over the 20-odd years that you ran the branch, how much do you think you paid in to make good?

Sally Stringer: The business probably backed the Post Office to probably £10,000, £15,000, over a period of time. It would be up one day, one month, and it would be down, so you have a little bag of stuff, you put it back in, if you hadn’t got it then you had to make it up from the shop takings. It was not a good way to exist, really.

Ms Hodge: You mentioned already two audits of your account: one on the day you took over the branch, a second one in 2003.

Sally Stringer: Yes.

Ms Hodge: You had a third audit in 2012; is that right?

Sally Stringer: Yes, that was an interesting one. Prior to that, I had been a bit of a nuisance. I had complained to my MP about the separation of Royal Mail and Post Office. So letters were flying from my MP to BEIS and to Post Office senior management about business was being stolen from the post offices by Royal Mail. They were basically targeting –

Quite easy for Royal Mail, really, because when they segregated the two businesses they separated the retail arm from the distribution arm because, basically, the Post Office was losing a fortune and when they segregated those, Royal Mail had the wonderful opportunity to get extra customers from the Post Office by going through the mail bags. They knew exactly who posted what from where and, as a small rural business, I had a good customer base locally of – you know, we had a silk mill and a saddlers and a guy who used – he was wonderful, he used to do coconut shells for compost and – back in 2011, and all three of those businesses were targeted directly by Royal Mail offering them a 20 per cent discount off Post Office counter’s prices.

And one of them – well, all three of them, actually, mentioned it to me, but one of them said “You know, we have said we won’t do it because we are loyal to Post Office”, and that – eventually when that – when they all did move eventually, because 20 per cent discount off your postage is quite substantial if you’re posting, you know, 100 parcels a day. My salary was cut by about £400 a month on that alone, a loss of income.

So I started to write letters to MPs who then started to write letters to BEIS, who then started to write letters to ministers and I then had an audit in 2013. I had had a written warning prior to that for not opening on a Wednesday afternoon and the office had not opened on a Wednesday afternoon ever, from somebody in London at some London head office.

So it was quite clear that they were going to have a target of a small office to seriously annoy and these two auditors, they arrived again before 8 o’clock in the morning and we were busy, you know, papers, people collecting this, and my rat cage was probably just slightly bigger than this table really, not that much bigger than that, and a door there, a re-enforced door there, and a glass counter here, which didn’t open.

There was a sort of slit there, and there were three of us in this cage and, actually, it was – you couldn’t move in there. You were congested. So made them a coffee, left the door open, and she is scratching away.

I got a written warning from that audit for – well, first of all, I couldn’t find the security manual and I asked them which security manual because when I took on the post office, I didn’t actually have much paperwork. That had all gone, and my contract of employment didn’t appear until 2011 because they couldn’t be bothered to get me a contract of employment before then, so that appeared as a result of my letters going to the MPs, because I was disputing why a paperwork machine was removed because I hadn’t signed a disclaimer for this and –

So the auditors were in, basically, to, I think, shift me sideways, and so it was a question of finding fault, “Well, where is the security manual?” “Which one?” was the comment, because I remember them asking me, and I said “Which one do you want? I’ve got this great big thick file here or I’ve got this piece of paper here”. So I couldn’t provide the relevant piece of paper so I had a written warning for that and also not shutting the door for the post office.

Ms Hodge: Can you please describe the circumstances in which your appointment as a subpostmistress ultimately came to an end?

Sally Stringer: Yes, that’s quite an interesting one too. They – we had an armed robbery in the July of 2020, middle of the night. We had had a few incidents before then with broken windows and stuff and we had a cash snatch as well. That was in the early days. And that cash snatch we had to pay back but, actually, Colin Burston, who interviewed me, came down and discussed with me that, you know, we had had money taken out of the post office till, it was my money, I had to pay it back.

And he discussed this with me when we had a queue of customers waiting for their pensions. They were all local villagers. So he went away pleased with the fact that he had done what he had to do and the next day we had donations in from the people in the village, £500 of the £700 that was removed from the till – from the drawer. Because it wasn’t a proper lockable drawer, it was just a wooden slide out drawer. It wasn’t secure at all really but that’s by the by. So they gave us 500 quid towards the 700 we had to pay back, which was extremely generous of them.

But going – I have lost my train of thought. Back to – yes, the –

Ms Hodge: That was an incident in 2004, is that right, the robbery?

Sally Stringer: Yes, yes. So we’re now back to the final audit, yes. We had the robbery in the July, where they – three guys with a sledgehammer, an axe and something else, they smashed the shop door, which our shop alarm went off with, and we were asleep. We then heard more banging so they obviously smashed the other windows and then the post office door alarm went off so I then – I was trying to put my contact lenses in and there was this phonecall at 1 o’clock in the morning “Oh, your alarm has gone off”, this is Grapevine Security. “Yes, I know it’s gone off. I’m just trying to put my contact lenses in”. And my first “Can you please ring the police because we’ve got criminals on the premises?”

“Oh, I can’t do that until they get into the safe”. I thought, “You are joking”. There’s not an important – I was, “Okay fine”. So I put the phone down, put my contact lenses in and, meanwhile, these guys couldn’t – they broke the cage door down but they couldn’t actually get into the safe, which was basically stuffed into – it was, you know, built into the floor, and the next morning this blokey arrived from Post Office, “I’m head of security”.

“Oh, really?” Piece of paper, and he said “Oh, you have had the windows done”.

“Well, we’ve got windows, we’ve got glass all over the place”, and he said “Of course, you are responsible for the Post Office door”. I said, “You’ve got to be joking, there’s no way I’m putting re-enforced glass in that. That is Post Office property, they can pay for it.”

“Oh, well, we won’t be paying for that”. I said “Actually, post office doesn’t open, it’s quite simple. If that cage is not re-enforced as it was, then my insurance won’t cover that”. We had this discussion. Anyway he ticked his boxes and then he disappeared. And that was probably the final straw in the July where we had both had enough.

And then I got macular degeneration, so it was difficult, the computer screen used to wobble and we made a – we had put the business up for sale, it took us six years to sell that business but we put the business up for sale in – we thought we might – this is the middle of COVID – have a purchaser and I said “Let’s just – if we haven’t got a purchaser and we’re going to be destitute, let’s just get out of this”.

So I decided I would ring my area manager, and said “I’m going to resign”. He said “You can’t do that, you have to give three months notice”. I said “I can and I will”, so I left it at that. So that was probably September-ish, October-ish, and so we made provision to sort of clear the shop of some stuff. I said to him “We might as well just shut”.

So end of November, I counted – I did the same thing I did when I started, I counted all the stock and we used to get a cash collection every fortnight and I said “Right, it’s coming up to Christmas”, it was becoming tortuous. So I counted all the stock and the cash guy came in, and I shan’t forget his face, “Oh, I can’t take all that much cash”, I said “You will take what I’ve got because we’re shutting”.

“Okay, all right”, so he went out with hundreds of bags because each thing had to be bagged up separately with what was in it on a piece of paper. It was not an easy task. So that all went back and so Post Office had all their money, so we shut on, I think, 6 December 2020.

I then get an email from the area manager saying, “You can’t shut”, I said “Aha, I can, you have had all your stock back”.

“Well, you have to have an audit”. I said “You can send an auditor if you like but there’s nothing there to audit”. And they couldn’t organise that until 4 January and we actually sold the property on 12 January, so by that stage in the game, when the auditor did appear, there was nothing there. The safe was empty, they had their computer, which had been switched off to save electricity because I wasn’t going to pay the electricity on it any more and I got out of it that way.

Ms Hodge: How did you feel about working for the Post Office by the time you took this decision to resign?

Sally Stringer: Do you know, it’s an interesting one that, because the Post Office is a toxic organisation and it became more and more toxic as time went on and the relief when I drove from Gloucestershire to Lincolnshire was quite extraordinary, of getting away from an environment where you’re enclosed and captured – it’s like being a prisoner of war in some ways, whatever that must be for people. You can’t get out of the situation you’re in and the last year has given me that chance to actually breathe again.

Post Office is a brand that I think is completely, now, utterly toxic and they have – you know, you have had a series of managers, CEOs, administrative staff that just do as they’re told. The current lot are ex-john Lewis, and they took great pleasure telling me “John Lewis, la la la”, but then out comes the statement, “Well, we will only want 5,000 post offices”, I thought “Well, hang on a second, you’ve got an estate of 11,500 post offices here” and this is in 2020.

You’re now looking at 5,000, so how are you going to get rid of those because you have clearly got rid of quite a considerable amount previous, by making people prisoners, by ruining households, et cetera, and, as a brand, I seriously believe that it’s not worth the paper it’s written on any more, and that’s awful. 350 years of history is straight down the pan for 20 years of total and utter maladministration. It’s awful.

They treat their postmasters – postmasters fund the post offices that they live in, you know. They keep them up-to-date. But Post Office, if you ever want new equipment from them, it costs you double if not triple than it would on the open market, if you want a basic piece of equipment. So you don’t bother because you can’t afford it, and it’s awful really.

Ms Hodge: What effect has your experience with the Post Office had on your health?

Sally Stringer: Yeah, I suppose I – I became more – well, I’m quite extrovert – I was. I became quite introverted, really. I didn’t want to see people on a day-to-day basis. It was a toil going down to my rat cage and, you know, you – your temper gets slightly less tolerant as things progress, you know. You know, you can’t do this, or do that – I mean, I had a written warning for not providing a certificate of postage for somebody that had pre-printed a label. We didn’t get paid for these certificates of postage.

When Royal Mail was segregated, you know, the parcel trade and all the rest of it, you can do all this online now, which is fine, and then you go to a post office and then the postmaster or postmistress has to sit there with all of these parcels that they’re not going to get a penny for, printing you a certificate of postage to prove that you had taken it to the post office to print, and it wears you down to the absolute core.

I mean, I had a guy who used to come in to me, even up to the sort of final few months that we were there, 100 parcels would completely occupy an entire aisle of our shop, all wanting certificates of postage, all of which had to be produced for time and date, and which I get absolutely nothing for.

I would then have to help the postman put them in his van and the postman would then complain that he hadn’t got enough room in his van to put all these wretched parcels and the whole thing is dysfunctional to the core and, boy, am I pleased to be away from something like that.

Ms Hodge: You described purchasing your branch with your husband. You have mentioned him working in the retail side I think?

Sally Stringer: Sorry?

Ms Hodge: You have mentioned him working in the retail side; is that right?

Sally Stringer: Yes.

Ms Hodge: How was he affected by what happened?

Sally Stringer: Well, Geoff started – we have been together a long time, you know. He was a civil servant for a bit and he had done all sorts of different things, but he was a quiet, unassuming chap, you know, that liked cycling and, you know, doing bits and pieces. He became very introverted, bless him and he became sick. He became diabetic, he has high blood pressure and his confidence went, you know.

We would jointly make decisions, you know, and, after a while, we were both unable to make sensible decisions, you know. You look to where you are and you think “Well, where the hell are we going to go? What are we going to do?” and since we have moved he has started to come back to his – I haven’t seen that old self of Geoff for 20 years nearly, 15 years. He is making things, he is fiddling around and he is enjoying being in charge of his own destiny again, rather than being under a noose of Post Office Limited.

And I felt as if I had a noose round my neck for those years too, slowly being strangled to extinction and, luckily, I can come here and still speak to you, but it’s not been easy.

Ms Hodge: Have you sought any compensation from the Post Office?

Sally Stringer: Well, that’s another interesting one. I – I’m part of the 555. I never went to any of the 555 meetings because we work seven days a week and to disappear out for a Sunday morning to Dorset where some of the meetings were wasn’t part of – I couldn’t do it, but I have always supported the 555, and I had compensation of £700 out of the litigation for that by the time Post Office had screwed them for their 46 million quids’ worth of costs.

I say in my statement that money is not everything. The people that have lost everything deserve as much compensation as that can be weaned out of this organisation. I had 700 quid. I’m probably owed between £10,000 and £15,000. If I get it, I get it. If I don’t, I don’t. As I say, I can breathe again in fresh, clean air and I can exist – I don’t get a pension because I had to spend that on, you know, we had refurbished the shop and Post Office, until this April when I’m 66, and then I get a state pension.

But, you know, we have a comfortable home now and that’s where we are. But there has to be – there has to be a way forward for those people.

Ms Hodge: You have mentioned already a meeting that took place after the litigation concluded. Can you describe how that –

Sally Stringer: Yes, that was – that was – Freeths asked – they wanted – they wanted three postmasters to meet the current admin in Chesterfield and I said “I will happily go”, because I knew then I was probably going to be getting out of the system, so it couldn’t be used against me. I mean, I actually do think that they’re quite a vindictive company, as well, but that’s another story. So I went up to Chesterfield, it was about two and a half hours from where I lived, got there and you go to a meeting, you (a) expect a coffee of some sort. We had to ask for coffee, “Please can we have a cup of coffee?”

And then they were sitting round – they were all introduced “Oh, I’m from John Lewis” and I thought – I actually – I said “That’s not really a credible comment”. And the head of security was from Tesco, “Okay, Tesco, took over Londis, we lost our Londis because of Tesco, not particularly keen on Tesco”. And I don’t work on tablets or computers, and I said “Can I have a pad of paper, please, to write some notes down?”, because the meeting wasn’t minuted and I wanted to make some notes and this guy looked at – I think it was Amanda James, who was the next one down from the current CEO. He shot off, and 20 minutes later he comes back with a pad of paper, he said “I managed to get this out of the stores”. I said “What? You have managed to extract a pad of paper out of your stores department. God, you are a sad organisation”. It was –

But they then, through this chatty way, “We’re so sorry this has happened to the postmasters, blah, blah, blah”, and Amanda James let slip “Well, of course we will only have 5,000 offices when we mutualise”. And I looked at her and said “Really? You’ve got 11,000 offices now, so you’re going to reduce by 6,000 offices to 5, through your mutualisation, but when you mutualise you are supposed to be making a profit and Post Office has not made a profit in 20 years and had billions of pounds’ worth of government money but they have not made a profit”.

And this guy went “duh-duh-duh-duh-duh”, and I went “Okay”, and I believe – I don’t know, but I believe that’s the next game to play and I sincerely hope that questions are asked of the current hierarchy: what happened in 1997 when the Horizon System was bought by I think it was the Blair/Brown government for 800 million quid? It never worked for the Department of Work and Pensions. It was designed by ICL in the ’80s for the Department of Work and Pensions. It never worked for them.

So the Government of the day, “Post Office can have it for 800 million quid”, it’s a lot of money and they have had substantial sums of money over the years that have not gone into the network. They have butchered the network across the board and, cynical as I am now, current money, well, you know, “If we get rid of 5,000 offices or whatever, I will get a nice big fat bonus, can move on to somewhere else”, and I hope, Sir Wyn, that you can stop that happening. I hope and pray that you can stop that happening because it is fundamentally and utterly wrong.

You know, there has been a huge miscarriage of justice for the postmasters, postmistresses. 555 – how Alan Bates and the JFSA have continued for this long – he deserves a medal, frankly, because they wear you down to the extent that you can’t think properly any more. But they’re toxic, as far as I’m concerned, totally toxic, and so are the MPs that oversaw this. Absolutely appalling.

Ms Hodge: My final question for you, Mrs Stringer. You have mentioned compensation already. What does justice require, in your view, now?

Sally Stringer: What does?

Ms Hodge: What does justice now require, in your view?

Sally Stringer: What does justice?

Ms Hodge: Yes, how will justice be achieved for subpostmasters?

Sally Stringer: Oh, yes. I personally would like to see the Post Office closed as a brand. 350 years of serving the public is not there any more. That’s a personal opinion. It will upset livelihoods but I don’t believe that there is a future for it, but that’s that.

Justice. I would like to see – I would like to be able to – can I do this as part of my final bit?

Sir Wyn Williams: Yes, please. If you have something you would like to say at the end.

Sally Stringer: I would like to say to you, please, I would like you to interrogate the following: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, because they were complicit and they nearly bankrupted the country by flogging off the gold at half price – this is when this problem started – Vince Cable, Ed Davey, Jo Swinson. The pawns in this are the Paula Vennells and previous CEOs. They did as they were told by BEIS, or BEIS, there are two different conglomerates that have been there over the years. They are all dysfunctional to the core, the whole lot, and they need to be accountable.

But what I wanted to read to you was a comment from – it’s in the Sunday Times, 20 February 2022, from Sir Vince Cable, who was Business Secretary 2010 to 2015, along with Jo Swinson. She says:

“Lessons must be learned about the worst miscarriage of justice.”

Well, that’s true. Cable said he and other ministers had no reason to get involved more than they did. Well, they clearly didn’t do very much. Then he says:

“This is a legal matter dealt with in the courts. It is nothing to do with ministers.”


“So we didn’t have any responsibility in the sense of anything we could have done about it. Purely in a formal sense all ministers have ultimate responsibility.”

So he is saying one thing on one hand and saying he has responsibility on the other. I mean, they are beyond a joke now and it needs addressing for all postmasters, past and present, because the ones in the present have no idea what’s ahead of them and it worries me, you know.

My local post office now is part of the Co-op which I understand, you know, Co-operatives are fine, but those staff are still only paid minimum wage. It’s wrong, totally wrong, and when they tried the Network Transformation with me, back in 2013, I earned £11,000 a year or thereabouts, it was considerably less when I left.

But this woman came in with this new network change and said, “Ah, we have done a spreadsheet and we would like to offer you this, if you open your counter up to the local and let anybody steal anything from you”. And she said “Your salary is £4,000”, I looked at her and said “What a year or a month? A month, that would be great!” She said “No, it’s £4,000 a year”. I said “You are joking”. So my 11 goes down to 4 and I said to her, you know – she got this pretty little spreadsheet out, I said “Would you work for £4,000 a year, 40 hours a week, in that cage?” and she looked at me and she said “Well no”. I said “Well, don’t expect me to then. I will not go out of that cage and allow whatever income we can make out of this post office be diminished because of your stupid new system”.

And that system closed post offices because you were then responsible, if you did that system, as a local, you were responsible if you had a village shop on the sideline for providing it with cash, so the cash out of your till shop side would go into Post Office to do the pensions, which is fine, but they wouldn’t – Post Office wouldn’t pay you for 48 hours, so – and if you hadn’t got the cash you couldn’t do the transaction. There is no logic in that, no logic at all.

And offices closed because (a) they couldn’t afford to do it, and (b) the cash hadn’t arrived so people went elsewhere. So whatever concoctions they come up with in the future are not going to be anywhere near what should happen, so it should go.

Sir Wyn Williams: All right.

Sally Stringer: May I finally thank you?

Sir Wyn Williams: Well, no, the final thing is for me to thank you.

Sally Stringer: But I would like to finally thank you for having to sit through the torture and all the people that sit with you because it is the most harrowing time for you all, for David Howe and – David Enright and Howe & Co. They have been absolute stars and, without the legal back up now, postmasters wouldn’t have their say and I do fundamentally believe that you will get answers to some really, really, really difficult questions and that will be some way forward in helping people to heal.

Sir Wyn Williams: All right.

Sally Stringer: Thank you.

Sir Wyn Williams: Well, I’m determined to have the last thank you. So now thank you very much, Mrs Stringer, for your evidence this afternoon.

Sally Stringer: Thank you.

Ms Hodge: Sir, that concludes our –

Sir Wyn Williams: That concludes the oral evidence.

If we allow Mrs Stringer to leave in her time, so to speak – Ms Patrick, do you think we will complete your four statements in about ten minutes?

Ms Patrick: They are relatively short.

Sir Wyn Williams: Okay, well, then we will let the witness get herself together and leave and then we will read your four statements and that will very nicely conclude the proceedings for the day.


Ms Patrick: Sir, again to repeat, I appear – will read summaries of the evidence. I appear on behalf of the Core Participants that are represented by Hudgells Solicitors and we begin this afternoon with a summary of the evidence of Mrs Julie Cleife.

Summary of witness statement of Julie Cleife

Summary of witness statement of JULIE CLEIFE (read).

Ms Patrick: Prior to becoming a subpostmistress, Julie Cleife was employed by the Post Office as a counter clerk for two years. She became subpostmistress of Over Wallop branch of the Post Office in April 1995.

She was asked to take on this role by her then manager and she became, ultimately, subpostmistress at two branches.

After Horizon was installed in Over Wallop in 2000 unexplained shortfalls began. She called the helpline but they were not helpful. They told her she would have to make good the shortfalls.

To resolve the shortfalls, Mrs Cleife had to put her own money into the branch.

The Post Office did carry out a few audits during her time at the Over Wallop branch but they never raised any issue, until a final audit in June 2010. Prior to that audit, the unexplained shortfalls were getting larger and she could no longer afford to keep paying. She felt pressurised to keep the branch open for the community and kept thinking the balance problems would correct themselves eventually.

She had been suffering sleepless nights leading up to the audit and she was not sure what was happening and where the money was.

Following the audit, a shortfall in the sum of £25,614.45 was found. On 4 June 2010 she was interviewed by Post Office investigators. She says that she thought “the Post Office would treat me fairly, especially as I had no representation”.

At the interview, she says it seemed “as if the Post Office had already assumed that I was guilty”. Mrs Cleife told them she did not know and could not explain the shortfalls.

Following the audit she was suspended immediately and she resigned ultimately from both branches. She says the stress and the way the investigators made her feel was just too much. The investigators searched her home and she was left under the impression that they had the same powers as the police.

To pay back the shortfall, she had to borrow money from a friend and cash in her and her husband’s endowment.

In order to avoid prosecution, she paid the alleged shortfall. Mrs Cleife had to take a course of medication then for high blood pressure, but in September 2010 she received a summons stating the Post Office was prosecuting her for fraud by false representation.

Following a plea bargain and on advice, and to avoid a custodial sentence, she pleaded guilty on 26 October 2010.

In November 2010 she was sentenced to a 12-month community order with 100 hours of unpaid work. She paid costs in the sum of £500. She says her conviction was reported in the local press. This impacted on her previously very good reputation in the community and made her feel anxious. She believed her community was supportive of her. Her conviction was later overturned.

She wants the Inquiry to know that she says applying for benefits was one of the worst things that she has ever had to do. She was then ultimately offered a job in the community shop. She still does this job today but her salary is not what it was and what she would have received as a subpostmistress.

She said there were some tensions in her relationship after the audit was conducted because, she says, her husband wished he could have supported her through this but because she couldn’t tell him about it, he felt he wasn’t given the opportunity.

After her sentencing, she says he was physically sick from all the stress.

Next we turn to a summary of the evidence of Balbir Singh Grewal.

Summary of witness statement of Balbir Grewal

Summary of witness statement of BALBIR SINGH GREWAL (read).

Ms Patrick: Mr Balbir Singh Grewal was the subpostmaster of Hockwell Ring Post Office in Luton between 2000 and 2001. He was previously an accountant and then ran an Exxon franchise in Florida.

He sold that business, returning to the UK in 1998. He purchased Hockwell Ring Post Office for around £150,000 from a combination of life savings and loans. As a result of an audit at his post office and a large shortfall being found, he was subsequently charged with the offence of false accounting.

On the advice of lawyers, he pleaded guilty to the offence and received a suspended sentence and a community service order. He was also ordered to repay the shortfall to the Post Office.

To make that repayment he had to borrow money from family and friends. He was forced to sell the post office under value and subsequently lost the life savings he used to buy it.

He was unable to get a job in accountancy due to his conviction. He was unable to find any work for around seven to eight months and borrowed money from friends to help with living costs and to support his wife and three children.

He subsequently worked as a self-employed minicab driver.

He describes the stress he suffered at that time as a living nightmare. His personality changed. He became an introvert and he says his marriage was placed under strain. He was unable to sleep and was feeling very low. He felt really bad and, in his words, “As though there was no hope for the future and that I had no purpose in my life any more”.

He says his children have loans for their university fees, which they continue to pay. If he hadn’t lost his savings and earning potential, he would have been able to help them more.

He wants the Inquiry to know that he feels his conviction has made his own university and professional training worthless.

He comes from a large extended family and has not been even able to tell some family members about his conviction at all.

Next we read a summary of the evidence of Mrs Susan Rudkin.

Summary of witness statement of Susan Rudkin

Summary of witness statement of SUSAN RUDKIN (read).

Ms Patrick: Susan Rudkin begins her statement by saying “running a post office has been a part of our family life”. She and her husband ran the Stairfoot Post Office in Barnsley from 1995 to 2004. She and her husband then bought the Ibstock post office in Leicestershire in October 2000. Her husband was the subpostmaster there and she works in the branch. Mrs Rudkin experienced shortfalls and paid these from her own money, but there came a time when she could no longer afford to do this.

She rang the helpline with issues on many occasions. The helpline was largely of no help so, in the end, she stopped ringing them. Their advice, she says, tended to be “Pay the shortfall or you can’t rollover”. Mrs Rudkin says this was “infuriating and it felt like banging my head against a wall”.

On 20 August 2008 there was an audit. Mrs Rudkin immediately told the auditors that they would find a shortfall of around £44,000. They found a shortfall of around £43,856.89. She felt at the time that she was in no fit state to be interviewed and she was refused access to legal representation. She believes she was suspended on the same day that the audit and the interview took place and that that was around 20 August 2008.

She was summonsed at around the end of February or March 2009 and pleaded guilty to theft on 6 April 2009. She says, to avoid a custodial sentence, she felt pressured to accept that guilty plea. She was sentenced on 1 May 2009 to a 12-month suspended custodial sentence, 300 hours of community service and a curfew for six months. She received an electronic tag the following day at home. A confiscation order was made on 19 August 2009.

Her husband was dismissed by the Post Office in 2010.

Mrs Rudkin’s conviction was later overturned.

After her conviction she says:

“I became a shrinking violet. I just kept myself to myself. I lost all my self-confidence.”

She wants to say to the Inquiry she still gets flashbacks about her court appearances and says they were “The most painful days of my life”. The successful appeal, she says:

“… has made no difference to my mental state. I’m still sad about it all because no one would listen to me at the time. No one would believe me. Those feelings don’t just go away. I still feel isolated and alone now.”

She says her GP and her family were very concerned about her and her husband at the time took responsibility for her medication, due to concern over her suicide risk.

She says of her husband “He has been my rock”. She says to the Inquiry “It was horrendous for me and my family when we were out within the community”. She says there were incidents in the shop where the customers would say “Why is she still in the shop?” and she says there were fingers and finger pointing.

Mrs Rudkin and her husband were living a life they both enjoyed tremendously and she says this was ripped apart in the blink of an eye.

Finally she wants to say to the Inquiry:

“Nothing can undo what I have been subject to. Nothing can undo the impact this has had on my family. It will stay with us for the rest of our lives.”

There is one final statement.

Sir Wyn Williams: Yes.

Ms Patrick: The final summary is the summary of the evidence of Mrs Lynette Hutchings.

Summary of witness statement of Lynette Hutchings

Summary of witness statement of LYNETTE HUTCHINGS (read).

Ms Patrick: After working as a primary school teacher, Mrs Lynette Hutchings bought Crookham Village Post Office in 2002. She first noted shortfalls following the installation of Horizon in 2004 and was suspended in relation to a £7,000 shortfall.

She says she was threatened with legal action if she did not pay the money and then decided to sell the branch. She resigned in September 2005 with the sale going through in December 2005.

She moved and became subpostmaster of the Rowlands Castle Post Office on 29 August 2006. Horizon Online was installed in 2010. This was faster and things seemed to be fine. However, it again started to throw up discrepancies and Mrs Hutchings worried she would have the same problems.

Following an audit in March 2011 she was told there was a shortfall of over £10,000. She was suspended and her contract terminated on 14 April 2011. She was summoned to Portsmouth Magistrates’ Court on 19 April 2012 and charged with false accounting. After a plea bargain and on the advice of her barrister, she pleaded guilty to one count of false accounting on 30 July 2012. She says:

“I cannot even begin to explain how it feels to plead guilty to an offence you did not commit. I had no faith in the system, but I knew the outcome could be more serious if the case had gone to a full trial.”

She was sentenced to 120 hours of unpaid work and a community order. Mrs Hutchings and her family were forced to sell their home as they could no longer afford to pay the mortgage. She felt humiliated and unable to speak about the situation. Her mental health deteriorated.

Throughout the criminal investigation she suffered depressive episodes. She struggled to sleep and didn’t feel like she could speak with anyone. At one point she says she was in such a dark place she had thoughts of taking her own life. She says she is left scarred and frightened.

Mrs Hutchings and her husband, after her conviction, were then unable to gain employment and debts mounted. She could not return to work as a teacher. She is no longer in good health. She was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2014 and says after surgery at least 50 per cent of that tumour remains and cannot be operated on.

She lost her son in 2018 when he was living in Cambodia. There was an incident which incurred large hospital bills and they were unable to help financially. She says that because they couldn’t afford to pay the bills and he couldn’t afford to pay or return home, he took his own life.

They couldn’t afford for his body to be returned home and he was cremated locally. The family had to rely on a Facebook collection to help pay for the funeral. Mrs Hutchings says this was very humiliating. Of her ordeal with the Post Office, Mrs Hutchings says:

“I feel very bitter and sad about how I was treated by the Post Office. I now find it very difficult to trust people in authority.”

And she wants to say to the Inquiry:

“I continue to suffer waves of anxiety at any mention of the Post Office.”

Thank you, sir.

Sir Wyn Williams: And thank you, Ms Patrick, and I believe that concludes the reading in of summaries of your clients.

Ms Patrick: Sir, I think there are some that are reserved for London, but for today, thank you, and thank you for your time.

Sir Wyn Williams: Thank you very much. So that completes our hearings in Leeds. We will resume in London next week when we will complete the public hearings about impact, at least in England and Wales, but Scotland and Northern Ireland is to come. Thank you.

(2.45 pm)

(The hearing adjourned until Wednesday, 16 March 2022)