Official hearing page

16 March 2022 – Julie Beisner

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(11.30 am)

Ms Hodge: Good morning, sir, can you see and hear us?

Sir Wyn Williams: I can, thank you very much. A little while ago I introduced myself to Ms Beisner, so we’ve already said hello, all right?

So over to you, Ms Hodge.

Ms Hodge: Thank you, sir. Our witness today is Julie Beisner who is appearing remotely. Ms Beisner, I will ask Christine, the usher, to take you through your oath.

Julie Beisner


Questioned by Ms Hodge

Ms Hodge: Ms Beisner, my name is Catriona Hodge, as you know, and I ask questions on behalf of the Inquiry.

Please state your full name.

Julie Beisner: Julie Marie Beisner.

Ms Hodge: You made a statement, Ms Beisner, on 10 March this year; is that correct?

Julie Beisner: That’s correct, yes.

Ms Hodge: Do you have a copy of your statement before you?

Julie Beisner: Yes, I have.

Ms Hodge: Could I ask you please to turn to the final page?

Julie Beisner: Okay.

Ms Hodge: Do you see your signature at the bottom of that page?

Julie Beisner: Yes, I see my signature.

Ms Hodge: Have you had an opportunity to read your statement again since it was first made?

Julie Beisner: Yes, I have.

Ms Hodge: Is the content of the statement true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Julie Beisner: It is, yes.

Ms Hodge: Is there anything you wish to correct in the statement?

Julie Beisner: Yes. Paragraph 16 should read “Network Business Support Centre” not “National”.

Ms Hodge: Thank you.

I’m going to begin by asking you some questions about your background. Where are you from?

Julie Beisner: I’m from North Kilworth in Leicestershire.

Ms Hodge: Where did you attend school?

Julie Beisner: Portland House school in Leicester.

Ms Hodge: What qualifications did you obtain before leaving school?

Julie Beisner: Seven O Levels, three A Levels.

Ms Hodge: What did you do upon leaving school?

Julie Beisner: Upon leaving school, I was helping out in the Post Office selling stamps but also, in my spare time, I decided to study for a law degree.

Ms Hodge: Who ran the Post Office where you were working?

Julie Beisner: The Post Office has been in my family going back for a long time but, at that time, it was my grandmother and my grandfather, and then it was my uncle after that.

Ms Hodge: Where was that Post Office located?

Julie Beisner: In North Kilworth, a small village.

Ms Hodge: You’ve mentioned the Post Office being in your family’s ownership. For how long had they owned that particular Post Office?

Julie Beisner: Since 1847.

Ms Hodge: As a result of their ownership of that Post Office, what role did your family play in their local community?

Julie Beisner: Well, they were at the heart of the community. I mean, anything that was going on, any village fêtes, “Can you help out with this?” all sorts of things, you know, “I’ve got a form to fill in, can you sign this form for us?” et cetera.

Ms Hodge: You’ve mentioned that you continued with your education after leaving school. What qualifications did you obtain?

Julie Beisner: I got an honours law degree from the University of London.

Ms Hodge: Did you pursue a career in the law?

Julie Beisner: I did become a tutor for the college that I studied with and, at one point, I did think about pursuing a law – law as a career but then decided to carry on the family tradition and take on the role of subpostmaster.

Ms Hodge: How old were you when you took over running the Post Office?

Julie Beisner: I can remember I took it on in 1996. I can’t remember exactly how old I was but probably 20-something. I can’t remember, sorry.

Ms Hodge: Not at all.

Julie Beisner: I’m a little bit nervous. I’ve not done anything like this before.

Ms Hodge: Please don’t be nervous.

You’ve explained you took – you were appointed as the subpostmistress in 1996; is that right?

Julie Beisner: That’s correct, yes.

Ms Hodge: Did you employ anyone to assist you in running the branch?

Julie Beisner: No. No, I didn’t.

Ms Hodge: Do you recall when the Horizon System was installed in your branch in North Kilworth?

Julie Beisner: Around about 1999.

Ms Hodge: Before the system was installed, how did you record transactions and balance your accounts?

Julie Beisner: It was all paper-based transactions. So you always had a copy of every document and, if there was a discrepancy of some sort you could always trace it because you’d got a copy. With Horizon it’s all computer-generated, so there’s no paper copy you can refer back to.

Ms Hodge: You said it was approximately 1999 when the system was installed.

Julie Beisner: Yes.

Ms Hodge: What training did you receive from the Post Office before the system was installed in your branch?

Julie Beisner: Not a great deal. It was one and a half days of training at a hotel in Leicester. The first day was on transactions, such as selling stamps. The second day was on balancing. And I do recall at the end of the first day my head was absolutely spinning with all the information that we had to carry. I’d never used a computer before and, yes, it was how am I going to manage with all of this that I’ve never done before?

Ms Hodge: What in-branch training did you receive from the Post Office?

Julie Beisner: They sent out – they were called Field Support Officers and you had one Field Support Officer who came to the office about three or four days during the week when the Horizon System had been installed and they shadowed you when you were doing transactions, which, in theory, was quite a good idea but, of course, it was dependent upon customers coming in and doing, for example, pensions.

If a customer didn’t come in and require a pension to be paid, then you didn’t get to experience how you would do that transaction on the computer system.

Ms Hodge: What was your impression of the quality of the training that you received?

Julie Beisner: Woefully inadequate. We had these huge binders of information as well, which we were allowed to take away with us and most of the information was irrelevant and confusing.

Ms Hodge: When did you first start experiencing problems in using the Horizon System?

Julie Beisner: Around about 2006.

Ms Hodge: What was the nature of the problems that you experienced?

Julie Beisner: Shortfalls, you know, small shortfalls £10/£20, something like that and then they gradually became larger amounts. I’ve got two occasions that stand out, one which was – shall I explain?

Ms Hodge: Please do.

Julie Beisner: One that was for £300, they said I owed them, for an alleged shortfall and, at that time, I just thought, well, I’ve got no option other than to pay it so I paid it. Then another one occurred in August 2007 and I decided to dispute that and I argued I was not going to pay it and so they said, “Well, you have to pay it, it’s a shortfall in your accounts”.

“No, I’m not going to pay it”. So they said, “If you don’t pay it, we will take it out of your bank account”, and that’s exactly what they did. And the bank said that they should not have done that. It’s an unlawful and illegal act. You can’t just take money out of somebody’s bank account like that. But the Post Office could.

If I can just read this to you, it was a document that I have in my possession. Let me just find that one for you. It was talking about the changes to how shortfalls would be brought to account. This is from 2003. Just to summarise, it says that:

“From November 2003 any error notices not brought to account which resulted in a shortfall can be deducted from subpostmasters’ remuneration. This new process has been made in consultation with the National Federation of SubPostmasters.”

Well, I think it’s a pity individual postmasters were not consulted before this new process was implemented.

Ms Hodge: Ms Beisner, the document to which you just referred now describes a process by which the Post Office proposed making deductions from a postmaster’s salary. Is that what you understood occurred on that occasion or was it an actual deduction from the money in your bank account?

Julie Beisner: They took the money from the bank account. So if you were paid – I don’t know, you were paid a certain amount for the remuneration, you’d have that money but then the shortfall, in my case, was £333.58; they took the £333.58 from my bank account.

Ms Hodge: I think that covers the two incidents that you have referred to in 2007; is that right?

Julie Beisner: Yes, that’s correct.

Ms Hodge: When you experienced discrepancies and shortfalls, whom did you contact for advice and assistance?

Julie Beisner: You would contact the helpline and the advice that you get would be very conflicting, and sometimes you’d be sent ping-ponging from pillar to post because sometimes it would be, “Well, this isn’t a transaction issue, this is an IT issue, you need to speak to IT”. And so sometimes you just didn’t really get anywhere.

Occasionally, you got someone who would know what they were talking about and they would help with matters and I think I need to explain at this point there was a difference between cash shortfalls and stock shortfalls.

A stock shortfall, for example when Horizon generated a figure, you could contest that and you could argue that with them, and that’s what I did. Because I’d kept meticulous records, having been brought up with a paper-based system, I knew what my stock holding should be and, on one occasion, it was May 2018, Horizon said I’d got 123 Songbird presentation packs. I only ever had single figures of those presentation packs that I could count on my hand, and I argued with them. I said, “No, the system is wrong, I haven’t got that” and the advice was, “Well, can you count them again?” And it took an awful long time to convince them, “No, that’s not right, I’ve only got single figures”.

Now, if you have come to the Post Office and not been used to a paper-based system, you would probably just assume Horizon says you should have X, and, therefore, you’ve got X amount of stock. But I was always on the look-out for these things.

If it was a cash shortfall, they just would not entertain any discussion whatsoever. It was either pay up or – well, you know the rest of the story.

Ms Hodge: You have mentioned the discrepancy in your stock holding that was – that showed on Horizon in May 2018.

Julie Beisner: Yes.

Ms Hodge: How was that ultimately resolved with the Post Office?

Julie Beisner: Because I stood my ground with them and I said, “No, you know, this is not right, I can tell you what I had last week and I can tell you I have not sold that amount of presentation packs. I’ve never even had that amount on hand”. So I’d got all my records. That’s why the old paper-based system was so much better, because you could refer back to paper copies of things.

Ms Hodge: You’ve described keeping your paper records and comparing that against what the Horizon System was showing your stock ought to be.

Julie Beisner: Yes.

Ms Hodge: What did you believe at the time was causing these discrepancies between what the Horizon System was showing and your own paper records?

Julie Beisner: Well, probably the mixed information that you got about the Horizon System because, as I explained, you had problems with the equipment itself. You know, you’d get power outages, you’d get the screen freezing, you would get the PIN pad not working. And you’d ring up and, eventually, you’d get through to – they called themselves Horizon System help desk or IT desk, and they would say to you, “Oh, press buttons” or, if that didn’t work, “Reboot the system”.

And I spoke to an engineer on one occasion who had to come out and do bodge repairs on the system and he said that it was very important with the Horizon system that you switch things off in the right order, that you log off from the screen and then you switch the base unit off. If you do things in a different order, then that can cause issues. So, quite possibly, it could have been that, it could have been a power surge. Those figures were definitely not right.

Ms Hodge: You have mentioned an engineer that you spoke to. Do you know for whom that individual worked?

Julie Beisner: He would have come out from the IT desk. So he would have been a Horizon engineer. Some of them are very good. I did have some names of some of them, very helpful, but some of them – I asked people when I spoke to them on the help desk, “Have you used the Horizon System yourself?” and invariably it was, “Well, no, no, I haven’t used that”. So how can they give you advice when they don’t even know the system themselves?

Ms Hodge: What happened when you received error notices issued by the Post Office?

Julie Beisner: Error notices, you had to put them – they had changed the process but you had to put them into housekeeping. After that, you had to put them in the suspense account and you had to make sure that you’d put the money in and accepted the error notice and followed the instructions because you cannot balance up your accounts if you have got outstanding discrepancies and you can’t balance up with negative figures either.

Ms Hodge: You have already described the two particular shortfalls that stand out for you in 2007.

Julie Beisner: Yes.

Ms Hodge: You said, in the first instance, I think, you paid the money into – you paid the money to the Post Office.

Julie Beisner: Yes.

Ms Hodge: You paid the money into the account. Why did you do that if you didn’t believe there was, in fact, a shortfall in your accounts?

Julie Beisner: Because it was just that you work for the Post Office and if they said the money was short, with a paper-based system you could check the records and, if they said it was short, you would pay the money. But this, because I hadn’t got any paper records, I didn’t think I’d got any other option.

Then when it happened a second time, that’s when I thought, “No, I’m not doing this; there’s something not right here”.

Ms Hodge: How much do you believe you have paid in total to make good shortfalls shown by the Horizon System?

Julie Beisner: I would say over the time that I had Horizon, if you say, sort of, £10 here, £20 there, adding that up over roughly 15 years, probably between £2,000 and £3,000 but then also, if you consider when the system was down and you couldn’t do any transactions, you were placed on what they called limited services, you’re not being paid for that either. So, effectively, you are losing out on that as well.

Ms Hodge: Your appointment as an SPM came to an end last year; is that right?

Julie Beisner: That’s right, yes, February 2021.

Ms Hodge: Was that a result of your decision to resign?

Julie Beisner: It was my decision because – for lots of reasons but, really, I’d had enough of it. I’d had enough of the way the Horizon System was working. It was just so much stress to be under every time it came to the balance, you know, “What are the figures going to be this time?” and seeing, of course, as time went on, seeing what was happening to other subpostmasters, I became quite scared. What’s going to happen if there’s a shortage? You know, what’s going to happen to me?

Ms Hodge: You have mentioned in your statement an event which occurred before the final audit of your branch took place that related to a surplus of cash. Can you please explain what happened?

Julie Beisner: The surplus of cash that they wanted back? The Post Office was closed – just to put it into perspective, the Post Office was closed in March 2020 because of Covid restrictions, et cetera, and I had a call from my manager in the autumn of 2020 saying that the Post Office wanted surplus cash back. I point out at this point that, when I closed the office in March, I obviously did a balance, a correct balance, no negative values, no problems, locked the premises, alarmed it and then, as I said, I had this call could I send surplus cash back because they wanted other offices to be able to use that. I said, “Yes, of course I’ll do that.”

So I, you know, found out what I needed to do, got in touch with the CRU, got in touch with Horizon and went down to the office, unlocked it and I had to get the computer system working again to be able to do this, because you have to have the computer system working to be able to send the money back to put yourself in the correct balance period, et cetera, et cetera.

So I rang the Horizon help desk and also the NDSC, and I got all the instructions, all the reference numbers, dates, times, what I needed to do, because when I went down to the office, the computer system – presumably because it had been the office had been closed for so long, the computer system was down. So I had to get the computer system up and running again to be able to send the money back which I did.

My manager – and I was in touch with my manager throughout the whole of this process and he said, “All you need to do is to open the office up for the CRU, send the money back, lock the premises, alarm it, do your balance, and that’s it, that’s all we want you to do.” I said, “Yes, of course I’ll do that”.

So that is what I did. I had to reboot the system, do various compliances on it, do up the cash, do a balance, which, again, was a correct balance, CRU came, collected the cash, I closed the door, locked the premises, alarmed it all, thought nothing more about it. And then when it came to the final audit in February 2021 – would you like me to tell you about that experience?

Ms Hodge: Yes. Who attended your branch to carry out that audit?

Julie Beisner: I’m still quite apprehensive about giving my full evidence about giving names because of fear of the Post Office coming after me, I mean the power that they wield. I will give you the name of the auditor, but the other two people who came with the auditor, I don’t feel comfortable giving their names.

The auditor’s name was Gurmeet or Gurmet. Auditors are not very nice people. They don’t speak to you. All they do is tot up the figures and then they say, “Can you explain this?” The whole experience is extremely stressful. It’s like standing in front of a steamroller and thinking, “At any moment, I could be swept under the wheels”. It’s just – unless you have experienced that, you have no idea just how horrendous it is.

The auditor went up the figures. “Can you explain this?” There was a lot of negative values, I couldn’t believe it, all through my stock and I just said, “Well, that’s impossible”. And what was also upsetting was that my manager – when the auditor was going up the figures, my manager just said, “Oh, I can’t stay here, I’ll step outside for a few minutes”.

So, basically, you are in there, you and the auditor, and they are saying, “Can you explain this?” “Well, no, I can’t”. You know, I run my office deficiently. You can’t balance up with negative figures, it’s impossible. So how does it get all those figures? And the auditor gave me the stamps and said, “For example, your self-adhesives. There’s eight books here, isn’t there? Would you like to count them?” Of course I counted them. There was eight books. But there’s all these negative figures and I said, “Well, I’m not agreeing to that, you know, this is wrong”. I said, you know, “I’m just not going to accept this”.

They said, “If you don’t accept this, you can’t close the office”. It’s just the whole thing was – it was just oppressive conduct. It was just extremely distressing. They found a shortfall when they put all the figures – when he put the figures right, as he said, of £1,970, after doing two correct balances. How? The premises had been locked, the doors were closed, it was all alarmed, no-one had been there, no customers. How is that? It can’t be. It just can’t.

Ms Hodge: I understand, Ms Beisner, you don’t want to name individuals but you have mentioned that your manager was in attendance – is that right – at the audit?

Julie Beisner: That’s correct, yes.

Ms Hodge: There was one other employee of the Post Office, is that correct?

Julie Beisner: That’s correct, yes.

Ms Hodge: Can you please describe the attitude of your manager whilst the audit was being conducted?

Julie Beisner: Just, as soon as the audit started, the manager said, “I can’t be in here, I’ll just step outside for a few moments”, and that was it. You know, there was no support, there was no support from the helpline, Horizon, no support from National Federation of SubPostmasters, no-one. I was on my own.

And, you know, this £1,970, I’m still concerned and worried about it. I know the Post Office are watching this and I would like to have written confirmation from them to be sent to my legal representatives saying they will not be pursuing me for this alleged shortfall of £1,970. I would like that in writing.

Ms Hodge: Just to be clear, this audit occurred on 17 February of last year; is that right?

Julie Beisner: That’s correct, yes.

Ms Hodge: During that audit, a figure of £1,972 was said to be a loss found in your account?

Julie Beisner: Yes, £1,977, and I forget how many pence.

Ms Hodge: Am I right to understand that has not yet been resolved as between you and the Post Office?

Julie Beisner: That’s correct. They said I had to sign off the accounts, otherwise I would not be able to retire. They said that I needed to get in touch with Chesterfield and Chesterfield would look into this and tell me what they thought. I did have a phonecall from someone from Chesterfield and they said, “Would you like to speak to someone? We’ve decided that we’re not going to pursue that. Would you like to speak to someone about it?

I said, “Yes, I’ll speak to someone” and they said, “Oh, they’re not available at the moment”. And that is all that I’ve had. I’ve got nothing in writing. If whoever it was who gave that verbal assurance leaves that office, then what happens?

I think it’s disgusting. I really do. You know, they say they have changed and yet this is not 2007, (connection breaking up) this is 2021.

Sir Wyn Williams: If I’ve got the sequence right, Ms Beisner, apart from the time when you went into the shop in order to arrange for surplus cash to be returned, the premises had actually been closed for about a year –

Julie Beisner: Yes.

Sir Wyn Williams: – and, within that year, you had done two balances which had both been correct?

Julie Beisner: That’s correct, yes, and premises are alarmed, Sir Wyn. No-one could walk in there.

Sir Wyn Williams: Fine. Thank you.

Ms Hodge: Please can you describe, Ms Beisner, how it made you feel to experience this audit in February 2021?

Julie Beisner: Well, to be honest, I still have nightmares about it because, you know, I’m worried they are still going to come after me for money. What good is a verbal assurance from someone who doesn’t come to the phone to speak to you? My experience of using Horizon, it’s just been absolutely harrowing and, you know, I wish I’d never become a subpostmaster. I just wish I’d never decided to start to work for such a corrupt and uncaring organisation who puts profits before people.

Ms Hodge: I would like to ask you now a little bit more about the impact that your experience of using Horizon has had on you and your relationships with your family. What effect did the shortfall shown by Horizon have on your well-being?

Julie Beisner: Well, every time it came to doing a balance, you were worried, you know, what were the shortfalls going to be? And it’s the lack of support. It’s the feeling of total isolation. It’s just horrible. Of course, living in a small village, if word had got out of something like that, I mean, nobody’s going to step foot inside your Post Office, are they? It was just awful.

I mean, I know my mother couldn’t believe that this was happening and she accused me of being careless because she, like everybody else, thought Horizon couldn’t be wrong.

Ms Hodge: What are you now doing for work since you resigned your position as a subpostmistress?

Julie Beisner: I’m not – I’ve been, sort of, just, sort of, considering my options since then and, obviously, helping the Inquiry, because I want to see justice done. And I read that Horizon is not going to be replaced until 2024. Well, how many more people are going to suffer?

You know, a lot of people are afraid to speak out about it. I was apprehensive but I feel I have to do this because they say they’ve righted the wrongs of the past, that things have changed. Even when I had the auditor, I was told, “Oh, don’t worry, they are nice people, you know, it’s all changed, they’re all pleasant people now”. Well, not in my experience they’re not. In my experience, nothing’s changed.

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

Julie Beisner: Yes, I did have offer of a small amount of compensation under Historic Shortfall Scheme of just under £500 but the problem is it comes with a gagging clause. I decided that I’m going to decline because I’m not going to be gagged. People need to hear just how this system is, just how unreliable and how full of flaws it is.

Ms Hodge: By gagging clause, do you mean you would not be permitted to disclose the details of the settlement?

Julie Beisner: That’s correct, and probably not permitted to say anything adverse about Horizon.

Ms Hodge: How do you now feel about the way the Post Office treated you and other subpostmasters?

Julie Beisner: To be honest, I can’t believe it. When I look back to the early days of running post offices – I have another note that I wish to tell you. I have a brochure dated from the 1990s. It was a Post Office brochure and they were asking for subpostmasters to put themselves forward to become Magistrates because, just like Magistrates, subpostmasters were considered pillars of the community, just like Magistrates we were able to sign and witness legal documents.

I mean, where’s the irony in that? They’re just not nice people to work for. It’s just completely changed. They don’t listen. They are threatening. They use oppressive conduct. They just – they’re just totally unreasonable.

Ms Hodge: What do you think needs to be done to put right the harm that has been done by Horizon and the actions of the Post Office?

Julie Beisner: Well, what I want from the Post Office is an apology for what they have done. I want justice and fair recompense for all subpostmasters. I’d also like to see full accountability, together with a duty of candour from all those who have allowed this terrible injustice to proliferate for so long. I’d certainly like to see a swift end to the whole Horizon System, a complete reorganisation overhaul and replacement of the whole Post Office and its management.

I regret ever becoming a postmaster and, you know, I wish I’d pursued my professional legal career instead.

Ms Hodge: Thank you, Ms Beisner. I have no further questions for you. Is there anything else you would like to say?

Julie Beisner: I’ll just refer to my notes just very briefly. (Pause)

Yes, I think that’s everything that I needed to say. Yes, I think that’s everything, thank you.

Ms Hodge: Thank you.

Sir, do you have any questions for this witness?

Sir Wyn Williams: No, I don’t have any questions of you but I would like to thank you for participating twice in this Inquiry because you did participate quite a long time ago, before we had statutory powers. So you were one of the first people to try and help me out. I’m very grateful that you did it then and I’m very grateful that you’ve come today to give your evidence in a formal setting. So thank you very much.

Julie Beisner: Thank you, Sir Wyn.

Ms Hodge: Thank you, sir.

That concludes our oral evidence for today. We have some witness summaries which Mr David Enright is kindly going to read in.

Sir Wyn Williams: Do we need to take a few minutes or is Mr Enright ready to get going, so to speak?

Ms Hodge: I think he’s ready to go.

Sir Wyn Williams: If you want to, you can stay listening to this, Ms Beisner, but if you don’t want to, feel free to disconnect yourself.

Julie Beisner: I will listen. It will be quite interesting, thank you.

Mr Enright: Thank you for inviting me to read in the summaries of the detailed statements and exhibits that you have before you.

Summary of witness statement of Chhaya Patel

Summary of witness statement of CHHAYA PATEL (read).

Mr Enright: Mrs Chhaya Patel was subpostmistress in Burgess Hill between 2014 and 2016. Prior to this, she was an accountant at the TSB. Her family have a long history of running post offices. Mrs Patel received five days of in-branch training on the Horizon system. She found the training to be basic. In fact, a shortfall occurred whilst the trainer was conducting the first balance. The trainer wrote the shortfall off without explanation.

Further shortfalls appeared within four to five months of her taking over the branch. Mrs Patel would constantly call the helpline for advice but none was ever forthcoming.

She was forced to put her own money in to balance the system to be able to trade the following day.

Mrs Patel’s branch was audited and an alleged shortfall of £33,000 was discovered. She was immediately suspended. This was despite the fact that Mrs Patel told the Post Office of the discrepancies in advance and asked them for assistance. Mrs Patel resigned following her suspension. She believes that, in total, she paid in excess of £50,000 to the Post Office. Paying the shortfalls placed an immense stress on her and her family. They became homeless and were forced to live in rented accommodation.

Her husband was hospitalised for over a year with epileptic fits and seizures. He had to be resuscitated on two occasions. The doctors could not explain why he was so ill, other than it was a direct consequence of stress.

Mrs Patel describes living on the poverty line. Her sons were forced to look for employment to help to pay off the debt. She lived in constant fear she would be prosecuted by the Post Office. She felt blacklisted in the community and considered that she had no option but to move away from the area because she felt the whole family had been labelled as thieves.

Mrs Patel now despises the Post Office. She says:

“We were in our late 50s and having to suffer like this became so unbearable that, at times, we wanted to end our lives, to commit suicide, just to get out of this.”

Mrs Patel now lives in affordable housing for the elderly with her husband, who is housebound. She is still forced to work full time although now aged 65, as they still owe money to family members who they borrowed to pay the debt to the Post Office. She concludes:

“I want this whole part of my life to be over. It has gone on for too many years but, most of all, I just want peace.”

Summary of witness statement of Elizabeth Stockdale

Summary of witness statement of ELIZABETH STOCKDALE (read).

Mr Enright: Sir, Ms Elizabeth Stockdale was a subpostmistress in Bridlington between 2014 and 2017. Prior to this, she worked in an employment agency. She ran the Post Office with her son, Luke, who was already employed as an assistant at the branch. Ms Stockdale and her son attended a three-day training course on the Horizon System. She was then shadowed in branch by trainers for a week.

Elizabeth found the training to be basic and only provided an overview of the Horizon System. The first balance she did, under supervision, showed a shortfall. The trainer printed off some paperwork and said she would investigate the shortfall. He did not and four weeks later she had to pay the shortfall.

Ms Stockdale regularly experienced shortfalls and would call the helpline for assistance. Their advice was unhelpful. Usually, she was simply told to pay the shortfalls. She was also told that she was the only one who was experiencing problems with the Horizon System.

Ms Stockdale estimates that she paid or had deducted from her salary in excess of £10,000 as a result of shortages. Elizabeth describes working full time but barely earning a living.

In 2016 Ms Stockdale’s branch was audited and an alleged shortfall of £5,000 was found. She was immediately suspended. She was shocked and shaken. Elizabeth asked that she be allowed to try to understand how the shortfalls had occurred, as she was shown no evidence. She was not provided with evidence. The Post Office simply confirmed that there were no anomalies in the system and Elizabeth had to make good the loss.

Ms Stockdale’s Post Office contract was subsequently terminated. She lost her livelihood and the value of her business. She also suffered stigma and reputational damage. There were rumours that she had been stealing from the Post Office. She struggled with the stress of the shortfalls and turned to alcohol. This put a tremendous strain on her marriage.

Ms Stockdale describes suffering with a loss of self-esteem, paranoia and undergoing a complete character change. On one occasion, she says:

“My paranoia had gotten so bad that I did not even trust my own son and, on one occasion, I physically pinned by son, Luke, down on the bed and asked him what he had done and swear that he was not stealing from me. I was totally confused.”

Ms Stockdale now works as a carer, working night shifts. She has many regrets about taking on the Post Office and believes that, if the Post Office had admitted to the failings in the Horizon System, her life would be much different. She would still be running a successful, thriving business.

One of Ms Stockdale’s biggest regrets is that her father passed away not knowing it was not her fault. Elizabeth concludes:

“I want an apology from the Post Office. I really wish the Post Office would write in big letters in every newspaper ‘I’m sorry, They never did it. Leave them alone’. I want justice for everyone. I want vindication.”

Summary of witness statement of Gillian Blakey

Summary of witness statement of GILLIAN BLAKEY (read).

Mr Enright: Sir, Mrs Gillian Blakey was a subpostmistress in Grimsby from 1996 to 2004. Mrs Blakey ran the Post Office along with her husband, having used a bank loan to finance the purchase. Mrs Blakey managed the Post Office branch using a paper-based system before Horizon was introduced. She recalls that the paper accounting system gave her the chance to check and correct discrepancies if they occurred. This was not possible using Horizon.

Mrs Blakey states that she received inadequate and insufficient training on the Horizon System and struggled with the weekly balancing procedure, despite Post Office staff occasionally coming in to assist at her request.

Mrs Blakey’s husband took over the balancing but also experienced regular shortfalls. The first significant shortfall was approximately £5,000 but the shortfalls continued to grow. Mr Blakey did not tell Gillian about the shortfalls as he knew the negative impact it would have on her health. When auditors arrived on 13 May 2004, Mr Blakey informed the auditor that the branch would be approximately £65,000 short. This was a shock to Mrs Blakey who until this time had had no idea any significant shortfalls had occurred.

Following the audit, Paul Whittaker, a post office investigator, interviewed Mr and Mrs Blakey separately and accused Mr Blakey of stealing money from the Post Office. Mr Whitaker suggested to Mrs Blakey that her husband may have been leading a secret life behind her back, gambling their money without her knowledge, and suggested that Mr Blakey may have been unfaithful.

These ignoble allegations were untrue. Mrs Blakey suggests that the shortfall was due to a problem with the Horizon System but Mr Whittaker of the Post Office rejected her observation out of hand, telling her that, “No, someone has stolen it”.

Mrs Blakey’s husband lost his job and was subsequently declared bankrupt. The Post Office prevented Mrs Blakey from selling the branch to a preferred purchaser, preventing them from recouping some of their investment and alleviating some of the financial hardship. The family home had to be sold. The proceeds went towards the mortgage on the house and the business loan that had been used to finance the purchase of the Post Office. The couple moved into rented accommodation, yet Post Office still attempted to pursue the couple for the alleged shortfall.

Post Office took away Mrs Blakey’s business, her livelihood and her home. She considers that they robbed her of the chance of a peaceful and happy retirement and devastated her husband and family with her husband’s prosecution. The couple still live in the shadow of those events more than 18 years later. Mrs Blakey says:

“I regret the decision to become a subpostmaster very much and very deeply. I hate the Post Office. I do not trust them. I do not think they have learned any lessons. I’d like the Inquiry to put this right and to show where the blame really belongs and to put us in the position we would have been in if none of this had ever happened.”

Summary of witness statement of Keith Lofthouse

Summary of witness statement of KEITH LOFTHOUSE (read).

Mr Enright: Sir, Keith Lofthouse was the subpostmaster of the Wyverstone Road Post Office in Stowmarket from December 1977 to May 1980. He then purchased a larger Post Office at Humberston in Grimsby, where he was subpostmaster from September 1980 to February 2009.

In the 14 years prior to the introduction of the Horizon system, Mr Lofthouse experienced no discrepancies. After the Horizon System was introduced in 2001, Mr Lofthouse recounts that he paid, or the Post Office deducted, in excess of £22,000, in relation to alleged shortfalls between the period 2001 to 2009.

The shortfalls were continuous, ranging from £50 to in excess of £1,000, throughout this his time in post. Mr Lofthouse felt compelled to retire and sell his business because the shortfalls became too much to sustain.

Mr Lofthouse says that he knew there was a fault with the Horizon System because the screen would alter of its own accord and totals would just suddenly double. The Post Office eventually replaced all the Horizon hardware in Mr Lofthouse’s branch but this did not resolve the problem. Mr Lofthouse says he and his wife lost out on a comfortable retirement and their plans to enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle because they were constantly having to dip into their pensions to cover the Horizon losses.

Mr Lofthouse says:

“I would like to see the people that introduced the Horizon System to be held responsible for the faulty system. Paula Vennells only came into office in the Post Office in 2007. She inherited Horizon. She did not introduce it. I believe those who introduced the faulty Horizon System should be held accountable for the damage it caused so many subpostmasters.”

Summary of witness statement of Mohammed Khalil

Summary of witness statement of MOHAMMED KHALIL (read).

Mr Enright: Sir, Mr Mohammed Khalil was the subpostmaster in Norwood from 2004 until 2015. He remortgaged his house and took out a bank loan to finance the business. Prior to this, he had worked as an accounts manager.

Mr Khalil received some training on the Horizon System and was left with a manual to refer to if any problems arose. When he did call the Post Office helpline seeking assistance they would usually refer him to the training manual.

Shortfalls in the Horizon System arose from the beginning. Initially they were small and manageable. Mr Khalil used his own money to make them good to continue trading. However, the shortfalls increased over time. Mr Khalil estimates that in the ten years he was a subpostmaster he paid in excess of £85,000 in shortfalls. To cover this, he initially used his savings, then borrowed from family, then used bank loans and credit cards. He also resorted to selling his wife’s jewellery to raise money.

Mr Khalil describes the stress as being intense and he collapsed on two occasions whilst he was working in his own Post Office. Mr Khalil could no longer afford to continue to pay the ever-increasing shortfalls and made the decision to sell his business. He was suffering with stress, sleeplessness and diabetes. He fell into depression and estimates his losses to be in the region of £200,000.

Mr Khalil is now 70 years of age. He still has a mortgage and relies on credit cards and handouts from his children to survive. He blames Post Office Limited for this. He avoided the potential accusation of theft by paying a crippling amount of money to the Post Office that he believes he was not responsible for.

He did everything he could to avoid becoming bankrupt, living what he describes as a deprived life for many years.

He did this also to preserve his reputation within the community. Mr Khalil blames Post Office Limited for arguments caused within the family that led to his son’s divorce. His son left the country and they now have little contact.

Mr Khalil says that he wants an apology from the Post Office:

“I want them to hold their hands up and accept responsibility. The public should know that subpostmasters are not and were not dishonest. They were, in fact, failed by the system that was put in place by the Post Office and the Government.”

Summary of witness statement of Pamela Stubbs

Summary of witness statement of PAMELA STUBBS (read).

Mr Enright: Sir, Ms Pamela Stubbs was the subpostmistress of Barkham Post Office in Berkshire from 4 August 1999 to 8 June 2010. She and her husband sold their homes to buy the Post Office at a cost of £186,000. Ms Stubbs received a single day’s training on the Post Office’s Horizon System when it was introduced. Prior to the introduction of the Horizon System she had no major problems. Ms Stubbs describes the Horizon training as being very poor and she experienced repeated problems with the Horizon System from the outset.

She sought help from the Post Office helpline but no help was provided. Shortfalls were repeatedly reported to the Horizon System. When Pamela complained about the discrepancies to her network business manager, he responded, “Well, a lot of SPMs have said that Horizon has problems but nobody has been able to prove it”.

The Post Office demanded that Ms Stubbs pay them £28,829.05 in respect of a series of alleged shortfalls. Ms Stubbs was threatened with prosecution, suspended by the Post Office and locked out of her own Post Office. She undertook her own research into the Horizon System and threatened to expose the Post Office in court. Consequently, the Post Office decided not to pursue a prosecution.

However, she was forced to sell her Post Office at a huge loss, thereby losing the value of the business and her future income. From being respected and trusted, she says, she lost her reputation and was aware of gossip about her. She felt compelled to give up her position as a district councillor, due to the unfounded rumours that she had stolen money from the Post Office. Ms Stubbs says that:

“The Post Office might have well have just held us up at gunpoint on the street and said ‘Give us your money’, knowing full well they would never have to give it back.”

She says that the experiences with the Post Office took its toll on her mentally, physically and that she suffered from anxiety, depression, insomnia because of the stress she was put under by Post Office in trying to prove that she did not take any money from them. Ms Stubbs says:

“I used to be a PE teacher. As such, I have always been fit and healthy. And now, suddenly, I am not, because of the stress the Post Office caused me and I am still on tablets to this day. I was also diagnosed with a heart condition caused by stress. I had been put under and I am no longer able to work as a result.”

Pamela is left feeling very angry and breaks down in tears when she thinks about what happened. She feels the retirement years she looked forward to have been taken away from her as has her good health.

Summary of witness statement of Pauline Coates

Summary of witness statement of PAULINE COATES (read).

Mr Enright: Sir, Pauline Coates was the subpostmistress of two post offices, West Tisted Post Office and later Ropley Post Office, until March 2009. She began her career with the Post Office in March 1988.

From the instruction of the Horizon System, Pauline regularly experienced small shortfalls. When she would call the helpline seeking help, she was usually told to consult the training manual. An audit was conducted on 5 January 2009 and a huge shortfall of £9,953.86 was allegedly found, supposedly a combination of cash and stock.

Consequently, Ms Coates was suspended and her contract was later terminated. Ms Coates was required to repay the alleged shortfalls in instalments for ten years. She made her final payment in December 2019.

The Post Office’s fraud investigators accused her of theft. A Post Office investigator came to Pauline’s home. He told her that he would issue Pauline with what he described as a simple adult caution. Pauline was told if she accepted this that the matter would be concluded. Pauline had no idea what this was. She accepted it as she was so upset and afraid. Pauline says:

“I didn’t even think of making any kind of appeal because they, the Post Office, were just so convinced I had taken the money and I could not prove otherwise. To be completely honest, my spirit was broken and I would not have wanted to remain being employed by such a heartless organisation.

“In October 2009, Graham Brander, a Post Office fraud investigator, came to my home and advised me that I would be issued with what he described as a ‘simple adult caution’, whatever that means, and the matter would be concluded. I do not know whether I have a criminal record or not. If this is the case, I want this removed.”

Summary of witness statement of Sharon Bennett

Summary of witness statement of SHARON BENNETT (read).

Mr Enright: Sir, Mrs Sharon Bennett became a subpostmistress of Whinney Lane branch in Pontefract in 2005, after working there as a counter assistant. She took over the branch with the intention of running it as a family business.

As Ms Bennett had been working as a counter assistant, the Post Office assumed she did not need training on the Horizon System and none was offered to her. Following a back injury, Ms Bennett took a month’s sick leave from the branch. On her return, Sharon was made aware that there was a shortfall of some £3,000.

Sharon contacted the Post Office helpline and requested that they send a trainer into the branch as a matter of urgency to carry out an audit. Sharon also contacted the previous subpostmistress who came to the branch and confirmed that Mrs Bennett had done the transactions correctly and could not explain the discrepancy.

Mrs Bennett paid in excess of £5,000 of her own money to cover the supposed shortfalls after borrowing money to do so. This caused tension between her and her husband. In early 2006, Mrs Bennett’s branch was audited and an alleged shortfall of over £500 was discovered. Sharon was immediately suspended and questioned in an aggressive manner by her area manager, who implied she had stolen the money.

Mrs Bennett’s contract was subsequently terminated on basis that the Post Office had lost faith in her ability to run the Post Office.

Sharon says:

“I have tried to give an indication of the consequences of the Post Office action against me but it is impossible to give a full account of the nights and days when you can see no way ahead. I was treated as a criminal, my business was destroyed, my finances were ruined. We lost our home and I had to stop working due to my illness being exacerbated by the stress I was placed under. The Horizon system has been shown to be deeply flawed and that the Post Office knew that it was. I would like the full truth to come out. I want the world to know that I and other ordinary, hard-working, decent people like me had their lives ruined by Post Office Limited. I would like it to be publicly shown that the Post Office knew its computer system, Horizon, was completely flawed and unreliable and that, despite this, Post Office pursued subpostmasters and ruined their lives for money that never existed.”

Summary of witness statement of Tracy McFadden

Summary of witness statement of TRACY McFADDEN (read).

Mr Enright: Sir, Tracy McFadden was a subpostmistress of the Sandiacre Post Office, Nottingham from approximately 17 June 2002 to August 2016. She also ran the Chaddesden Post Office in Derby from 2006 to 2008.

It will be recalled that Ms McFadden gave evidence to you when the Inquiry was in its non-statutory phase.

Tracy worked in the insurance industry for 20 years in the UK and internationally prior to becoming a subpostmaster. She says that the training she received on Horizon was inadequate. Tracy began to experience shortfalls and regularly contacted the helpline.

On one occasion, she contacted the helpline for advice and carried out their instructions which then doubled the shortfall, then doubled it again and again until, before she knew it, the supposed shortfall had grown to £16,000. Tracy naturally refused to pay this sum and eventually the Post Office reduced the shortfall to £800. Tracy estimates that she paid £24,000 in respect of shortfalls from both of her branches.

Tracy’s contract was terminated by Post Office against her will under the Network Transformation scheme. Ms McFadden feels that the events related to the Post Office branch have ruined her life and her reputation. Tracy’s reputation suffered. She has been called a “wicked witch” to her face after having served the community for over 14 years. The Post Office’s defective Horizon System damaged her confidence in her abilities, her confidence in her staff, and their confidence in each other. Tracy says:

“My mental and physical health are completely wrecked. I hate everything my life has turned out to be. Becoming a subpostmaster now seems to have been the worst decision I could have made as the Post Office stole everything from me.”

Ms McFadden says:

“I would like the Post Office to truly understand the impact that their actions had upon me and people like me, good, decent, hard-working people who were committed to their local communities. Instead, I and others are reduced to poverty with our reputations in tatters.”

Summary of witness statement of Shazia Saddiq

Summary of witness statement of SHAZIA SADDIQ (read).

Mr Enright: Finally, sir, Ms Shazia Saddiq. Ms Saddiq overcame a very difficult young life to have a successful career with a major bank before becoming a subpostmistress in 2009. She ran three post offices in the Newcastle-upon-Tyne area. She says that she poured all of her energies and efforts into making these post offices a success to create security for herself but particularly for her two children. These post offices were not businesses to Ms Saddiq; they were her hopes and dreams for a safe and secure and happy life.

Ms Saddiq suffered constant shortfalls and discrepancies with the Horizon System. The Post Office demanded £39,269.97, which later rose to £41,097.37. However, the Post Office provided no explanation as to how that figure had been arrived at.

Ms Saddiq was suspended by the Post Office, her branches were closed in October 2016 and the keys taken away from her. She was the subject of an investigation during which the Post Office threatened to place a charging order on her property.

Ms Saddiq says because her Post Office was closed, local people were unable to access services, including benefit payments. As a result, there was a lot of anger directed towards her by local people. On one occasion, Ms Saddiq was approaching her home with her children when a group of men began shouting at her, threatening her and calling her a thief. On another occasion, a crowd through eggs, flour and stones at Ms Saddiq and her children. She fled her home with her children that night with a handful of belongings.

Sir, you will have seen the exhibit to Ms Saddiq’s statement which shows the few things they were able to carry with her. They have never returned to their home. These attacks were a direct result of the action taken against Ms Saddiq by Post Office Limited.

Ms Saddiq’s health was affected. She suffered a total breakdown, an irregular heart beat, headaches, insomnia, stress-related hair loss, and extreme anxiety.

Ms Saddiq received threatening calls from Post Office investigators. She says that the Post Office stole her life and the dreams that she had for herself and her children. She says that the Post Office treated her like a criminal when, in fact, any criminal behaviour was committed by the Post Office.

Ms Saddiq says:

“I am an ordinary, honest and very hard-working woman. I have always tried to be a good mother and a good person. I feel like I was raped in public by the Post Office and no-one in authority has done anything about it.”

Thank you very much, Sir Wyn.

Ms Hodge: Sorry, sir, I think you are on mute. We couldn’t hear what you said just then.

Sir Wyn Williams: Sorry, I was simply observing that I actually have one more summary from Isabella Armstrong Wall and I was just wondering whether that was to be read on some different occasion. That’s all.

Mr Enright: If I may explain, sir, your legal team advised me that the statement of Ms Wall has not been uploaded yet and, as such, the summary cannot be read today.

Sir Wyn Williams: Thank you, Mr Enright. That’s fine.

Ms Hodge: Thank you, sir. That concludes our proceedings for today. We are due to resume tomorrow at 11.30 am if that remains convenient for you.

Sir Wyn Williams: Yes, certainly. And I think tomorrow we have three witnesses and roughly a similar number of summaries to read; is that the programme?

Ms Hodge: That is correct, yes.

Sir Wyn Williams: Thank you. Then I will see you tomorrow, Ms Hodge.

Ms Hodge: Thank you, sir. Good afternoon.

(12.38 pm)

(Adjourned until 11.30 am the following day)