A former postmistress has told the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry how being accused of stealing money from the company has cost her family over £1m in the last decade, yet she was offered only £24,000 in compensation.
The inquiry, chaired by Sir Wyn Williams, was in Belfast for the second day of the hearing into what has been described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in British legal history.
More than 700 people were wrongly prosecuted between 2000 and 2014 after the Horizon IT system incorrectly reported that money had vanished.
Fiona Elliot, who bought premises in the village of Clady on the Tyrone/Donegal border in 2005, told the inquiry how years of money going missing had cost her family the business, which included the only shop and Post Office in the village, plus two houses as she struggled to cope with the magnitude of the debt the computer glitch amassed.
She said the community had now been left without a shop after the premises she had owned were repossessed by the bank.
Another witness, John Gormley, who had been running a Post Office in Shantallow shopping centre, told the inquiry how he had tried to hide his debts from his family and friends through embarrassment, and had only found out the possible reason money was disappearing through a report in the Belfast Telegraph years after the funds started going missing.
Mr Gormley, now living in Co Donegal, said the discrepancies had amounted over years, embroiled him in legal issues with former staff and how he had paid £20,000 of money from his supermarket business to balance the books at his Post Office.
Mrs Elliott told the inquiry she had bought the village shop, Post Office, attached buy-to-let house and adjoining car park in 2005 with a view to run it until retirement and as a way of securing a future for her family.
“It looked to be such a good opportunity,” said Mrs Elliot, who has now had to return to full-time work as a childminder.
“It was the only shop in the village, but on taking over the Post Office I only received one day of training. I asked for extra help and support but never got any,” she said.
“At the start, the Horizon system seemed grand,” she continued. “But very quickly discrepancies started appearing. At first it was £20 here, £60 there. The post office had to be looked after, so I was taking money from the shop till to put behind the counter to keep it right.
“I thought there was an internet problem, being a rural community, that’s why transactions weren’t going through properly because of that.
“Every week, we were looking in bins late at night. Were people stealing scratch cards, was lottery money going missing? I knew I had been doing nothing wrong, but the money kept disappearing.
“I constantly contacted the helpline for further assistance, asking for an audit. When two people finally arrived in 2009, they found £6,000 missing from the system that day. I was told I could be facing a criminal offence. I explained to them I had been putting money in for years to cover the shortfalls. Hundreds of pounds every week.
“I was told the £6,000 had to be paid back right then. I hadn’t got that sort of cash in the shop, but they told me I couldn’t leave the premises to go to the bank and they refused to accept a cheque.
“The only thing I could do was ask my brother who runs a car business in the town, to lend it to me. They never gave me a receipt.”
Mrs Elliot had contacted a solicitor, who requested and received call logs of all the times she had tried to contact the Post Office for assistance when she was suspended from the business pending an investigation.
“Six weeks later I was taken into a room with four men and told I would not be facing any criminal offence, but I didn’t have the heart to go back to the business. People were talking. The feeling in the village was that I was closing the post office and their only shop on them.”
Mrs Elliott was later offered a redundancy package from the Post Office. “I took it. I didn’t want to be there.
“I rented the shop out, but the debts were there. The whole thing was repossessed by the bank, the shop, the post office and two buy-to-let houses. I had paid £322,000 for the premises alone. The bank sold it on for £40,000. Now it’s all boarded up and run down when it should be the centre of the community.”
Mrs Elliot aid she had applied for compensation through the Historic Shortfall Scheme.
“There was a very short window to apply for that,” she said. “That wasn’t helpful and did most of it myself. But when added up, the whole 10 to 15 years cost me and my family over £1m. I was offered £24,000. I was disgusted.”
Co Derry man John Gormley had a similar experience after purchasing a supermarket in 1982 with redundancy money from his engineering job and when that proved successful, adding a Post Office in Shantallow shopping centre in 2002, which was then moved to the local SuperValu.
“The first discrepancy was in the second or third week I was there,” he told the inquiry. “It wasn’t large. Between £60-£80. It was probably one of the six biggest Post Offices in the country in terms of payouts. It was in a deprived area,” he said.
“I raised it with the manager but as time went on the pressure started to grow and the shortfalls had to be made good. There were very few weeks we had a break even.
“In 2003 the manager handed in his notice. Relationships with staff were increasingly strained.
“The shortages had to be addressed but I was making no headway.”
Mr Gormley said a new manager was in place for two years, but left and instigated a constructive dismissal case concerning the continuing financial discrepancies. It resulted in an order to pay out £10,000 which he simply couldn’t afford.
“That litigation compounded the problems,” he said. “Debts were increasing as I had to use any profit from the supermarket to offset the missing money in the Post Office.
“In 2008, I had no option other than transferring the business back to the franchiser. My family was left with nothing, but I feared I would end up in prison had the Post Office debts not been paid.
“I kept a lot from my wife and children. I didn’t want to talk about it,” he said. “I just wanted it all to go away, but there were weeks when I didn’t know if we’d have a loaf of bread on the table.
“I was reading the Belfast Telegraph three or four years after I had resigned from the Post Office. It was only then that I realised this wasn’t just my problem.
“I tried to apply for the compensation scheme but as I’d tried to hide everything, my depression, away, I was told I was too late. The answer was a straight ‘no’.
“But all through this I made good on the discrepancies using funds from the supermarket business. They were very quick to put a gun to my head to make sure of that.”
Mr Gormley said he still lives with guilt.
“Throughout my years at the Post Office I would have questioned my staff and accuse them of being responsible for the shortfalls,” he said.
“I blamed my staff completely for the situation I found myself in. I wanted to take the blame away from myself and this upsets me profoundly.
“It’s hard to accept the Horizon system was responsible the whole time.”