For Janet Skinner Friday April 23, 2021, was a day more than 14 years in the making and one she feared would never come. Her 2007 conviction over £59,000 of supposedly missing money from the Post Office she ran in Hull – which resulted in a prison sentence, the sale of her house and the destruction of her good name – was not only quashed as entirely wrongful, her very prosecution was deemed to have been an “affront to justice”.
Karl Turner MP: I fear criminality may lay at heart of Post Office scandal Skinner was among 39 former subpostmasters who were convicted and even jailed for theft, fraud and false accounting following private prosecutions from the Post Office who had their names cleared by the Court of Appeal last month. Her ecstatic embrace of her daughter and her niece outside the hearing in London after the verdict led much of the media coverage.
“Friday April 23 was one of the best days of my life other than having my kids,” Janet reflects. “It was amazing. I had never seen anything like it outside court. I was on the front page of quite a few newspapers the following day; everyone has said it was because of the sheer relief on my face.”
Skinner’s shocking story is one of literally hundreds involving subpostmasters who were accused by the Post Office of stealing money - and in many cases losing their jobs, homes and liberty as a result – when in fact repeated accounting errors in the branches they ran were not down to theft but rather a series of glitches in the organisation’s now infamous Horizon IT system that was developed by Fujitsu. Six other convictions had been overturned prior to the April 23 ruling, and last week a further two convictions were quashed, taking the total number who have now been cleared to 47. In a statement on May 7, the Post Office said it was contacting a further 540 people with potentially relevant convictions that are now in doubt and seeking 'further information' from another 100.
The immediate fallout from the Court of Appeal verdict has seen much attention focused on former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells, who was in the role between 2012 and 2019 and was subsequently made a CBE. Ms Vennells resigned as a non-executive director of Morrisons and Dunelm after issuing an apology for the “suffering” of the wrongly-convicted subpostmasters.
While the Government has launched an inquiry into the scandal which is expected to report this summer, the investigation cannot compel witnesses to attend or hand over evidence. Members of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) fear its findings will amount to a “whitewash” and are instead demanding the immediate launch of a statutory independent inquiry which would have more wide-ranging powers - a call being backed by numerous cross-party MPs.
Janet says: “They need to investigate everybody and open a public inquiry. It goes way beyond just one person. We need to know who knew; how long did they know and why did they not feel we were important enough to be made aware of what was going on?”
Skinner first started working for the Post Office in the mid-1990s as a counter clerk. Her enjoyment of the job and professionalism eventually saw her progress to become subpostmaster at North Bransholme Post Office.
Initially, the branch’s books were done manually using two ledgers – one for daily transactions and another adding up weekly totals. But around 2000, the Post Office began rolling out its compulsory new Horizon IT system to handle transactions and balance the till. Any error was down to the postmaster to correct.
In early 2006, Skinner found the till of her busy branch was down by £7,000 “which was something that never happened”.
“You go over everything and double check. I knew it wasn’t me and so then you start thinking is it your staff? You are looking at everybody and it is not a nice thought to have.”
The till’s shortfalls began multiplying and a desperate Janet called in network managers. “My losses increased substantially, they kept doubling. I explained I was running at a loss and I didn’t know where the money was. It was up to £45,000 and I requested an audit the following day. At the time, I was relieved – I was thinking they will get to the bottom of it and find out where it has gone.”
The total shortfall was swiftly assessed by auditors as being £59,000. Janet says she was invited for what she thought was going to be an informal chat with the investigators, only for the venue to be moved from a post office to a nearby police station where a recorded interview took place.
“I can actually remember saying to them I thought there was maybe something wrong with the system. I had the interview and they said we will look into it. Then I got a letter in August saying I had to attend court as I had been charged with theft and false accounting relating to the £59,000. I was in pieces.”
She says she was advised by her solicitor that the best way to avoid a potential jail sentence was to plead guilty to false accounting and the Post Office would drop the more serious theft charge. But despite her guilty plea, she still received a nine-month prison sentence.
“It was devastating. The day I went to court and they sent me to jail, I remember them taking me into the cell but not much more because I cried that much. I was on suicide watch because of my emotional state. My family were absolutely distraught.
“Jail was not a very nice experience. There would be people coming in from Hull who would recognise me as the woman who had stolen from the Post Office.”
After being released on a tag in August 2007, Janet’s anguish did not end there. She had been ordered to pay £11,000 in compensation to the Post Office and had to sell her house to raise the funds.
But the sum she believed had been set aside for the Post Office had actually swallowed up by early repayment charges on her mortgage and she was then pursued through the courts for the missing money.
The situation led to her losing an agency job doing administrative work. She believes the stress of the situation contributed to a physical breakdown which saw her temporarily paralysed from the neck down as a result of spinal problems.
“They thought it was going to be permanent and I would never walk again. But my daughter had just found out she was expecting a baby and I thought there is no way I’m not going to be able to walk.”
She says she still suffers with physical problems to this day.
“I think a lot of people seem to be suffering with mental breakdowns because of it. It has affected my physically. I haven’t been able to work since 2008.”
After feeling she was alone in her situation, Janet saw the story of fellow jailed subpostmaster Seema Misra on the news and immediately saw the parallels with her own case. It led to her getting in contact with the JFSA group, led by Alan Bates who had been raising the alarm about Horizon causing accounting errors since the early 2000s.
Janet says: “I didn’t realise how big this all was until I went to one of the meetings in 2012. I was expecting to see maybe two or three people there and there was about 50.”
After a series of court battles in the years that have followed, the truth has partially begun to emerge about exactly what went on and the Post Office’s decision to prosecute hundreds of its own employees rather than admitting to any fault with its IT system.
The ruling in Janet's Court of Appeal case said “there was no proof of an actual loss as opposed to a Horizon-generated shortage”. The judgement noted the Post Office also failed to investigate more than 100 calls made by her to their helpline between January 2004 and January 2005, some of which concerned Horizon faults.
Janet says it has been a very tough fight – made more painful by the way people like Paula Vennells have been rewarded by society.
“It is like being stabbed in the face. She was getting a CBE and I’m living on the breadline because of the decisions she and others made. It has been a huge uphill battle. They have employed every single lawyer money could buy to try and bury what had actually been going on.”
Among the other 39 subpostmasters to have their convictions overturned were Alison Hall, who was convicted in Leeds in 2011 of fraud over a missing sum of £14,842.37.
The judgement said that during her interview, Mrs Hall said she had wanted the missing money investigated because “the Horizon system is not 100 per cent”.
She pleaded guilty to fraud as part of a plea deal to avoid a more serious theft charge and received a community sentence order with 120 hours of unpaid work.
The judgement said: “Despite the fact that Mrs Hall had not sought to make any express criticism of Horizon in her defence, the attendance note records the fact it was made clear that ‘the prosecution would not accept any criticism or blame concerning the Horizon System’.
“Post Office Ltd accepts that it was improper to make the acceptability of Mrs Hall’s basis of plea to fraud conditional on not making any criticism of the Horizon system.”
Another subpostmaster to clear their name was Khayyam Ishaq, who was sentenced to 54 weeks in jail at Bradford Crown Court in 2013. Mr Ishaq had pleaded guilty the theft of £17,863.
The judgement said that in addition to the evidence being based solely on what the Horizon system had shown, the use of a technical witness by the Post Office in the case to defend the reliability of the IT system suggests the organisation “did not disclose the full and accurate position regarding the reliability of Horizon”.
Another Yorkshire victim whose conviction was quashed last month was Gillian Howard, who ran the New Mill Post Office in West Yorkshire and in 2011 pleaded guilty to fraud in relation to £45,850.05 and received a six-month community sentence order.
She and her husband had made 22 calls to the Post Office helpline in relation to accounting problems with Horizon prior to any investigation and when she was interviewed under caution, she brought with her a copy of an article in The Grocer magazine relating to glitches in the Horizon system which she said had made her question whether the shortfall was down to her.
The judgement said: “There was no evidence to corroborate the Horizon evidence. There was no investigation into the matters raised by Mrs Howard in interview. There was no examination of the numerous calls that she had made to the Helpline. None of the other staff at the branch was interviewed. There was no proof of an actual loss as opposed to a Horizon-generated shortfall.”
While three convictions of subpostmasters were upheld on April 23 after the court ruled their cases had evidence beyond the Horizon system to support the original verdicts, the lengthy verdict by Lord Justice Holroyde in the case was damning of the Post Office’s behaviour.
It noted that a previous court case had established there were more than 20 different Horizon bugs and glitches that had affected branch accounts and pointed out that the Post Office board had been made aware of technical issues with the Horizon system back in 1999 before it had even been rolled out.
Despite that, the Post Office chose to disbelieve the explanations of its subpostmasters and instead pursued prosecutions and repayments of supposed debts.
Lawyers for one appellant noted the unusual situation in which the Post Office was “victim, investigator and prosecutor in respect of the alleged crime, with a financial interest in a successful prosecution”.
The damning verdict of the judges hearing the appeals was that the Post Office knew of Horizon’s problems while it was receiving complaints from subpostmasters around the country about “inexplicable discrepancies” in their accounts.
They said while the Post Office had a duty to properly investigate all lines of enquiry, it not only failed to do this but actually “consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable”.
“The consistent failure of Post Office Ltd to be open and honest about the issues affecting Horizon can in our view only be explained by a strong reluctance to say or do anything which might lead to other subpostmasters knowing about those issues,” the judgement said. “Those concerned with prosecutions of subpostmasters clearly wished to be able to maintain the assertion that Horizon data was accurate, and effectively steamrolled over any subpostmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy.
“Many of these appellants went to prison; those that did not suffered other penalties imposed by the courts; all would have experienced the anxiety associated with what they went through; all suffered financial losses, in some cases resulting in bankruptcy; some suffered breakdowns in family relationships; some were unable to find or retain work as a result of their convictions – causing further financial and emotional burdens; some suffered breakdowns in health; all suffered the shame and humiliation of being reduced from a respected local figure to a convicted criminal; and three – all ‘Horizon cases’ – have gone to their graves carrying that burden. Inevitably, the families of the subpostmasters have also suffered. In each of the ‘Horizon cases’ it is now rightly conceded that those human costs and consequences were suffered after the denial by Post Office Ltd of a fair trial.”
It added: “By representing Horizon as reliable, and refusing to countenance any suggestion to the contrary, Post Office Ltd effectively sought to reverse the burden of proof: it treated what was no more than a shortfall shown by an unreliable accounting system as an incontrovertible loss, and proceeded as if it were for the accused to prove that no such loss had occurred.
“Defendants were prosecuted, convicted and sentenced on the basis that the Horizon data must be correct, and cash must therefore be missing, when in fact there could be no confidence as to that foundation.”
Even those who escaped prosecution but were wrongly accused by the Post Office are still coming to terms with the scandal's horrendous impact on their lives.
Among their number is Gary Brown, who with wife Maureen bought Rawcliffe Post Office in East Yorkshire in 2000, taking on the shop as well as the six-bedroom property it was based in. But their dream turned into a nightmare as the Horizon system was introduced.
Gary says that during his training he was advised to keep an “overs and unders” tin - taking 10p out of the till if it was over by that amount and putting 10p in if there was a shortfall. He thought it unusual but was told that it was normal practice. However, the losses kept mounting and Gary said he could not work out why - with even a private auditor he had called in unable to identify the cause of the problems.
“It never occurred to me it was a fault. I knew there was something not right and I had never been trained on computers. I had been a paint stripper for 23 years. I had about 10 days training but I was never really confident about my abilities on the Horizon system. I put it all down to myself. You would close at 5pm or 5.30pm and I could be in there until midnight looking for the money. Nobody knew what the other subpostmasters were going through. If you asked on the helpline, ‘Is it just me?’ they always said, ‘Yes’. I would feel physically sick when I was cashing up.”
By 2014, matters came to a head when the system was showing a shortfall of £32,000. The couple called in the Post Office’s auditors and Gary says he vividly remembers being interviewed by the organisation’s investigators in a spare bedroom of the property.
“Before they came up my union rep told me in no uncertain terms that if they find you guilty you are going to prison for two years. When I went upstairs before we started recording, they said exactly that - you are going to prison for two years but if you sell your house we will see if we can stop the prosecution going through. I just kept repeating and repeating I haven’t taken any money. I got the feeling eventually they believed me.”
To ensure a swift sale, they put the property up for sale for £250,000 – a figure Gary says was £100,000 below its valuation. It eventually sold for £225,000; an amount the couple had little choice but to accept to pay off their debt.
They now live in a two-bedroom cottage a short distance from the Post Office they used to own.
“We love the village and got a lot of support. I had nothing to run from."
A few months after the trauma of the move Gary stumbled across the JFSA website – making him belatedly realise he was far from alone.
“To speak to others who had been a similar position, it was uplifting. Knowing that they had been through it and you weren’t by yourself meant a lot.”
In a statement earlier this month about the scandal, the Post Office said it no longer undertakes private prosecutions and “cases related to Horizon effectively ceased in 2013”.
Gary says while that may be the case, in 2014 the threat of prosecution was held over him and in his view makes the treatment he received even worse.
He says he was only told he would not be prosecuted until after the couple had sold their house and it only became to clear to him prosecution would have been unlikely after he got involved with the JFSA group.
“When I was informed I would not be prosecuted I was overwhelmed and so relieved but when I found that I had been lied to I was so angry,” he says.
“I was led to believe that because we sold our house quickly and that I promised to pay the money back £32,000 ASAP I would not be prosecuted. I was phoned constantly by someone from security asking when they would get their money back. I even received a phone call the morning we were moving asking me what day I would be paying them back. We transferred the money the following day.”
In 2019, a court action by 550 of the affected subpostmasters – including Gary as well as Janet Skinner – found they had falsely been blamed for shortfalls that in reality were the fault of the Horizon system.
The Post Office agreed to pay more than £57m in damages but once legal fees were deducted, there was only around £11m to be shared between them, amounting to an average of about £20,000 each.
Gary, who says his losses from the scandal were estimated by lawyers at £250,000, says he is not able to reveal what he received in compensation under the terms of the settlement but adds it was a “pittance” that did not come close to what they lost. He says the situation has taken a great toll on his mental and physical health.
“The last seven years have been an absolute nightmare. I recently went on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 and I started crying on the radio when I was explaining it all. It is the first time that has happened. My wife says that is the first time in 40 years she had seen me cry.
“To know you have never done anything wrong is hard when I did blame myself. I apologised to my wife for the money going missing and kept asking myself, ‘Why did I have the nerve to take a Post Office on?’
“There have obviously been others who did go to jail - in some ways I have been really lucky. We don’t know how lucky we have been.”
He says while he has strong negative feelings about Paula Vennells, “she wasn’t the only one involved”.
“There must have been a lot more. That is why we need a judicial inquiry so she and others can answer questions. I’m not bothered about compensation. I would like to get my money back and see the people responsible prosecuted. That is all I want – justice.”
Government 'assessing all options'
The Government says it is looking at “all options” to get to the bottom of the scandal in addition to its current inquiry, chaired by ex-High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams.
A spokesperson said: “This has been a terrible ordeal for many postmasters and their families. The independent inquiry is examining what went wrong and assessing whether lessons have been learned and concrete changes have taken place or are underway at Post Office Ltd. We continue to engage with relevant parties on all options available to make sure we get to the bottom of where mistakes were made, and to ensure something like this cannot happen again.”
The Post Office has previously indicated it would comply with a statutory inquiry if one was ordered.
Post Office chief executive Nick Read said recently: “We must, I think, acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that for those most impacted by this scandal, the inquiry will not necessarily bring closure in and of itself.
“There are those for whom its terms of reference are too narrow, or its powers insufficient. I understand these views and, for the record, repeat what I have previously said - the Post Office will cooperate fully with any form of Inquiry Government thinks fit.”
In a statement after the April 23 ruling, Post Office chairman Tim Parker said: “The Post Office is extremely sorry for the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families that was caused by historical failures.
“Post Office stopped prosecutions soon after its separation from Royal Mail a decade ago and has throughout this appeals process supported the overturning of the vast majority of convictions.
“We are contacting other postmasters and Post Office workers with criminal convictions from past private Post Office prosecutions that may be affected, to assist them to appeal should they wish.
“Post Office continues to reform its operations and culture to ensure such events can never happen again.”
Disgraced Paula Vennells and 'cronyism' of the elite - Tom RichmondSupport The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you'll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click here to subscribe.