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Hundreds of postmasters have been wrongly convicted due to the faulty Horizon software.
For more than a decade they have been fighting to clear their names, but it took the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office to spur the government into taking action to quash their convictions and speed up compensation payments.
Journalist Nick Wallis has played a key role in the campaign, he’s written the book The Great Post Office Scandal and was a consultant on the TV series. He spoke to former sub-postmistress Wendy Buffrey, who was about to take her own life, when she was saved by a phone call from another victim.
On a sunny mid-autumn morning in 2010, Wendy Buffrey parked her ancient Volvo in the car park near her home in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, and walked towards her favourite thinking spot. Driven to despair, she had decided to take her own life. This moment was the culmination of a two-year living nightmare.
Wendy had found herself in after being accused of fraud. Back in May 2008, Wendy had been running the sub Hatherley Post Office, in Cheltenham, as a sub-postmistress.
After closing her shop one evening, she processed a routine cash and stock check and got a shock. When she typed her figures into the Post Office’s touch-screen Horizon IT terminal, it calculated she had £9,000 worth of stamps in stock. Wendy had never held anything like £9,000 worth of stamps in her tiny premises.
Figuring she might have miskeyed, Wendy decided to reverse the stock input out of the balance and try again. On doing so, the Horizon terminal calculated she now had an £18,000 cash ‘loss’. Panicking slightly, Wendy reversed the calculation again. Horizon doubled the cash loss figure once more, to £36,000. What on earth was happening?
Terrified of pressing any more buttons in case the sum doubled again and fearful of being suspended if she reported it, Wendy spent hours going through her transaction receipts.
A high value error of this nature should be easy to spot, but Wendy couldn’t see a problem in her own figures. She kept checking her printouts every morning before the Post Office opened and again every evening once it had closed.
The monthly accounting period came to an end. Instead of closing her branch, raising her hand and asking the Post Office for help, Wendy, frightened of being sacked, made what she calls ‘the single biggest mistake of my life’.
She agreed the Horizon cash and stock figures were accurate and electronically submitted them to the Post Office, which allowed her to roll over into the next accounting period. Wendy had just taken legal responsibility for a £36,000 hole in her accounts.
“I felt ashamed and stupid for not finding where the loss was,” she tells me. “I’d spent hours and hours, night after night, going through the paperwork.”
Wendy didn’t tell her husband Doug, now 75, about the discrepancy. He was very ill at the time with a serious lung disease. Wendy felt telling Doug their livelihood was at risk could make him anxious.
The idea the error could be something to do with Horizon didn’t cross her mind. Instead, she fretted endlessly about the discrepancy, developing kidney stones and stress-induced optic neuritis.
Over seven months, Wendy pumped £10,000 of her own and borrowed money into the Post Office counter.
In October 2008, Wendy was audited. She told the Post Office auditors they would find a £26,000 discrepancy. They did. Wendy was suspended on the spot. She was then interviewed by the Post Office’s internal investigators, who wanted to know what she’d done with the missing money.
Wendy maintained it wasn’t missing and explained what had happened. She wondered aloud if there might be a problem with the IT, but the investigators told her no other branch had reported problems with Horizon, which worked faultlessly for everyone else. As Wendy was later to find out, this was a pernicious lie.
Wendy was sacked in December 2008 on suspicion of fraud. Her mental health deteriorated. She went back to her old job as a technician for the West Midlands Ambulance Service, ferrying patients around Birmingham, but inside, Wendy was collapsing. At first, it was tears, stress, anxiety and panic attacks, then a permanent black fog set in.
“I was like a zombie,” she says. “But I had to work as we had no other income.
“During the day, I would be happy Wendy, helping people get about, and then I would go home, shut the curtains and lie on my bed, completely empty, looking at the ceiling for hours.”
The Post Office obtained a court order to freeze the Buffreys’ assets until the missing £26,000 was ‘made good’.
The Buffreys sold their house below market price to raise the cash, and, homeless, had to move in with their adult son, Andrew. Worse was yet to come.
#PostOfficeScandal . I would like to thank the public for taking an interest in our plight. it's taken so long. TY to the few reporters who have been there for us. The drama has now given the post office no where to hide. Keep the pressure on. Read the book @nickwallis pic.twitter.com/J4xOR0d9WI— wendy buffrey (@BuffreyWen10649) January 3, 2024
In December 2009, after a year of silence from the Post Office, Wendy received a letter informing her that its prosecution team had decided to charge her with the criminal offences of theft and false accounting.
Wendy maintained her innocence throughout, but minutes before her trial began in October 2010 she was advised by her solicitor that if she pleaded guilty to false accounting, the Post Office would drop the theft charge and Wendy would likely avoid going to jail.
Broken and traumatised at the prospect of a prison sentence, Wendy took the plea deal. She was sentenced to 150 hours of community service and ordered to pay £1,500 costs.
“When I came out of the court, it was as much as I could do to walk back to the car,” says Wendy.
“It was hard just to put one foot in front of the other. When we finally got home I just sat and cried for hours.”
Within three weeks, Wendy had decided to end it all.
“I didn’t know what to do. I felt guilty for something I hadn’t done. I’d brought my family into disrepute. I’d lost our business. It was awful believing that was my fault. I just couldn’t take that any longer.”
And so, on that October morning, a despairing Wendy found herself alone in her car no longer able go on. She got out and started walking, but then her phone rang.
Although she didn’t recognise the number, Wendy answered. The voice on the other end of the line belonged to Jo Hamilton, another former sub-postmistress.
Jo had also been dragged through the courts by the Post Office and, although blameless, had been prosecuted using evidence from its Horizon system. Jo had managed to track Wendy down after seeing a piece about her case in the local newspaper. She was calling to tell Wendy she wasn’t alone.
“Jo told me there were other people involved, many more than I could ever have imagined,” says Wendy. “We were on the phone for about two hours.”
The next thing Wendy remembered, she was back at the car. Jo had saved her life. “I drove home and told my husband it was happening to lots and lots of people, not just us.”
Wendy and Jo were at the beginning of a journey that would eventually see them join a group of more than 500 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses who took the Post Office to the High Court.
After an epic legal battle, they proved Horizon was unreliable. Wendy is certain that if Jo hadn’t called that day, she would have been ‘another one of the statistics’.
The Post Office Horizon IT scandal has caused untold amounts of damage. Hundreds of millions of pounds of public money have been wasted. Parliament, campaigners and the courts have been misled. All over the country, families have been torn apart.
The misery and shame felt by many victims has led to suicide and ruined lives. To date, no one has been held accountable.
Wendy no longer has any faith in the system.
“Everything to do with the Post Office infuriates me,” she says, “nothing surprises me any more. It’s how they work. It’s what they do. They wouldn’t know honesty if they fell over it.”
Wendy (third from left) celebrating outside the Appeal Court
Four people affected by the Post Office scandal are known to have taken their lives. Many more, like Wendy, have suffered mental health collapses, which have left them traumatised and permanently scarred.
On 23 April 2021 – nearly 14 years after Wendy’s nightmare began – I was at the Court of Appeal with Wendy to witness her and Jo’s convictions being overturned, along with 37 other wrongly prosecuted sub-postmasters and Post Office staff.
“It’s horrendous we were put in this position in the first place. How do you replace that time? It’s just… gone,” Wendy said as she left court sobbing.
To date, 86 people have had their convictions quashed, some posthumously,
Despite having her conviction quashed more than two years ago, the Post Office still hasn’t fully paid out on Wendy’s claim. At least 61 compensation claimants have died waiting for a settlement.
She and many other former branch managers, had been stuck in a Kafkaesque fight with Post Office lawyers over deciding how much they should receive in compensation.
It’s down to the series and the public outrage that the Government has taken action now, announcing new laws to overturn all the convictions and speed up compensation payments.
Written by Nick Wallis he/him
A TV, radio and online journalist, Nick has played a pivotal role in the campaign by the sub postmasters for justice. The journalist and broadcaster was a consultant on the ITV drama and has written a book, called The Great Post Office Scandal, about it.
Rory Stewart recommended Nick’s book to listeners of the UK’s most listened to podcast, The Rest is Politics, saying, “It’s a brilliant book, can I give a shout out, I’ve been reading the book, if anyone is interested… and it’s really, really good. It’s very beautifully written.”