In December last year, shortly after I’d published the hardback version of my book, I got an email from Lisa Kear. Lisa ran a Post Office counter within her “Pet Stop” shop in Belmont Sutton in South West London from April 2018 until November 2019.
Lisa got in touch because she had read the book. She seemed utterly traumatised. I asked her to put her story in writing with a view to publishing it on my blog. Lisa wrote me her note below on 24 Dec 2021. Sadly – things got lost over the Christmas period, I got caught up with other work and the piece never got published.
I found Lisa’s note whilst searching through my emails yesterday for something else. I thought I’d publish this now as a reminder of the way the Post Office works and treats its Subpostmasters. I’ve edited what Lisa wrote for clarity, whilst also trying to keep her voice. Her experience sounds grindingly awful.
My short time with a Post Office
So today is Xmas eve and I’m sitting here feeling like the worst person/mum/wife/nan ever.
I opened up my first business five years ago. A shop – Pet Stores. I was doing ok. I could see I would never be rich but I was happy and paying the bills. Three years into running my business my local community said there was a need for a Post Office. I love working with the public and love to help so I offered to apply for a counter within my shop. I had a meeting, then a phone meeting and then went for two days training.
When I was at training an old man walked into my shop and said to my husband “Are you the one opening a Post Office?”
He said: “My wife is, yes.”
The old man said: “Tell her she is mad,“ and handed him a photocopy of an article in Private Eye about the Post Office’s Horizon IT system.
I asked the Post Office about this article and was told, “it’s a handful of people led by a man who’s got it in for the Post Office” [presumably this was Alan Bates].
I asked if this could happen to me and she said she couldn’t talk about it as it’s still ongoing.
“But,” she added, “let me say all the people involved had nice new cars and had lovely holidays,” and winked.
We both laughed and I didn’t think any more of it.
Fitting the Post Office counter
We had nothing but problems from day one! No one kept to appointment times and we had to help design the layout.
The day before we opened, the Horizon system didn’t work and it took many, many people from the Post Office, phone calls and workers coming to see what the problem was. Nobody could work it out until a man from BT walked in and said our switch was off in the main box.
I had missed my six days on-site training due to this and had to ask for more for when we eventually opened. I got four different trainers split over a week or so.
During our first month, when I was locking up to go home (the Thursday before Good Friday), my alarm wouldn’t set. I phoned for help and was passed from pillar to post for the next two hours. I explained that I had a disabled son at home and really needed to leave. At last, someone told me the alarm needed a workman to come and look at it but the earliest they could get there was Saturday. But more than likely Tuesday after the Bank Holiday.
I asked if I had clearance to go home as the alarm wasn’t set. I was told “I cannot give you the clearance, sorry.”
I said “So – I’m meant to sleep in my shop over the Bank Holiday? What about my son?”
I was told I had to stay in the shop by more then one person that night.
In the end I emailed Paula Vennells, locked up and went home.
The next day I had an email from Paula, phone calls from all departments apologising and everyone running around, getting me help.
One day I cash up and the Horizon end of day balance check says I’m £1600 out. How? Why? What had I done ?
I counted and counted but couldn’t get it right. I needed help. I phoned the helpline in bits. The man on the phone told me to press a few buttons. He didn’t know why my balance was out but not to worry – just put the £1600 back in!
I now am crying and can’t believe it. I phone one of my trainers. He tells me to print off some reports and see if I could find it and if not, then yes, I have to pay the £1600 back!
I printed off the reports but to be honest I didn’t even understand the report let alone find a mistake in it!
I did try another trainer but couldn’t get hold of her so I had to admit defeat and start paying it back, bit by bit, out of my shop till every night. By now I’m spending so much of my time at the Post Office side I had lost a few of my shop customers. Yes I gained lots of Post Office customers but they didn’t really spend in my shop.
Paying back the Post Office was killing my business. As were the letters saying I had sent back money short by the odd £10 or £20 or a fake £50. That ALL needed paying.
I got my ‘debt’ down to £700 and guess what? One night it jumped up to over £1600 again.
As a last resort I phoned the lady I had my first ever meeting with about opening a Post Office. I believe she worked for Network Transformation [part of the Post Office’s shift from salaried posts to commission-based branches].
She couldn’t believe what I was telling her. On 18th October 2018 that lady walked in my shop to see how I was doing. I burst into tears. I was telling her it seems to be every time a specific local business deposited a large sum of cash, it went wrong.
She asked me to balance and I did. By chance, the owner of the business in question then came into make a deposit. She watched me count £2000 twice and enter it on Horizon.
She said I had done it exactly right. She asked me to balance again. It should have been exactly £2000 more than the last time, but it was under again.
She then asked me to sell a 1p stamp, and balance again. My balance should have been a penny different. The difference leapt to £500. The woman told me not to pay another penny and took pictures of the screen.
She emailed the pictures to someone. From then on I was between £100 out £300 a night out. A lady from the Post Office called me to say she would look into it – but maybe I had handed out £50’s instead of £20’s by mistake. I told her I wasn’t that thick. Anyway – I didn’t hold enough £50’s!
A gentleman came from post office to see if he could help me. He said I was doing everything right. I explained to him about the problems with Horizon and things seeming to misbalance after a local business pays in money. He said with a smile “You’re not one of them people are you? That blames it on the system?”
My First (and only) Christmas as a Subpostmaster
I’ve now got lots of stamps to book in and I’m not sure if I’ve done them right. It turns out I hadn’t and I phoned the Horizon helpline once again. I was asked to press a few buttons (don’t ask me what as I don’t have a clue, nothing was explained). After a few minutes the lady on the phone said “Oh no I’ve not done that right. I’ve made it worse.“
This happened a few times until she was happy it was right.
I work alone and was sold the idea of the Post Office counter as a hop-on hop-off thing. Not true. I didn’t have time to hop to the toilet let alone on my shop till. No help was offered. I then received a training phone call on mails and how best to sell them, because I failed my mystery shopper. This was to take place on a working day in December. I asked “Can I close my Post Office for the hour or so for the call?”
I was told no, you have to serve also.
It was impossible to concentrate on both and get the job right. I had to hang up the phone!
After many letters about fake banknotes, I phoned helpline. I told them this is so unfair, I’ve had no training on what a real or fake note looks like and it’s killing my business as every penny counts at the moment.
They said they would send a leaflet showing me what to look for. They NEVER did!
Special visit… 2019
I had a phone call from the lady who trained me at training school for two days.
She was coming as the Post Office had found a problem with the accounts.
I was so excited to finally have an answer to the money that was disappearing.
I was wrong. This lady – Jane – knew nothing about this money and had apparently turned up to tell me that nearly a year ago I had entered stamps in wrong (last Xmas?)
She came with a bit of paper that told her what to enter on Horizon. I logged on with my name and she entered the stamps and at the end it said I owed around £1200. Jane told me I had to pay by the end of the trading period.
I couldn’t understand. If the stamps were not there I must have sold them. If I sold them but didn’t enter them, would my stamps not be minus and my money up?
Jane said she thought what was happening to me was very wrong (as I also had to pay 2019 prices not the 2018 price when this happened). She spoke about a group that can help Postmasters and said she will email them and they would be in contact. Nobody ever did!
I also explained to her about the local business and the problems that happened every time they paid any cash as a banking deposit. She said from now on they can only pay in sealed envelopes. Don’t count it or open it. Just stamp it.
I started doing this then got a call from the Post Office saying the information was wrong and I would be liable if there was a mistake in the sealed envelopes.
It was a Royal Mail worker that told me about the union and a Facebook group I had found. I joined and it was the best thing ever. I couldn’t take any more sleepless nights or stress. My family couldn’t take any more and my health very getting very bad. A woman came down from CWU to look at my paperwork (something the Post Office didn’t do). The lady from CWU found the papers to prove I had entered the stamps in wrong then corrected it 3 days later with the help from helpline.
More letters for money
More fakes. Why me? Only one business pays them in, funny it’s the same one as before when the balance goes wrong. I ask can I stop them paying £50’s in? I’m told no. I saw on the CWU site I could ask for a u/v light so I did. I used it every time I got a £50 note, under my cctv.
I get another letter telling me I’ve been accepting fakes, so I phone to ask how can this be when I’ve used the equipment you provided? The answer I got was, oh don’t trust that 100%.
My business and health hanging on… just.
I remember the woman from the CWU telling me I could dispute any Transaction Corrections sent down by the Post Office (something I’ve never been told I can do).
Times goes on but my head will not take anymore, I’m crying daily, my memory isn’t working and my body is in pain.
The hospital thinks I may have MS
Another £600 Transaction Correction and then a £500 one. I’m now to scared to dispute them, I’ve been reading horror stories of what happens and people going to prison.
I’m petrified and I think I’m having panic attacks… so I pay up!
I decided enough is enough, I can’t do it anymore. I have bills coming out of my ears, I’m scared to touch the Horizon screen in case I end up owing it more money and I’m now really not well, I can’t afford staff so feel my only choice is to close my Post Office and shop.
Walk away with nothing
I phone the Post Office and explain I cannot carry on. My health, money, my mind isn’t working and my tenancy is coming to an end. I didn’t have to renew if I didn’t want to.
I tell them I have to be out by the end of November. They ask me to stay on and work December (bearing in mind I’ve already told them my memory isn’t working very well and I’m likely to make mistakes). I was thinking about it and she then said “I have to warn you you will not be paid for it as you do not get the last month’s payment”.
I said, “so you want me to work the busiest month for no pay?”
I was still thinking of doing it for my customers. Then I said “Hold on, I’ll have no stock left, so what about my rent that month if I work for you for free?” She said “You would have to pay that.”
I declined and closed mid-November 2019.
I had counted the money, my husband had counted the money and two members of Post Office staff had counted it. I knew it was over, and told them when they came it would be. I was so scared I had put money into it that morning to make sure it wasn’t under.
The Auditors gave me the money back that was over and everything else was spot on.
Four days later I got a letter to say I was £10 short. It’s never-ending.
I did contact my local MP. The one and only Paul Scully. He never replied.
Now I’m jobless, in pain and with no money. I’m having to claim universal credit. I started my claim back in October 2021 and only got my 1st payment today – 24 December.
I get £350 a month. I don’t want to leave my house but have to. I had to use a food bank. Do you know how embarrassing and downgrading this makes me feel! I am sitting here on Christmas Eve feeling like a let-down, a disappointment, rubbish.
My membership to CWU will stop as I can’t even afford to pay the only people who helped me!
A job I loved, with customers I loved, gone
I’m heartbroken and can’t see where my life will go from here, but I will climb back up somehow.
I have now been diagnosed with Functional Neurological Disorder. Every doctor I speak to believes it’s due to the stress of trying to run that Post Office and losing money.
I joined the historic claims scheme but was told my computer was not one of them in the timeline affected.
The Post Office did phone me to apologise nearly a year later, offering me around £1500. I said I hadn’t been treated fairly. As I was bankrupt I wouldn’t have seen a penny.
My case is now with the solicitors but I don’t hold out much hope.
I will never be the same person I was. It has changed me massively!
I know it was only a short time and my story is nothing compared to others but to me it was everything. They destroyed me.
I haven’t asked the Post Office for a comment on Lisa’s case. The Post Office have told me many times they don’t comment on individual cases. Assuming Lisa is correct about what she remembers, it’s hard to say exactly what was going wrong – but this article points to a pot pourri of disastrous business practices and harmful behaviours which inevitably lead to appalling outcomes. Every time I think I can’t be surprised by what the Post Office has done to people (and I fully accept I haven’t heard the other side of the story in this case), something new comes along.
UPDATE: I have been in touch with Lisa to let her know I have finally published her memoir. She sent me this update on 27 November 2022 and very kindly allowed me to publish it as well:
“It feels great warning other people but my god that was hard reading it again!
I see another Post Office has opened last month a few doors down from where mine was. A new family shop that only opened itself the year before. I wish them all the luck but can’t bring myself to go in there.
My case is still with the solicitors and I think my bankruptcy is the big problem (ironic as I wouldn’t have been bankrupt if it wasn’t for the Post Office). They said hopefully they will know more after the 8th December.
My health still isn’t great but I now receive help and the housing have made adaptions to my home that help with daily life.
After lots of therapy my mental health is improving somewhat.
I will never get over what happened and will never be the same person as I was but knowing it wasn’t JUST me helps.
Thank you for taking the time not only to read and listen to me, but getting it out for all to see.”
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