‘I wish with all my heart I’d never become a sub-postmaster,’ says Sarah, 56, who took over the Starbeck Avenue branch in the Newcastle upon Tyne district of Sandyford in November 2005
Posing proudly outside her sub-post office, Sarah Burgess-Boyde looked the very picture of success.
Trusted, respectable and capable, the popular sub-postmaster appeared a shining example of what could be achieved through hard work and business savvy.
Earning an impressive £60,000 a year, Sarah was a natural choice to be featured in the March 2008 issue of Subspace, the Post Office’s new in-house magazine for sub-postmasters, invited to share her ‘secrets of success’.
Today, when she looks at that 12-year-old image of the confident, cheerful woman she used to be, she breaks down in tears.
‘I wish with all my heart I’d never become a sub-postmaster,’ says Sarah, 56, who took over the Starbeck Avenue branch in the Newcastle upon Tyne district of Sandyford in November 2005.
‘It cost me all my savings, my livelihood, my good name and almost my life.’
Just 18 months after Sarah appeared in the magazine, she was suspended by Post Office Ltd and later sacked in disgrace, leaving her feeling suicidal.
Wrongly accused of stealing £33,000 by her bosses, her life was shattered, descending into a hellish ordeal which has left her battling with depression and anxiety ever since.
Suspended in 2009 following a three-day audit, Sarah has never recovered from the ‘aggressive’ interrogation by her contracts manager in January 2010 which resulted in the termination of her contract and criminal prosecution for theft.
Now, for the first time, she has made that almost hour-long, taped interview public.
Excerpts were broadcast last week on Radio 4’s series, The Great Post Office Trial, and make for painful listening.
The programme tells the story of how hundreds of sub-postmasters, such as Sarah, were wrongly accused of false accounting and theft based on faulty balance sheet data provided by the Post Office’s defective £1 billion IT system, Horizon.
Post Office Chairman Tim Parker and Post Office Chief Executive Paula Vennells are pictured above in 2016. Shockingly, Sarah reveals that even after her acquittal, the Post Office demanded repayment of the ‘missing’ money, which they claimed she was still liable for
Some were made bankrupt, while others were jailed, including a pregnant woman. Others were ‘bullied’ into pleading guilty to false accounting, to avoid theft charges and a possible prison sentence.
No wonder it has been described as a ‘national scandal’.
On the interview tape, Sarah can be heard quietly trying to explain the problems she had been having with the Horizon system, which had left the inexplicable black hole in her balance sheets.
She tells her interrogator she’d repeatedly contacted the IT helpline and written to her bosses alerting them to the problem, but all he wants to know is what happened to ‘the missing money’?
At the end of the interview, a distraught Sarah can be heard sobbing: ‘If I lose my Post Office, I’ll be heartbroken. I’ve done nothing wrong. I may have made a mistake, but I have not been dishonest . . .’
Charged with theft, for almost two years Sarah lived under a cloud of suspicion, while she awaited trial. In December 2011, she was acquitted after the case against her collapsed, but her life was effectively ruined.
Denying any problems with Horizon, the Post Office had used its ancient prosecuting powers — dating back more than 300 years to the days when highwaymen robbed mail coaches — to pursue sub-postmasters through the courts [File photo]
This is the first time Sarah has talked in detail about her harrowing story. She knows she speaks for many others when she says: ‘I was made to feel a criminal when I knew I’d done nothing wrong.
‘I was so depressed, I couldn’t function. I felt hopeless and helpless, despondent and despairing.’
Unemployed for the next seven years, Sarah had to see a counsellor for more than a year. She adds: ‘I couldn’t face applying for jobs knowing they’d ask: ‘What happened in your last employment?’
‘There were times when I thought it would be better for everyone if I just ended my life . . .’
The daughter of a retired dairy farmer, Sarah was working as a live-in receptionist and reservations manager for a hotel in Selby, West Yorkshire, when she decided on a change of career.
Her partner, Ray, lived in the flat above the sub-post office in Sandyford, which had been run by his father, Roy, for 20 years until his retirement in 1994. His replacement was now planning to retire.
‘To me, the Post Office was an age-old, trusted brand which stood for old-fashioned values,’ says Sarah.
She paid £60,000 for the business, with an undertaking to invest thousands more to modernise the sub-post office and retail shop.
‘Sandyford was a lovely community, like a village. I absolutely loved going into work every day.
‘All our customers trusted me and many elderly people said it was the highlight of their week coming in for a chat and a laugh.’
But two months into the job, Sarah was robbed when two armed men in balaclavas smashed through the fortified counter with a hammer and baseball bat and fled with almost £4,000 in cash.
The Post Office’s response was a taste of things to come. ‘I was told I had too much cash out and so must repay it all,’ says Sarah.
‘You’re only allowed to have enough cash for an hour’s work without having to go into the safe, so I had to prove to them that I didn’t.
‘It was a Monday morning and I had pensioners queuing round the block, so the cash I had out would have been gone in 20 minutes.
‘It took me five minutes to get the paperwork and fax it off. I didn’t have to repay it, but there was no sympathy for what I’d been through.’
Sarah spent her own money refurbishing the damaged shop, and within two years had turned it into a thriving business, with the retail side making enough money to pay all her overheads and staff wages.
Sarah’s £1,000-a-month Post Office salary was boosted by commission selling their products, and her income topped £60,000 a year.
The problems started, she says, in April 2009 after two engineers came to service the hole-in-the-wall cash ATM that had been installed by Bank of Ireland, a business partner of the Post Office.
Figures from the ATM relating to cash in, cash out and cash rejected (bank notes retained either because they were torn or stuck together) had to be manually fed into the Horizon system. She believes glitches in the ATM were the root cause of the catastrophe that followed.
‘Something went majorly awry with it, therefore the figures I put into Horizon were wrong. At one point, I had a figure which was billions of pounds out,’ says Sarah.
‘I notified the Post Office as soon as I’d noticed the error — the very same day. I put it all in writing, laying out step by step what I had done, but I never heard back from them, so each month I was putting through the wrong figures from the ATM.’
Sarah felt she had no choice but to continue submitting data she suspected was incorrect, as inputting the figures was part of her duties. Having reported the issue, she thought it would be only a matter of time before it was corrected.
But her contracts manager would later insist it was her responsibility to chase the matter up, rather than wait for them to get back to her.
‘In November that year the Post Office sent a young branch auditor, and I thought he’d come to put the error right, so I gave him all the paperwork and said: ‘There you go, that’s what it’s out by.’ ‘
Her voice catching with emotion, she continues: ‘He said: ‘Oh right, so you’ve stolen that money?’ I was outraged, and said: ‘No, it’s a paper error. What don’t you understand about what I’ve written here?’
‘He was extremely rude and offhand and everything in his manner implied: ‘You are a thief.’ ‘
At the end of the three-day audit, Sarah received a phone call from head office to say that she was being suspended with immediate effect.
This was followed by a letter which confirmed that she was being investigated for suspected theft.
‘It was devastating because I knew I’d done nothing wrong,’ says Sarah. ‘That day my life changed for ever.’
Sarah wishes now she’d cut her losses and shut up shop, but she was convinced it was only a matter of time before the Post Office’s security team realised she was innocent. As the Post Office is a prosecuting authority with its own powers, the police and CPS were not involved, and the case dragged on for two years before it came to trial.
During that time, a temporary sub-postmaster arrived to take over her old duties, but Sarah struggled to continue with the retail side of the business which she still owned. It was disastrous emotionally and financially.
‘I didn’t tell my customers what had happened, but soon rumours were circulating that I’d stolen money, and in the end I couldn’t face going in,’ says Sarah.
‘I knew I’d done nothing wrong and kept telling myself: ‘It’ll be fine; they’ll come to their senses.’ But it was never fine. You think ‘Surely they will see where the mistake is?’ But they didn’t.
‘I’d invested my life savings into that post office — why would I do anything to jeopardise that?’
With the last of her £140,000 savings gone and fearing a prison sentence, Sarah made the heart-breaking decision to close her shop a week before her trial, which she describes now as a ‘tragic farce’.
‘I was acquitted by the judge on day two, before the jury had been sworn in, after the Post Office’s barrister said there was no evidence to pursue the case at trial,’ she says.
‘When he told me I was free to go, it felt surreal — like it was happening to someone else and I was on the outside looking in.’
Some were made bankrupt, while others were jailed, including a pregnant woman. Others were ‘bullied’ into pleading guilty to false accounting, to avoid theft charges and a possible prison sentence [File photo]
Shockingly, Sarah reveals that even after her acquittal, the Post Office demanded repayment of the ‘missing’ money, which they claimed she was still liable for. Innocent of any wrongdoing, she wrote back refusing to do so.
If not for the love and support of her partner of more than 20 years, Ray, a retired cost engineer for the MoD, Sarah believes she would have gone under.
Now earning just £200 a week as a part-time retail assistant, she says her employer — North-East based food wholesaler Caterpak — couldn’t be more supportive, knowing what she’s endured.
She estimates that she lost more than £2 million in savings, future earnings and pension contributions after being sacked for something she didn’t do — and all because of a faulty IT system.
First rolled out in 1999 to around 12,000 sub-post offices, Horizon was designed to account for every penny of the thousands of pounds which passed through each business.
Any deficits or losses were the liability of the sub-postmaster and, under the terms of their contracts, all shortfalls had to be repaid to the Post Office.
But glitches in the IT system, which improperly suggested staff had their hands in the till, triggered one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history — which came to light only after a legal battle lasting almost two decades.
The group legal action against the Government-owned Goliath was led by Alan Bates, who in 2009 founded the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) ‘to represent the victims of the Post Office and the Horizon system’.
Denying any problems with Horizon, the Post Office had used its ancient prosecuting powers — dating back more than 300 years to the days when highwaymen robbed mail coaches — to pursue sub-postmasters through the courts.
After ruling in favour of the subpostmasters, with Horizon deemed ‘not remotely robust’, at the High Court last year, Mr Justice Fraser approved a £58 million settlement between the Post Office and more than 550 claimants.
After estimated legal costs of £47 million, the compensation received by the hundreds of victims — including Sarah — was a ‘pittance’.
The JFSA has launched a crowdfunding appeal to help victims overturn their convictions.
Last week, the Post Office revealed that it had hired London law firm Peters and Peters to carry out an extensive review of all relevant historical convictions dating back to 1999, to identify any material which might cast doubt on the safety of those convictions.
After ruling in favour of the subpostmasters, with Horizon deemed ‘not remotely robust’, at the High Court last year, Mr Justice Fraser approved a £58 million settlement between the Post Office and more than 550 claimants [File photo]
The review has so far identified around 900 cases prosecuted since the introduction of Horizon, which may have relied on its data — a significant rise in number from previous assessments. The Criminal Cases Review Commission has so far decided to refer for appeal the convictions of 39 applicants.
A Post Office spokesman told the Mail it never discusses individual cases, but said in a statement: ‘The Post Office sincerely apologises to postmasters affected by historical events and has taken determined action to provide redress for the past and fundamental reform for the future.’
Stating that under new leadership it was making wide-ranging changes to ‘re-set’ its relationship with its postmasters, the statement continued: ‘We agreed a comprehensive resolution last year with claimants in group civil litigation, following successful independent mediation.
‘We are also leaving no stone unturned for those postmasters with past criminal convictions who may be affected.’
For Sarah, however, nothing can make up for the misery she still suffers to this day.
‘The way the Post Office has treated us is a disgrace and their apology pathetic,’ she says.
‘For me, this has been a never-ending saga — ten years of my life has been taken away from me.
‘I just want to be able to move on, but I am not sure I’ll be able to get past this until the Post Office is properly held to account.’