‘How long can Post Office hide from paying proper compensation?’
Post Office executives who profited during the false accounting scandal linked to a flawed computer system should be forced to apologise and pay back their lucrative bonuses, according to former postmasters whose lives have been “ruined” by the affair.
Sarah Osolinski, 65, who ran the Gaer Park Post Office in Newport, South Wales, from October 1996 to June 2010, said: “This whole experience has been a living nightmare.”
John Bowman, 73, who lives in Brynna, Pontyclun, also in South Wales, where he ran a post office from May 1998 to December 2004, said: “The Post Office managed to destroy in two years all that I had tried to achieve in the previous 40 years – my reputation, financial security, mental health, wellbeing. They nearly destroyed my marriage and family life.”
They were giving evidence to the inquiry into failings of the Post Office’s Horizon IT system which led to subpostmasters being suspended, having their contracts terminated, along with those who were prosecuted and jailed.
Mrs Osolinski estimates she spent more than £25,000 to cover the constant shortfalls that were triggered by the flawed computer system, while Mr Bowman said he paid out around £20,000.
The inquiry session in Cardiff on Wednesday heard that Mrs Osolinski paid out between £90 and £1,000 almost every week for two years to make up the shortfalls as she lived under constant fear that the Post Office would close down her branch.
The helpline made it seem as though she was the only person who was having a problem.
No-one at the top of the Post Office has properly apologised or faced prosecution for the lies they have told. They have all received large bonuses when they moved on, whilst we were left to survive on benefits or low-paid jobs, our characters ruined and confidence crushed
An alleged shortfall of more than £1,872 arose in March 2010, and audits in June showed up further alleged debts. She was suspended and then had her Post Office contract terminated later that month.
She told the inquiry she felt “badgered and pummelled” by Post Office bosses, who accused her of false accounting.
Her losses included £89,000 for the leasehold of the premises, quarterly rent, approximately £7,500 in stock, and she also paid for signage.
She was not paid any notice period, and no longer being a subpostmistress, which she had dreamed of doing until retirement, also meant that her family retail business took a hit.
Walking away from the business and selling the family home was the only option left to help pay debts.
She now lives in a housing association bungalow and split up from her husband for a period due to the stress of everything that had happened.
Mrs Osolinski was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition that causes widespread pain and extreme tiredness, a year after her husband suffered a heart attack.
In the middle of the fraud allegations, her symptoms “just went into freefall”, she added, but noted that she had some support from the community.
“For 12 years we have watched the Post Office and Government prevaricate and thrown money at preventing us from achieving justice. I know many of us has suffered for much longer,” she said.
“No-one at the top of the Post Office has properly apologised or faced prosecution for the lies they have told.
“They have all received large bonuses when they moved on, whilst we were left to survive on benefits or low-paid jobs, our characters ruined and confidence crushed.”
She added: “How long can the Post Office hide from the responsibility of paying proper compensation to us all?”
All of this was ripped away from me by a dishonest management team who could not find it within their conscience to admit their mistakes and instead ruined the lives of hundreds of hardworking people such as myself
Mr Bowman gave up his many activities in the local community as depression took hold during the scandal, and he became a “bit of a bully” to his family.
He had always been a financially responsible man but was having to take money from his daughter in order to get by.
Paying for big family holidays abroad with the grandchildren became a thing of the past and “our lives just collapsed”.
He told the hearing: “All of this was ripped away from me by a dishonest management team who could not find it within their conscience to admit their mistakes and instead ruined the lives of hundreds of hardworking people such as myself.”
Mr Bowman returned to work earlier than medically advised after being diagnosed with kidney cancer and having surgery because he could not afford to continue paying for a subpostmaster.
He endured regular small shortfalls but feared a massive loss that he would not be able to pay was waiting around the corner.
He said: “I realised not only am I putting in all this money from the shop but I am also declaring to the tax people and the VAT that I am taking this money – and they are charging me VAT and tax on money that I am giving to the Post Office.
“I didn’t even have that money. It was a ridiculous situation. I think that is what brought on the depression.”
He later sold the post office, his retail business and home because he was not earning enough to make a living and pay the alleged shortfalls in the branch.
He said people need to explain on oath what went wrong, who instructed them to behave in that way, and why “they continued to knowingly pursue innocent people”.
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