Show caption More than 700 Post Office operators were wrongly prosecuted for theft and false accounting after errors in the Horizon IT system installed and maintained by Fujitsu. Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock Post Office ‘I was humiliated, terrified’: more Post Office IT victims speak up Opening a second week of testimony, persecuted ex-employees tell of public shaming, broken families and threats of incarceration Mark Sweney @marksweney Mon 21 Feb 2022 17.59 GMT Share on Facebook
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A former Post Office worker has recounted how she pleaded guilty on the day of her daughter’s birthday, while another was sentenced as her granddaughter was born, in a day of harrowing testimony of victims wrongly prosecuted for stealing in the Horizon IT scandal.
Siobhan Sayer, 54, told a public inquiry on Monday that she was barred from seeing her distressed six-month-old daughter when investigators visited her home in 2008 seeking £18,000 in funds missing from her Post Office business.
“They came in, asked if they could search the property, and I said I had no issue as I had nothing to hide,” she said. “They went through kitchen drawers, the filing cabinet, [and] tipped my underwear drawer upside down while joking about where I hid the money, saying it would be much easier if I told them where it was. I was humiliated, terrified. I had a six-month-old daughter. I wasn’t allowed to see her. She started crying and I wasn’t allowed to leave to go and see her. That ended me. I had to end the interview as I couldn’t continue any longer.”
Sayer said that during the lengthy investigation she felt “generally harassed and intimidated”, including regularly finding someone parked outside her house. Ultimately, on the advice of lawyers, she pleaded guilty to charges of false accounting in 2010 – on the day of her daughter’s birthday.
“I went to court that morning thinking I wouldn’t be coming home,” said the mother of four. “Thinking it would be left to Dad to discuss [my incarceration] with them. I was advised I would receive a custodial sentence. I went to court that day with a case packed not knowing if I would be coming home.”
Pauline Thompson, 72, also recalled being told by lawyers to “pack a bag” on the day the judge handed down her sentence, although she too ultimately avoided jail. She had already endured being arrested in the heart of her village, being held in a cell and having her DNA and fingerprints taken.
“I had to sell the local newspaper [in the Post Office] with my face all over the front page,” she said. “The day I was sentenced, my daughter gave birth to my granddaughter. The judge was very kind – he realised I was in a dark place and finished by saying, ‘Go and enjoy your first grandchild.’ I felt that was taken away from me as I couldn’t enjoy her pregnancy. My lawyer had told me to pack a bag. I felt quite ill. Pack a bag … what do you pack?”
In a day of emotional hearings, victims recounted similar stories of the huge toll on more than 700 Post Office operators wrongly prosecuted for theft and false accounting between 2000 and 2014 due to a flawed IT system suggesting financial shortfalls.
“I got tarred overnight,” said Timothy Burgess, who remembers noticing shortfalls the first day the IT system was installed. “People ignored me, crossed the street. People were hostile. I ‘killed the village’ – I had that levelled at me.”
Burgess’s relationship with his daughter “deteriorated quite a bit” and even a shift to a new school 30 miles away “was not far enough” to avoid the scandal. An attempt by his sister-in-law to buy the village pet store, something she “had her heart set on”, was thwarted by the owner because of her association with Burgess.
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Oyeteju Adedayo, whose conviction in 2005 of stealing more than £50,000 from her Gillingham post office was overturned last year, said she went from being a young entrepreneur who was full of life to being fearful for herself and her family.
“They said I might go to prison for two or three years, so before I went to the crown court, I took my oldest child around the house and showed them how to use the washing machine,” said the 57-year-old. “I got [my children] an alarm clock and said, ‘Make sure you get up and go to school and do your homework.’ It was terrible to tell a young child.”
While ultimately Adedayo did not go to jail – the judge took into consideration her young family and that she had started to pay the Post Office back – the years of being considered guilty wreaked an enormous emotional and financial cost.
“All of a sudden I was a thief; they wrote it on the wall,” she said. “I wanted to die, I really did. I would go shopping at night – [my children] missed out on socialising as well. If anyone invited them to, say, a birthday party, I would make excuses to say no because I couldn’t face anyone. I couldn’t go to the school gates to meet them because I was ashamed.
“Everything I ever worked for went down the pan overnight. I went into this business because [the Post Office] is a trusted brand and the logo was my pride. And look what I got out of it.”