A new drama which aired on national television last week exposing the Post Office scandal that ruined hundreds of lives has a particular significance for Tracey Merritt – once postmistress at Yetminster and Chetnole.
Tracey, 56, had worked for the Post Office for six years when she was investigated for fraud – being locked in her office for nine hours while investigators tried to force her to admit stealing thousands of pounds.
That nightmare day followed weeks of grappling with inexplicable losses, some of which she tried desperately to cover with her own money.
Unknown to Tracey, hundreds of other Post Office staff were being accused up and down the country, after the faulty computer system, Horizon, caused thousands of accounting errors.
But instead of accepting their new software was faulty the Post Office prosecuted hundreds of postmasters and accused thousands more – 2,500 have since tried to claim compensation.
Four committed suicide over the way they were treated, and 61 have since died without receiving compensation.
ITV last week screened a four-part series on the scandal, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, focusing on campaigner Alan Bates, who has pushed for the inquiry currently being held.
Mr Bates was nominated for an OBE for his painstaking work for victims over two decades.
But he turned it down – on the basis that former Post Office chief Paula Vennells, who was in post while the Horizon scandal was happening, has refused to hand back her CBE.
Tracey’s nightmare began 15 years ago, but she has yet to receive full compensation for the incident, which left her with numerous health conditions such as psoriasis, shingles, eczema and PTSD.
A 46-page psychiatric report has been submitted, countless forms filled in, and her claim has been given a time limit of August this year, however Tracey has only received enough to cover a small portion of her legal fees as yet.
She said: “All of us were hard-working people trying to do the best for our community.
“But we were treated in the worst way.
“Now they are dragging their feet over this inquiry – Vennells hasn’t even returned to face the inquiry yet and it was meant to have all been over by October last year.”
Between 2000 and 2014, the Post Office prosecuted 736 employees – even though, Tracey claims, there is “evidence people at the top knew Horizon was going to cause major problems before it even started”.
Tracey has lost her career, her pension, her savings and her health. When it happened, she says her kids were targeted and they were abused in the street.
The accusation of fraud – despite the case never reaching court – stuck.
“I’ve just been ‘that woman who stole that money from Yetmister’,” she said.
The Post Office continued to say money was going missing from Tracey’s till even after the till had been closed down.
She added: “Afterwards, they tried to make out I was an isolated case, that I was the only one.”
Tracey now works for Sainsbury’s as well as running an ice cream van.
Sainsbury’s gave her the week off when the ITV drama was aired, recognising how harrowing it would be.
She said: “I could not get a job with those charges hanging over me for all those years.
“Even though they decided not to press charges they are washing around in the system and get flagged up if I apply for a job.
“I couldn’t get a mortgage, or a credit card.
“No one has any idea how bad it’s been.”
The Post Office are said to have spent £32million trying to prove the system had not been faulty. They have further paid over £100million to lawyers. Since a ruling proving the system had indeed been faulty, the Post Office has paid out £17.5million to postmasters whose convictions have been overturned. But many more are still fighting for compensation enough to pay for the financial and personal impact of the scandal.
Gareth Jenkins, who worked in IT for the Post Office and gave evidence in many of the trials over a ten-year period, is now facing criminal charges for perjury.
Tracey said: “Now people are watching the ITV series they are riled up and want Vennells’ CBE taken away.”
Tracey has been waiting nearly a year for the Post Office to release her files and tax records.
“They are playing the game to avoid paying,” she said.
Meanwhile the Post Office has offered derisory sums to many of the thousands of claimants.
Tracey said: “Anyone who received a prison sentence is meant to get a minimum of £600,000, but they have in many cases been offered 15% of that. No one has been offered £600k.
“A lot of people have chosen to stay out of this, but I think it’s important to keep people aware of it despite how it affects my own health, and so I’ve been up to the inquiry and spoken to people, including the Post Office CEO Nick Read.
“To be fair he did listen, and there was lots of sorry, sorry, sorry going on and I said sorry means nothing. All the Post Office staff at court say they can’t remember anything, but how likely is that? Just admit it.”