Former Swanage postmaster tells of ordeal due to Horizon computer

Henk Agelink who was the Swanage postmaster until he was wrongfully sacked in 2005, is now seeking redress after he was made bankrupt as a direct result of the Post Office’s faulty Horizon computer software.

Now 70 and caring for his wife Jenny, who has dementia and is bedridden, Henk and his family lost their livelihood and life’s savings following a visit from the Post Office’s investigators in 2005.

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Former post office in King's Road

Henk’s former Post Office and shop in King’s Road, which now lies empty following the move of the current Post Office to Institute Road

Bug-ridden computer software

His story is sadly typical of the ordeal that thousands of postmasters have faced since the Post Office introduced into its branches in 1999, the bug-ridden computer software developed by the tech company Fujitsu.

The flaws in the Horizon computer system meant that it generated false evidence of cash shortfalls at sub-post offices, leading to wrongful accusations of false accounting and theft.

This in turn led to the prosecution of hundreds of sub-postmasters, while Post Office bosses untruthfully kept insisting their systems were robust.

The scandal was recently highlighted by the TV drama series Mr Bates vs The Post Office on ITV, sparking outrage that most of those affected still have not received any redress or compensation for their losses.

Henk Artlink

Henk Artlink and his wife Jenny, who both moved to the UK from Holland in 1982, continue to live in Swanage despite their ordeal

“No choice but to make up the shortfall”

Henk moved with his wife and son from Hampshire to Swanage in Dorset, in 2000, selling the family home to finance the £120,000 purchase of the Swanage Post Office lease, which was at the time, the culmination of a dream to run their own business by the sea.

Henk, who still lives in Swanage with his wife, told Swanage.News:

“I took on the running of the Swanage Post Office in 2000 with my wife, but straight away, I noticed that there was regularly an unexplained shortfall of money in the till at the end of the day.

“We had no choice but to make up the shortfall from our own money. I asked the Post Office to install separate tills. As a large Post Office we had several staff so as terrible as it sounds, I thought at least if someone was taking money from the till, I would have a better chance of knowing who was responsible with separate tills. However the Post Office said no, as it claimed it would create longer queues.

“It was difficult to know what to do. I was petrified and looking back now, I was always on edge. I stopped the posties from coming in the back by the counter, as I tried to figure out where the money was going or who could possibly be taking it. This harmed the working relationship but I just couldn’t see a way forward.

“This continued for four years and five months, until in 2005, I just stopped making up the shortfall. This time it was £4,500 and I’d had enough. I must have put in at least £20,000 of my own money, probably more over the years and I just couldn’t keep doing this.

“Rather than make up the supposed loss, I put the £4,500 in the suspense account and that alerted the Post Office. Shortly afterwards, three Post Office investigators – two men and a woman – turned up first thing in the morning. The woman took the key to the safe and I was locked out of the Post Office side of the shop.”

Mr Bates Vs The Post Office poster
ITV

The actors in the ITV drama series Mr Bates vs The Post Office, which brought a fresh focus on the postmasters’ plight

Petition calling for the reopening of the Post Office

For a couple of days, Henk tried to continue to operate the shop, selling stationery and other goods, while the Post Office counter remained shut but that proved too much and he closed down the shop.

This is what some Swanage residents remember of that period of time, as it seemed that with no explanation or warning, locals were suddenly unable to post parcels or buy stamps.

As Henk owned the lease on the shop, he locked it up, but this meant that the Post Office couldn’t access the counter to resume its services with a temporary postmaster.

In the meantime, some residents became frustrated by the closure and started a petition calling for the reopening, backed by the then local MP Jim Knight.

Eventually after four weeks, the Post Office forced the lock, sacked Henk and confiscated his Post Office franchise, leaving him without any of the original £120,000 that he’d invested in the business in 2000.

For a short time the Swanage Post Office was taken over by the Wareham postmaster Peter Holloway, however he also got unfairly caught up in the Horizon software scandal and left the Post Office shortly afterwards.

Henk Artlink

Henk outside his old Post Office, that was shut for about four weeks after investigators sacked him without any just cause

“It was soul destroying”

Henk was interviewed by the Post Office but was never charged as there wasn’t any evidence to convict him of theft.

At the time, he was told charges wouldn’t be brought due to mitigating circumstances, as his request for separate tills in order to track the cash more effectively had been refused.

Henk, who hasn’t spoken about this distressing period until now, said:

“It was soul destroying. All I had left was the stock in our shop. I was made bankrupt in November 2005 as I had used all my savings. At the time I was a councillor on Swanage Town Council and I had to resign as you can’t continue to serve if you’re bankrupt. Then of course I got treated differently – they just assumed I was guilty.

“I chose to step away from it all. I didn’t want our future life to be continually affected by the events, so I chose not to talk about it and tried not to think about what happened.

“We both managed to get jobs – I worked at Poole’s Job Centre and then Purbeck View School and Jenny returned to nursing in Dorchester.

“However after about seven years, Jenny started to become depressed and forgetful and eventually had to give up work and was formally diagnosed with the initial onset of Alzeheimers in 2014.

“I can’t say that the distress inflicted by the Post Office caused her dementia but she still gets upset if she hears the name of the Post Office mentioned, although she’s now unable to speak.”

Post box

The Post Office and Royal Mail has always been a trusted brand until now

“The Post Office is like the mafia”

Despite some finger pointing at the time, Henk and Jenny chose to continue living in Swanage and although they were never able to buy their own home again, Henk says that the one bedroom flat rented from a housing association allows him to continue to care for his wife.

He added:

“Following the drama series and being reminded of the past has been stressful. I haven’t really spoken about it but I now feel like I want to do something to redress the situation.

“I’ve spoken to the solicitors and I now need to finish filling out the form. However it feels like I’m opening up a wasp’s nest – it’s very difficult.

“I know others couldn’t cope with the experience and many have suffered. With hindsight, I think I did the right thing at the time, by closing the drawer, shutting it all away and rebuilding my life.

“The Post Office is like the mafia – it operated a cartel with its internal legal system and private prosecutions and even now, they still aren’t paying out what they owe, let alone compensating for the destruction of so many people’s livelihoods and reputations.

“When will we really be able to put this behind us?”

Henk has now had a meeting with his local MP Richard Drax, who says he will ensure that Henk receives all that he is due and that the wrongs of the past are well and truly righted.

Further information

  • The ITV drama series Mr Bates vs The Post Office is available to watch on ITVX

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