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Former Broughton councillor says it was too easy to believe Post Office ‘couldn’t be wrong’

Posted on - 15th January, 2024 - 8:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Broughton, Preston News
Councillor Neil Cartwright
Former councillor Neil Henderson-Cartwright

A former councillor who represented Broughton when the village’s sub-postmistress was wrongly prosecuted and later jailed after getting caught up in the Post Office scandal says that it was all too easy to assume at the time that the institution “couldn’t be wrong”.

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Neil Henderson-Cartwright told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that people living in places like Broughton believed that theirs was the only community that had witnessed supposed wrongdoing by people who had previously been considered pillars of it – in much the same way as the victims themselves were told that they were alone in having problems with the now infamous Horizon accounting system.

Jacqueline McDonald, who ran Broughton Post Office between 2006 and 2008, pleaded “guilty without admission” to charges of theft and false accounting in an attempt to avoid a custodial sentence –  but was nevertheless given 18 months in jail back in January 2011.

Read more: Booking a GP appointment feels like ‘going into battle’

She served four-and-a-half months, but her name was eventually cleared just over a decade later after it was shown that she had been wrongly convicted – over an alleged shortfall of nearly £94,000 at her branch – as part of the Horizon IT affair.

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Last week, submissions that Ms McDonald made to the ongoing public inquiry into the scandal hit the headlines after the proceedings heard that she had described Post Office investigators as “behaving like mafia gangsters”.

Reflecting on the feeling in the village at the time, Neil Henderson-Cartwright – who, in 2011, was the Preston city councillor for the Preston Rural East ward, covering Broughton – said:  “I think, at [that point], everyone believed it was just Broughton Post Office [where a sub-postmaster had been accused].

“It was just [a case of people saying], ‘Oh my God, that’s terrible’ – but I don’t think that it actually crossed anyone’s minds [that it was part of a wider miscarriage of justice],” Neil explained.

“Of course, if you are very friendly with someone, then you might be more inclined to listen [if they say they are innocent],” Neil said.

“It must have been terrible [for Jacqueline] knowing that half of Broughton village probably [believed her] and the other half thought, ‘Oh my God’,” Neil said.

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In separate evidence to the inquiry which was published in 2022, Ms McDonald – who now lives in America, but was reported by The Times newspaper to have attended the session of the inquiry last week in which her case was discussed – said that she had felt “very embarrassed” when her customers learned what she had been accused of.

Her son later bought up copies of newspapers which featured a photograph of her taken outside the magistrates’ court, prior to her conviction – and “threw them in the trash”.

Posts in a local Facebook group since the scandal has been brought back to the fore by the recent ITV drama “Mr. Bates vs the Post Office” suggest that there were many who did back Ms McDonald at the time, but others who “cross[ed] the road” when they saw the family in the street and snubbed them.

Neil Cartwright was himself critical after a proceeds of crime hearing held after Ms McDonald was released from prison, in which she was ordered to repay just £1 – having already had her car taken off her – because she was, by then, bankrupt.  The city councillor told the Lancashire Post at the time that “British justice does sometimes leave you scratching your head.”

However, as more became known about the Horizon scandal, he later felt compelled to submit his own statement to the public inquiry, in which he reflected on the contribution that the McDonald family had made to Broughton – and the horror of what had befallen them.

“It’s difficult, after all this time, to recall quite how villagers felt, but it wasn’t complimentary as it was widely assumed that the Post Office couldn’t be wrong.  What happened to Jacqueline and her family is tragic.

The McDonalds had taken over the village post office and transformed it into a thriving business with a combination of financial investment, vision and sheer hard work.  It’s impossible to overstate the benefits that they brought to the village.

“Having known this particular family, and the community they were increasingly a part of, [it] brings home the sheer enormity of the scandal and tragedies overseen by Paula Vennells [Post Office chief executive between 2012 and 2019]  and others.  As penance, apart from criminal and financial penalties, those executives should be invited to attend, on a daily basis, the inquiry and see at first hand the suffering they caused,” wrote Neil, who stepped down as a city councillor in 2019.

He told the LDRS that there also needs to be a culture change which means that highly-paid executives cannot just bounce from one lucrative job to another if they have performed poorly elsewhere.

“If you command the massive salaries, then there should be a penalty if you screw up. You shouldn’t just be able to say, ‘Well, I made a mess of that job, so I’ll go and get another [similar one] somewhere else,” Neil said.

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After leaving the Post Office in 2019, Paula Vennells became chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, a position from which she stepped down in 2021 for personal reasons.

Announcing last week that she was handing back her CBE for services to the Post Office, Ms Vennells said:  “I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the sub-postmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system.”  She is yet to give oral evidence to the public inquiry.

The LDRS approached Broughton Parish Council for comment over Jacqueline McDonald’s case.  In a statement, the authority said:  “Bearing in mind the fact that most of the councillors were not in post at that time, we are pleased that this matter is finally being settled.

“Jackie was a professional postmistress and her family were always welcoming in the shop. Our thoughts are with Jackie and her family and hope in her new life she has been able to move forward.”

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