Darlington Town Crier and retired subpostmaster, Peter Stemmer, tells PETER BARRON about a local connection to Post Office CEO Paula Vennells – and adds his powerful voice to the public outrage over the scandal

AS Darlington’s first official Town Crier for more than a century, Peter Stemmer is used to making his voice heard.

And, having made his living as a highly respected subpostmaster with a fascinating local perspective on the Horizon scandal, he’s also keen to speak out passionately in support of the victims, while demanding that anyone found guilty of perverting the course of justice goes to prison.

“We have to keep on making as much noise as possible about this because it’s unbelievable what’s been allowed to happen,” says Peter, his voice rising with anger.

It’s fair to describe Peter as a pillar of the community in Darlington. For the past 16 years, he has volunteered to attend community events in his Town Crier uniform, adding colour and sound to any occasion. And, before retiring from his working life, he and his wife, Marilyn, ran the award-winning Mowden Post Office in the town.

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“We loved running a post office, and being at the heart of the community, but we were completely oblivious to what was going on behind the scenes until we watched the ITV drama,” he admits.

Peter served for 22 years in The Army, rising to Sergeant Major in the Royal Corps of Signals, before moving into retail, working for B&Q, wholesaler Booker, and Bells Stores, before he and Marilyn took the plunge and bought the post office in 2006.

The couple quickly modernised the business, doubled revenue within five years, and made a big enough impression to be selected by the Royal Mail to be one of 518 Post Office branches to sell gold medal stamps to celebrate every Team GB success at the London 2012 games.

“It was a great life. We made some wonderful friends, and made a success of it,” declares Peter.

For the first few years, they used the now infamous Horizon system, developed by Fujitsu, and were in the first wave of sub-postmasters to go onto new payment arrangements following an upgrade of the Horizon software. The idea was that they no longer received a statutory monthly payment and, instead, received a bigger reward for each transaction.

“We’d never had any problems with Horizon, and had no reason to doubt it. There isn’t an IT system in the world that doesn’t have bugs but, as far as we were concerned, it was robust, so we were happy to go along with the new payment arrangements for the business,” Peter recalls.

In fact, based on his trusted track record in the business, his experience in retail, and his knowledge of computers, he was employed to install the Horizon upgrade in scores of other Post Office branches, supported by his daughter Claire who’d started working for him.

“We were right at the forefront of it and, all the while, there wasn’t the slightest hint that there were any flaws in the system, or that anything was being covered up,” he says.

The irony is that one of Peter’s regular customers turned out to be the mother of Post Office chief executive, Paula Vennells.

“She was a nice old lady, who was very quietly spoken, but one day, out of the blue, she took us to one side and said: ‘Do you know who my daughter is? She’s the CEO of the Post Office!’ She was obviously extremely proud of what her daughter had achieved.”

Over the years, Mrs Vennells made a number of visits to Mowden, including attending the re-opening ceremony in 2013 after the branch had been temporarily closed for the installation of the upgraded payment system.

“I always found her to be very personable and someone who gave the impression she was on your side. She was clearly determined to drive the Post Office forward and make it independently financially sustainable – that was her mission,” says Peter.

Right up to the turn of 2024, Peter remained unaware of the extent of the IT scandal that had resulted in more than 700 branch managers being wrongly convicted of false accounting, theft and fraud.

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Indeed, when friends at Darlington Indoor Bowls Club asked if he’d be watching the first episode of Mr Bates vs The Post Office, on January 1, he preferred to watch his beloved Liverpool play Newcastle United.

However, Marilyn did watch it and was shocked enough to tell Peter that he needed to see a recording.

“I knew there'd been the odd case, with those accused blaming the IT system, but I hadn't taken much notice.

“I was absolutely stunned when I saw the TV drama – I honestly couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he says.

What made it even more surprising was that he’d frequently attended meetings of the National Federation of SubPostmasters, and concerns were never raised – “not a peep”.

Peter and Marilyn retired from running the Mowden branch in 2015, and he admits to being “angry in lots of ways” about what has come to light in the past few weeks.

“How do you hide something on that scale, knowing there were flaws in the system, and that innocent people were being sent to jail? How do you compensate people for having their lives deliberately destroyed?

“I have no axe to grind, but all those wrongly convicted need to get what they are due without further delay, and be looked after for the rest of their lives.

“And anyone found guilty in the Post Office and Fujitsu have to be brought to justice, no matter where they are in the food chain. If that means sending them to jail, so be it.”

Peter also points to the ‘collateral damage’ beyond the immediate victims of Britain’s biggest miscarriage of justice.

“In the TV drama, we saw a subpostmaster take his life by throwing himself in front of a bus. Imagine the trauma the bus driver and passengers must have endured?” he points out.

“I just hope fatigue doesn’t set in, and that the public continues to keep the scandal in the public eye until every ounce of justice is done.”

Or, as a town crier might bellow: “Oh yay, oh yay – the Post Office scandal needs sorting!”