'Somebody needs to be held accountable': Family grieve sub-postmistress who died in health spiral

Fiona McGowan died aged 47 after being charged with false accounting by the Post Office, ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith reports

Of the hundreds of cases we know of those affected by the Post Office scandal, it’s hard to imagine anyone suffered as much as Fiona McGowan and her family.

Fiona actually had a proud track record of running successful businesses in the Edinburgh community.

At one point she had a picture postcard life in Musselburgh, on the east coast of Scotland, her petrol station business was thriving and her children grew up by the seaside surrounded by friends.

But in 2001, Fiona opened a post office and everything changed.

“The Post Office completely changed all our lives,” her son Daryl remembers.

Despite never having any problems in her previous businesses, she became one of the earliest victims of the Post Office and Fujitsu’s Horizon computer system.

Like so many others, discrepancies started appearing in the balance sheet.

“Wednesday was the worst day of the week - that was balance day,” Gemma McGowan, her daughter tells me.

“It just kept mounting up and mounting up, until it got to £30,000.”

Daryl and Gemma McGowan recall the events that led to their mothers eventual death. Credit: ITV News

The effect of remembering those dark days is still clear in Gemma’s eyes. She was 16, and had tried to help her mum in the post office however she could.

She vividly remembers her mum sitting with piles of paperwork, trying to get through to the Horizon helpline for hours at a time.

“She called the helpline,” Gemma says, tearful.

“They sent the auditors, and it felt like the police.”

Fiona was charged with false accounting, and the Post Office demanded she pay them the £30,000.

In the community, her reputation was already ruined.

Her children remember they had to witness their mum cleaning up the broken glass of the smashed windows at the post office.

“They would shout at mum, and called her a thief,” says Gemma.

The stress of it all became too much, and Fiona’s mental health deteriorated. She was hospitalised, and put on medication.

Unwell, and fearing prison, Fiona also started turning to alcohol to cope.

At this point, her two sons were removed from her care.

Gemma was over 16, though, so she was separated from her younger brothers, and went into homeless accommodation.

Fiona McGowan's three children were taken away from her after she turned to alcohol to cope with her mental health. Credit: ITV News

They all saw their once happy lives, and their family, now ripped apart before their eyes.

The cruel twist is that the criminal charges against Fiona were ultimately dropped. Scotland’s prosecution service told ITV News, there was “insufficient evidence” to proceed.

But the Post Office still took the money from Fiona and the real damage had already been done.

Having lost her livelihood, her home, her health, and her children taken away - Fiona finally lost her life.

She went from running successful businesses to dying alone and penniless in a homeless shelter. She was just 47.

Fiona McGowan died aged 47. Credit: ITV News

The Post Office has told ITV News in a statement, “We are deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the events of the Horizon IT scandal have brought so many people and their families.

“However, an apology is of course not enough and that is why we are working as fast as we can to provide redress for those affected.”

Daryl has emailed the Post Office with details of what happened to his mum, but after waiting a month he still hasn’t had the courtesy of a reply.

“It’s almost adding insult to inquiry once again,” Daryl says.

“Somebody needs to be held accountable,” Gemma tells me.

“This can’t just be whitewashed. There can’t just be apologies and CBEs handed back. Somebody needs to be held accountable for this.”

Fiona McGowan's children say someone needs to be held to account for their mother's death. Credit: ITV News

The siblings have also been in touch with Tommy Sheppard MP, who represents the area where their mum’s post office used to be.

“What happened in this case is beyond tragic and heartbreaking,” he told me.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Fiona’s life fell apart and ultimately ended because of the failures in the Horizon system - she and her family are amongst the many victims of this scandal.

“I will now be doing whatever I can to get posthumous justice for Fiona, restoring her reputation and ensuring compensation for her grieving children.”

The brother and sister fight on now for their mum, and to see justice served to everyone who played a part in their family’s suffering.

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