Business

Sub-postmasters and a top executive don’t believe key Post Office boss’s account

The account of the Post Office’s former chief executive about what she knew during key years of the firm’s scandal is not believed by the former CEO of Royal Mail, the inquiry into the injustice has heard.

Paula Vennells has been giving evidence as part of a three-day appearance at the inquiry into the impact of faulty Horizon accounting software, which led to the prosecution of more than 700 sub-postmasters.

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Key questions ex-Post Office boss must answer
Paula Vennells breaks down in tears during questioning

In addition to the wrongful convictions for theft and false accounting, many more sub-postmaster victims generated large debts, lost homes, livelihoods and reputations and suffered ill health. Some died by suicide.

Widely not believed

The inquiry heard that Dame Moya Greene, the former Royal Mail CEO whom Ms Vennells worked alongside for many years, texted Ms Vennells in January of this year to express her disbelief at the wrongdoing denials.

Ms Vennells has long maintained – and reiterated on Wednesday – that she was unaware of the extent of flaws with Fujitsu’s Horizon software.

More on Paula Vennells

Sub-postmasters listening to the inquiry in the Fenny Compton village hall in Warwickshire, where dozens of sub-postmasters met for the first time in 2009 as they began their fight for justice, also said they did not believe Ms Vennells.

“She is blatantly, utterly lying, and it’s got to stop,” former sub-postmaster Sally Stringer told Sky News.

Dame Moya texted Ms Vennells after the airing of the ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, which reinvigorated interest in the scandal, saying: “When it was clear the system was at fault, the Post Office should have raised a red flag. Stopped all proceedings. Given people back their money, and then tried to compensate them from the ruin this caused in their lives.”

When Ms Vennells replied that she agreed, Ms Greene said: “I don’t know what to say. I think you knew”.

“I want to believe you. I asked you twice. I suggested you get an independent review reporting to you. I was afraid you were being lied to. You said the system had already been reviewed multiple times. How could you not have known?” her text said.


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Why she says she didn’t know

The question of how it was that she couldn’t have known was taken up the the inquiry’s lead barrister Jason Beer KC.

Ms Vennells core argument emerged early in questioning: she said she wasn’t informed of bugs because of the way information flowed within the organisation. She accepted that as CEO she was in charge of how information was communicated.

“I was too trusting,” she said.

Vennells asked to compose herself at Post Office inquiry

Emotional testimony

Ms Vennells broke down in tears numerous times during her evidence, the first of which was when Mr Beer read out details of sub-postmasters who were not convicted, as juries accepted there were flaws with Horizon.

The inquiry had just been presented with evidence of Ms Vennells telling MPs in 2012, “Every case taken to prosecution has found in favour of the post office. There hasn’t been a case investigated where the horizon system has been found to be at fault”.

This belief, Ms Vennells said, was “a representation of the information that I was given” rather than proof of an unwavering belief that nothing had gone wrong.

‘Wait and see’ accusation

Criticism came from Mr Beer over the fulsomemess of Ms Vennells cumulative 798-page witness statement.

He asked if she was adopting a “wait and see” approach: “Let’s see what comes out in evidence. See what I’ve got to admit and then I’ll admit that?”

“Given you provided a 775-page witness statement that took seven months to write, could you not have reflected on what you should have done fully and differently within the witness statement?” he added.

Post Office Horizon IT scandal inquiry counsel Jason Beer KC. Pictured on 26/04/24 while questioning Angela van den Bogerd. Pic: Screen grab from inquiry live stream.
Image:
Post Office Horizon IT scandal inquiry lead counsel Jason Beer KC.

Ms Vennells’ statement said that with the benefit of hindsight, there were “many things” she should have “done differently”, but she would wait for the inquiry to conclude to expand on that detail.

But she denied adopting a “wait and see” approach.

Rather, “It was simply a matter of time,” she said. “The inquiry asked me, I think, over 600 questions to 200 or 300 with subquestions in each. I went through probably hundreds of thousands of documents.”

Evidence to Parliament in 2015

A major question going into the inquiry was how Ms Vennells was able to tell Parliament in 2015 there was “no evidence” of “miscarriages of justice”.

On Wednesday morning, Ms Vennells said that was what she had been told “multiple times” by Fujitsu – that nothing had been found in Horizon.

Comic relief

Back in the village hall in Fenny Compton there were moments of laughter when Mr Beer asked Ms Vennells if she was “the unluckiest CEO in the United Kingdom?”

His question was asked “In the light of the information that you tell us in your witness statement you weren’t given… the documents that you tell us in your witness statement that you didn’t see. And in the light of the assurances that you tell us about in your witness statement that you were given by Post Office staff”.

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