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Paula Vennells denies Post Office conspired to hide Horizon flaws

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Paula Vennells denied there was a conspiracy by the Post Office to hide information about flaws in its Horizon system, as she broke down in tears on Wednesday and apologised for the suffering caused by the scandal.

Vennells, chief executive of the state-owned business between 2012 and 2019, told the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry that she had been “too trusting” in her role but did “probe” and “ask questions”.

More than 900 Post Office branch managers were convicted in cases involving data from the flawed accounting software between 1999 and 2015, including more than 700 prosecuted by the Post Office itself. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called the scandal “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history”. 

On the first of three days of testimony by Vennells, the public inquiry into the scandal was shown evidence in which Dame Moya Greene, former boss of Royal Mail, which used to own the Post Office, appeared to accuse Vennells of knowing about the problems with Horizon.

The inquiry was shown messages sent in January this year in which Greene, who led Royal Mail between 2010 and 2018, wrote to Vennells: “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.”

“I think you knew,” Greene said. In response, Vennells wrote this was “not the case”. 

Greene wrote that the Post Office had “dragged their heels, they did not deliver docs [documents], they did not compensate people”. 

“I’ve supported you all these years to my own detriment. I can’t support you now after what I have learned,” Greene added.

Jason Beer KC, counsel to the inquiry, pressed Vennells on why she insisted to MPs in 2012 that “every case taken to prosecution that involves the Horizon system thus far has found in favour of the Post Office”, when this was not the case. 

He listed sub-postmasters who had already been acquitted by juries by 2012, including cases where the defendants had blamed Horizon. 

Breaking down in tears, Vennells responded: “The Post Office knew that — I completely accept it. Personally, I didn’t know that, and I’m incredibly sorry that happened to those people and to so many others.” 

Asked whether there had been a years-long conspiracy to keep information from her, Vennells said: “I have no sense that there was any conspiracy at all. My deep sorrow in this is that I think that individuals, myself included, made mistakes, didn’t see things, didn’t hear things. 

“I have more questions now, but conspiracy feels too far-fetched,” said Vennells, who led the Post Office as the scale of the problems with Horizon became clear. 

Vennells, who joined the Post Office in 2007 before rising to the top job, also said she had been unaware until 2012 that the business had been bringing its own prosecutions rather than relying on public authorities.

Inquiry chair Sir Wyn Williams said it was “extremely surprising” that Post Office leaders had been unaware of this given the publicity surrounding an earlier case. 

Vennells denied Beer’s suggestion that she was deflecting responsibility and that her approach was to remember facts that “diminish” her blameworthiness. 

She said several pieces of information had not been shared with her by colleagues, and in some cases she had relied on details received from subordinates. “If you’re given information by the highest lawyer of the organisation, you take it completely as the truth,” the former Post Office boss said. 

In one exchange, she was asked about emails to colleagues in which she queried whether a sub-postmaster who had taken his life had “other mental health issues”. 

She denied that she had been trying to “get on the front foot” and “counter the narrative” that the sub-postmaster had died by suicide because the Post Office ruined his life.

Beer also questioned Vennells about whether there was a contradiction in a briefing prepared for her before she gave evidence to MPs in 2015. It advised her to say that transaction data could not be altered once it was recorded on Horizon system but added that, if pressed, she could say that it was possible for transactions to be added after the fact in some cases.  

Beer said he was limited in what he could ask about her evidence to MPs because of parliamentary privilege, which gives legal immunity for certain statements in parliament. 

At the start of proceedings, Williams told Vennells she had a right not to answer a question if there was a risk of self-incrimination. In response, Vennells said she intended to answer all the questions put to her. 

Vennells handed back her CBE after a television drama in January sparked a public outcry about the Horizon scandal. The government has since introduced unprecedented legislation to exonerate affected sub-postmasters in England and Wales en masse, bypassing the courts.


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