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Cleric who ran the Post Office steps back from ministry

26 April 2021

Alamy

Victorious sub-postmasters outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, after their convictions were overturned by the Court of Appeal on Friday

Victorious sub-postmasters outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, after their convictions were overturned by the Court of Appeal on Friday

THE Revd Paula Vennells, a former chief executive of the Post Office, has stepped away from parish ministry while the wrongful conviction of scores of sub-postmasters is being investigated.

In a statement issued late on Sunday, Ms Vennells, non-stipendiary minister of Bromham with Oakley and Stagsden, in St Albans diocese, said that she was “truly sorry” for the suffering caused by the wrongful convictions.

The Court of Appeal on Friday cleared 39 sub-postmasters who had been convicted of theft on the evidence of the Post Office’s Horizon IT system, now known to be flawed. All had been fined, and some imprisoned.

Another 22 cases are being looked at by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which is asking anyone else to come forward who thinks that their own conviction was unjust. In all, more than 700 people were prosecuted on the evidence from the Horizon system, which the Post Office insisted was secure long after suspicions about the reliability of the system were aroused. A government inquiry is looking into the Post Office’s handling of the matter.

Ms Vennells has not spoken publicly about what she knew about the Horizon system. In her statement, she said: “I am truly sorry for the suffering caused to the 39 sub-postmasters as a result of their convictions which were overturned last week.

“It is obvious that my involvement with the Post Office has become a distraction from the good work undertaken in the diocese of St Albans and in the parishes I serve. I have therefore stepped back with immediate effect from regular parish ministry, and intend to focus fully on working with the ongoing Government Inquiry to ensure the affected sub-postmasters and wider public get the answers they deserve.”

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said in response that, as the son of a former sub-postmaster, he wanted to express his distress at the miscarriage of justice suffered by the sub-postmasters. “They and their families are in my thoughts and prayers. I am glad that these and earlier appeals have overturned convictions that have been found to be unjust.

“I am aware that there are still legal processes and inquiries to take place during which it is right that Ms Vennells stands back from public ministry.”

Ms Vennells was a trustee of Hymns Ancient & Modern, the charity that owns the Church Times, for a full nine-year term, ending in January 2019.

She has also stepped down with immediate effect from the boards of the Morrisons supermarket chain and Dunhelm, the home-furnishing retailer.

Last year, Ms Vennells took a leave of absence from the Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) (News, 3 July 2020), to which she was appointed as an independent member in 2019.

At the start of this month, she stood down as chair of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.

Ms Vennells was unavailable for further comment.

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