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Former Post Office chief executive to hand back CBE ‘with immediate effect’

09 January 2024

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THE Revd Paula Vennells, the Anglican priest who was chief executive of the Post Office during the Horizon IT scandal, has said that she will hand back her CBE “with immediate effect”.

More than one million people had signed a petition calling for Ms Vennells to be stripped of the honour, which she was given in 2019 “for services to the Post Office and to charity” (News, 4 January 2019). On Monday, a spokesman said that the Prime Minister “shares the public’s feeling of outrage on this issue” and would “strongly support the Forfeiture Committee if it chose to review the case”.

In a written statement issued to the PA news agency on Tuesday afternoon, Ms Vennells said that she had not considered it appropriate to comment publicly while an inquiry into the scandal was ongoing and before she had given evidence. “I am, however, aware of the calls from sub-postmasters and others to return my CBE. I have listened and I confirm that I return my CBE with immediate effect.”

She continued: “I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the sub-postmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system. I now intend to continue to focus on assisting the inquiry and will not make any further public comment until it has concluded.”

Shortly before Ms Vennells’s statement, the BBC reported that she had been shortlisted in 2017 to succeed Lord Chartres as Bishop of London. In the event, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally was translated from Crediton.

On Wednesday, Mr Sunak announced that the Government would introduce “new primary legislation to make sure that those convicted as a result of the Horizon scandal are swiftly exonerated and compensated”.

Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses for false accounting, theft and fraud, based on information from Horizon, its online accounting system.

Almost immediately after the introduction of the system in 1999, sub-postmasters began to report unexplained shortfalls, but prosecutions continued, with hundreds sent to prison, including one sub-postmistress eight weeks pregnant with her second child. Some were financially ruined, and some have since died, including Martin Griffiths, who took his own life in 2013.

Second Sight, a forensic accounting firm commissioned by the Post Office to review Horizon, reported evidence of “flaws and bugs” and raised serious concerns about the treatment of sub-postmasters including the pursuit of prosecutions.

In 2019, the Post Office agreed to pay out £58 million after 550 sub-postmasters brought a group action. In 2021, the Court of Appeal ruled that it was “satisfied that a fair trial was not possible in any of the Horizon cases” and that “the failures of investigation and disclosure were in our judgment so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the ‘Horizon cases’ an affront to the conscience of the court”.

To date, 93 convictions have been overturned. On Sunday, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, told the BBC that the Government was looking at the possibility of exonerating all those convicted. Addressing the House of Commons, the Post Office minister, Kevin Hollinrake, said that the scandal was “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history”.

A dramatisation of the scandal — Mr Bates vs The Post Office — broadcast on ITV, has brought the matter to greater public attention.

On Monday, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Smith, the son of a former sub-postmaster, said that the drama “understandably rekindles the suffering and pain of the sub-postmasters and their families who are victims of the Horizon IT scandal, and anger in all of us for such a serious miscarriage of justice.

“I hope and pray that the public inquiry will explain fully the sequence of events, provide redress for the victims and hold to account the responsible people and organisations.”

Ms Vennells, whose mother was a book-keeper, joined the Post Office as group network director in 2007. She became chief executive in 2012, when the Post Office was separating from Royal Mail as an independent company with its own board. She resigned in 2018 and departed in 2019. The Times reports that, during her time as chief executive, she collected more than £4.5 million in pay, including £2.2 million in bonuses.

After the 2019 court ruling she said: “It was and remains a source of great regret to me that these colleagues and their families were affected over so many years. I am truly sorry we were unable to find both a solution and a resolution outside of litigation and for the distress this caused.”

In 2020, an independent public inquiry was established, with the first hearings held last year. Ms Vennells is expected to give evidence later this year. 

In 2021, in the wake of the Court of Appeal decision to clear 39 sub-postmasters, she stepped back from parish ministry in the diocese of St Albans (News, 26 April 2021). Ordained in 2006, she had been serving as a non-stipendiary minister at Bromham with Oakley and Stagsden,

“I am truly sorry for the suffering caused to the 39 sub-postmasters as a result of their convictions which were overturned last week,” she said in a statement. “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.”

Her decision was supported by Dr Smith, but in a statement quoted by The Daily Telegraph, he was cautious about the attribution of blame: “It is my understanding that the action taken was against Post Office Limited as a corporation and that no culpability was attributed to any specific individuals.

“Ms Vennells has made a personal apology. I am also aware that there are many legal processes still under way which I, and anyone else, would hesitate to pre-empt.” After taking legal advice, he said that it would be wrong to “simply impute to Ms Vennells all of the failures found to have been committed by Post Office Limited”.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for Dr Smith told The Daily Telegraph that the ITV drama was “a bit like The Crown where it diverges from actual fact into TV”. Dr Smith had been in contact with Ms Vennells and the Church was offering her support, he said.

Most of the prosecutions brought by the Post Office happened before Ms Vennells became chief executive. Alerted to shortfalls in accounts, the Post Office demanded that sub-postmasters repay, or face closure or prosecution. Some used their own money to meet the demand, even remortgaging their homes. They were not told that others were experiencing problems with the system.

Ms Vennells’ last public statement was in 2022, when she said: “I remain truly sorry for the suffering caused to wrongly prosecuted sub-postmasters and their families. I continue to fully support and focus on co-operating with the inquiry and it would be inappropriate for me to comment further while it remains ongoing.”

In evidence to two inquiries conducted by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee she defended her actions as chief executive.

In 2015, while acknowledging that “in some cases we could have done things better”, she insisted that for the “vast majority” Horizon had worked well, and that the Post Office had investigated with “rigour” when problems had arisen. She rejected the suggestion that the Post Office had a “culture of denial”, telling MPs: “We are a business that does genuinely care about the people that work for us, and if there had been any miscarriages of justice, it would have been really important to me and the Post Office that we actually surfaced those. . . So far we have no evidence of that.”

Parliament TVPaula Vennells gives evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee in February 2015

She concluded her evidence by emphasising the importance of maintaining trust in the Post Office, describing it as a “really successful business” in which, under her tenure, losses had been halved and its dependence on government subsidy reduced.

In written evidence to the 2020 inquiry, Ms Vennells said that she was “deeply sorry for those sub-postmasters who have suffered, for their families and colleagues, and for what they have been through. I have read many of their stories, and they are harrowing. They are with me every day.”

But she went on to defend her record, insisting that she had not known of systemic flaws in Horizon and that, when it came to prosecutions, she had deferred to the expertise of lawyers. She did “not accept any personal criminal misconduct”.

She wrote: “What I did not know during my tenure as CEO was that many of the problems encountered by sub-postmasters could have been caused by the defects which the judge in the group litigation found to have existed in the Horizon technology. . .

“The message that the Board and I were consistently given by Fujitsu, from the highest levels of the company, was that while, like any IT system, Horizon was not perfect and had a limited life-span, it was fundamentally sound. I believed that it was reasonable for the Board to rely on these assurances.”

She went on: “It is now clear from the judgments in the group litigation that there was a real risk . . . that sub-postmasters could be blamed for financial anomalies caused, not by their own fault, but by defects in the Horizon technology. For the avoidance of any doubt, I was and remain deeply disturbed by what has come to light: it is contrary to what I believed throughout my time as CEO of Post Office between 2012 and 2019.” She had been given information by Fujitsu that was “seriously inaccurate”.

She was not a lawyer, and had been told that “the Post Office approached prosecutions with the same rigour as the CPS. . . It would have been wrong for me to become involved unless of course I became aware of a systemic problem, which I did not.”

Furthermore, the Post Office under her tenure had “effectively stopped private prosecutions except in extreme cases” (there were 45 between 2012 and 2017). This was despite the fact that it had “seemed there were good reasons in principle for Post Office to continue the practice of bringing private prosecutions”.

She wrote: “It was, remains, and always will remain, a source of great regret to me that these colleagues and their families were affected so deeply over so many years. That they were accused of impropriety when there may have been none — I can barely contemplate how that must have felt. I am truly sorry for the distress they suffered. . .

“I am sorry for the fact that during my tenure as CEO, despite genuinely working hard to resolve the difficulties, Post Office did not identify and address the defects in the Horizon technology. This regret is constantly with me.”

In 2012, Ms Vennells commissioned a review of Horizon by forensic accountants, Second Sight. She also set up a Complaints Review and Mediation Scheme and a Branch Support Programme, which included introducing “suspended termination” and training for postmasters. Mediation collapsed in 2015.

Second Sight has been highly critical of the Post Office, describing in its 2020 evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee its “repeated refusal to consider faults with the Horizon system. . .

”Well run companies normally welcome opportunities to find and correct deficiencies in their processes and systems. We saw no appetite for that in Post Office. We attributed that lack of appetite to Post Office’s unique ability to transfer operational risk to its sub-postmasters.”

Last week, Jo Hamilton, a former sub-postmaster, wrongly accused of stealing £36,000, echoed calls for Ms Vennells to return her CBE. She told The Times: “Instead of getting to the bottom of it all and putting it right, she fought us in the High Court. And if she had stopped it, my mum and dad would have seen me get my conviction quashed and we wouldn’t have had more years of misery.”

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.

Last year, the Government said that Post Office workers whose convictions had been overturned would each be offered £600,000 in compensation.

Read more on this story in this week’s Leader comment, Angela Tilby, Letters, Press, and TV

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