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Vennells apologises for errors in Post Office Horizon IT scandal

22 May 2024

‘Very affected’ former CEO faces three-day inquiry

Post Office Horizon Inquiry

THE Revd Paula Vennells said that she was “very, very sorry” for the sufferings of those affected by the Post Office Horizon IT scandal as she appeared before the independent inquiry on Wednesday.

Ms Vennells was the chief executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, during the last years of prosecutions of sub-postmasters based on evidence from the Horizon IT system.

At the start of three days of questioning, Ms Vennells was being asked what she knew, and when, about issues of remote access to sub-postmasters’ IT accounts. Between 1999 and 2015, more than 900 sub-postmasters were prosecuted based on evidence from the faulty IT system.

Ms Vennells was ordained priest in 2006, but in 2021 stepped back from her position as Non-Stipendiary Minister of Bromham with Oakley and Stagsden, in St Albans diocese (News, 30 April 2021). In January, BBC News reported that she had been considered for the position of Bishop of London in 2017 (News, 12 January).

After swearing an oath on the Bible, and pledging to answer every question put to her, Ms Vennells began her evidence session by apologising “for all [that] the sub-postmasters, and their families, have suffered”. She said that she had been “very affected” by statements made by sub-postmasters who were wrongfully convicted of stealing from the Post Office.

Asked whether she deliberately misled MPs when, in 2015, she told them that all convictions relying on the Horizon system had been successful, Ms Vennells said that she had believed this at the time, though acknowledged that other people in the Post Office were aware of failed prosecutions.

During the afternoon session on Wednesday, Ms Vennells was confronted with a briefing paper that she had been given by staff to prepare for the 2015 Select Committee meeting. This contained a firm denial of the possibility of remote access, followed by concessionary answers “if pushed”. This was not a strategy that she would have considered, she said.

Ms Vennells was in tears several times during her evidence session on Wednesday, when talking about the impact on sub-postmasters, such as Martin Griffiths, who took his own life in 2013. “Sorry is an inadequate word. I’m just so sorry that Mr Griffiths is not here today,” she said.

The inquiry was shown an email from Ms Vennells in which she responded to news of Mr Griffiths’s death. She described herself as “so so sorry”.

“Martin’s family must be devastated,” she wrote, and offered “to speak to or to meet the family if we thought that would help”. The email shows Ms Vennells also asking “what background we have on Martin and how/why this might have happened. I had heard but have yet to see a formal report, that there were previous mental health issues and potential family issues.”

Asked on Wednesday whether she was asking staff to dig into Mr Griffiths’s file, Ms Vennells began to explain that she had expected that the Post Office board would ask her such questions about the circumstances of Mr Griffiths’s death, before breaking off and saying that it “didn’t matter”, and that she “should not have used those words”.

She said that she did not recall ever being motivated to prioritise the reputation of the Post Office over alleviating the suffering of sub-postmasters, but could “see with hindsight that there are many examples where that is clearly the case, because the Post Office got this very wrong”.

Ms Vennells also said that she had not understood that the prosecutions were being brought directly by the Post Office rather than the Crown Prosecution Service.

From 2010, 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.

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