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Leader comment: Paula Vennells confronted

31 May 2024

AS BEFORE (Leader comment, 12 January), we write with diffidence about the Revd Paula Vennells, former CEO of the Post Office, who appeared before the Horizon IT inquiry last week. She is also a former trustee of Hymns Ancient & Modern, the Church Times’s parent charity, and thus we know her better than many — though, as we have said, she had no say in the paper’s editorial content or policy. The availability of a live stream of her three days’ grilling at the inquiry means that everyone can make up their mind about her complicity in the sub-postmasters scandal without a steer from us. Were we to permit ourselves one observation, however, it would be that she is not stupid. She knows, as one of her interrogators said, that it is not enough to say that you’re sorry. She knows, too, that for many of the sub-postmasters, restitution is impossible, and that recompense is in the gift of others. She knows, too, finally, that, given the agonies inflicted on the sub-postmasters, she cannot expect sympathy or forgiveness, and she did not ask for it. We wonder, then, what contrition might look like in such circumstances, when there is no action that she can take to convince others of her wretchedness — for we believe that she is wretched.

Ms Vennells did not claim to be innocent, and she was not. Perhaps the most excruciating moments during the hearings were when she was asked about the times she succumbed to the locker-room culture of the Post Office hierarchy, in which reputation was what mattered supremely. When confronted last week, she was rightly ashamed. The underlying theme of her evidence was that — in a multi-million-pound organisation with 60,000 employees — she was too busy to attend properly to an injustice that was, the hearing established, at least in part being hidden from her; but it was not a defence that she could use. She did suggest that she was too trusting; but, although this is usually a virtue, there are occasions when a CEO has to be suspicious, and she was not, or not suspicious enough.

There is no rubric that suggests that confession is unnecessary for some. Thus, when Christ said: “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” Christians might puzzle over how to apply the command, but they have no difficulty grasping the reason. None would view with equanimity the prospect of revisiting their past performance, in the public gaze, with full disclosure of everything that they have written. Here, then, is sympathy for Ms Vennells. And she has withdrawn voluntarily from ministry — paradoxically out of concern for an institution’s reputation once again, this time the Church’s.

When the inquiry’s chair, Sir Wyn Williams, publishes his findings next year, a criminal investigation can begin. Many hope that, finally, those guilty of scandal will be punished. Whether or not she is subject to criminal proceedings in the future, it was clear last week that Ms Vennells’s punishment began some time ago.

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