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Vennells speaks of her love of the Post Office and her regret that it failed the sub-postmasters

24 May 2024

Alamy

The Revd Paula Vennells leaves to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry at Aldwych House, in central London, on Friday, at the end of her third day of evidence

The Revd Paula Vennells leaves to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry at Aldwych House, in central London, on Friday, at the end of her third day...

THE Revd Paula Vennells finished giving evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry on Friday, on the same day as a Bill quashing the convictions of former post-submasters was fast-tracked into law.

The Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill overturns convictions of theft, fraud, and other offences linked to the Horizon IT scandal, in which more than 900 sub-postmasters were prosecuted on the basis of a faulty IT system.

The final stages of parliamentary scrutiny were fast-tracked because of the impending dissolution of Parliament next week, after it was confirmed that a General Election would be held on 4 July (News, 22 May).

The Bill received broad support from the Lords Spiritual and other peers. The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, while still supporting it, had expressed concern that the legislation could have unforeseen consequences for the rule of law (News, 17 May).

Chief executive of the Post Office during the last years of the prosecutions, Ms Vennells spent three days answering questions about her leadership of the organisation during a time when it pursued sub-postmasters relentlessly through the courts even while internal evidence was building up of faults in the Horizon system (News, 22 May).

Ms Vennells served as a non-stipendiary minister of Bromham with Oakley and Stagsden, in St Albans diocese, until she stepped back from ministry in 2021 (News, 30 April 2021). From 2010 to 2019, Ms Vennells was a trustee of Hymns Ancient & Modern, the charity that owns the Church Times.

On Thursday, Ms Vennells was asked whether the motivation behind a review of a number of cases had been merely to protect the Post Office’s reputation. She replied that she had “believed, very sincerely, that the scheme we were putting in place would help”.

Asked what the PR chief Mark Davies meant when he wrote in an email that the Post Office should aim to “take the sting out of” the report, Ms Vennells said: “I’m not entirely sure.” On Friday, she was asked about Mr Davies’s use of the term “lifestyle changes” for the experiences of convicted sub-postmasters in a BBC interview. She described how she had heard it with dismay.

The email exchange in question concerned the possibility of setting up a review of convictions which relied on the data from the Horizon IT system.

The scope of such a review was discussed by senior management staff at the Post Office, including Ms Vennells, but not all information was shared with the board. Asked whether she was “shielding the board from the executive team’s dirty laundry”, Ms Vennells said that this was “completely wrong”.

On Friday, Ms Vennells faced intense questioning from lawyers representing former sub-postmasters. Edward Henry KC, who represents the victims of miscarriages of justice, began: “There were so many forks in the road, but you always took the wrong path, didn’t you?”

Ms Vennells replied: “It was an extraordinarily complex undertaking, and the Post Office and I didn’t always take the right path.”

Mr Henry said that she “preached compassion but didn’t practise it”, citing the exclusion of a former sub-postmaster, Lee Castleton, from the Post Office-run mediation scheme. Ms Vennells described the treatment of Mr Castleton — who was prosecuted by the Post Office, and went bankrupt, owing to the legal costs of losing his case — as “completely unacceptable”, but said that she was not personally involved in deciding which cases went into the mediation scheme.

She again broke down in tears on Friday, after saying that she “loved” the Post Office. “I’ve worked as hard as I could and to the best of my ability,” she said, before returning to the defence used throughout her evidence: that she hadn’t been given key information.

“I now know information that I didn’t get. And I don’t know in some cases why it didn’t reach me. But my only motivation was for the best for the Post Office, and for the hundreds of postmasters that I met; and I regret deeply that I let these people down,” she said.

Sam Stein KC, who is acting on behalf of sub-postmasters who were wrongfully convicted, responded: “Ms Vennells, that’s absolutely rubbish, isn’t it?”

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