Moment Post Office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

This is the moment Post Office scandal victims groan as Paula Vennells claims she 'can't remember' if she took PR advice not to review a decade's worth of wrongful convictions.

The 65-year-old businesswoman drew audible gasps from the audience as she gave evidence at the Horizon IT Inquiry into why hundreds of branch managers were wrongly prosecuted amid claims they stole from the business.

More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft by the Post Office and given criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu's faulty IT system, known as Horizon, made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

Ms Vennells, who was the chief executive from 2012 to 2019, told the inquiry she could not remember if she took advice from the Post Office's PR supremo in 2013 that they should not review prosecutions from 'five to 10 years' ago.

The inquiry chairman was forced to intervene as members of the gallery groaned at her response after being shown an email from 'PR guy' Mark Davies where he advised not to look at historical cases because it would end up 'on the front page'.

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells arrives to give her second day of evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry at Aldwych House, central London

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

The 65-year-old businesswoman arrives at Aldwych House, escorted by police officers, to give evidence for a second day at the Horizon IT scandal

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells on her second day of giving evidence to the inquiry at Aldwych House, central London

On the second day of Ms Vennells' evidence, inquiry heard the Post Office's PR supremo Mark Davies gave Ms Vennells 'personal advice' on the extent to which past Post Office convictions were reviewed, on the basis that media coverage of each decision might make it 'front page news'.

Mr Davies said in 2013 that the Post Office should not review historical cases involving the Horizon IT system from 'five to 10 years' ago because it would be 'on the front page'.

Referring to an email from July 2013 from Mr Davies, counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC asked the former chief executive: 'This says "you can't do that, you'll be on the front page".

'That's a grossly improper perspective isn't it?'

Ms Vennells said: 'Yes it is.'

Mr Beer continued: 'Do you know why he cut everyone else out of the chain and replied directly to you?'

Ms Vennells said: 'No, I don't.'

Mr Vennells said she 'would never have taken a decision based on the advice of one colleague', despite the inquiry being shown evidence she would 'take your (Davies') steer'.

The inquiry was shown an email from Ms Vennells replying to Mr Davies' advice to review a smaller number of cases.

Ms Vennells wrote: 'Mark, thanks for this and, I don't think we are far apart - I didn't say this approach would be our media statement but they would need to be aligned.

'You are right to call this out. And it will take your steer. no issue.'

Mr Beer KC then asked: 'You did take the advice of the PR guy, didn't you?'

Ms Vennells began her answer by saying 'I don't remember', before loud groans came from the public gallery.

After chairman Sir Wyn Williams intervened, Ms Vennells continued: 'As I tried to say before, what we were working to at this stage was numbers of cases going through a scheme, and a scheme that was going to be opened up to anybody who wanted to come forward.

'I understand how this reads, but I don't recall making any conscious decision not to go back and put in place a review of all past criminal cases.'

Ms Vennells later revealed to the inquiry she remained in contact with Mr Davies even after she left the Post Office.

Counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC asked: 'Did you exchange messages with him about media statements that you might make and the media lines that you might take in the announcement of this inquiry, for example?'

Ms Vennells replied: 'I believe the inquiry has texts that show that.'

Mr Beer continued: 'Even though you'd moved on, he was still advising you into 2020 as to the lines to take in your media statements?'

Ms Vennells said: 'I had kept in touch with Mark Davies for reasons that were very personal to him and I think he offered that advice at the time.'

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

The inquiry was shown this email from Ms Vennells replying to Mr Davies' advice to review a smaller number of cases

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

PR guru Mark Davies is seen giving evidence to the inquiry at Aldwych House, central London, on May 14, 2024

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

Police escort Former CEO of the Post Office Paula Vennells as she arrives at the Post Office inquiry in London

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

Paula Vennells, former Chief Executive Officer of the Post Office, arrives at Aldwych House, where the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry is taking place on Thursday

Elsewhere, the inquiry heard Ms Vennells received a letter from the independent Criminal Cases Review Commission in summer 2013 asking for evidence about some of its previous convictions, following mounting coverage in the Press.

What Paula Vennells told the inquiry today

But the inquiry heard the Post Office failed to disclose concerns it had about the reliability of evidence of its expert witness, Horizon engineer Gareth Jenkins.

Ms Vennells denied Mr Beer's suggestion the letter, while unusual, was 'unwelcome'.

Mr Beer asked: 'The right and honest thing to do would be to have let the CCRC know promptly over its concerns about the truthfulness and reliability of the evidence that Gareth Jenkins had given to court wouldn't it?'

Ms Vennells replied: 'It would, yes.'

Mr Beer replied: 'But that didn't happen for years, did it?'

Ms Vennells replied: 'I understand that to be the case.'

Mr Beer added: 'Is it every day of the week in the Post Office that it is told that the safety of its convictions may be called into question by unreliable evidence by an expert witness?'

Ms Vennells replied: 'No. I now know much more than I did at the time.'

Ms Vennells said she 'accepted the explanations' she had been given that the bugs identified in the system in mid-2013 had been dealt with.

Mr Beer said: 'You had been told repeatedly for six years since you joined the Post Office (in 2007) that there were no bugs in Horizon, that mantra is key to your witness statement. It was the consistent message to your business.

'And then you are told: No they are just red herring bugs.'

Ms Vennells said: 'I was told that where cases had gone to court, the court found in favour of Horizon. I knew there were always glitches and issues with the system, I knew that from having visited branches.'

Asked if it was 'world-changing information' that contradicted what she had previously been told about the integrity of Horizon, Ms Vennells replied: 'This was important, but I was reassured at the same time that these bugs had been dealt with.'

Ms Vennells agreed with Mr Beer that she should have asked for a 'watertight assurance' from Fujitsu, the Japanese tech giant behind the software, that there were no further bugs.

It comes as earlier today, the inquiry was shown a note from Mr Bates, who spearheaded the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) campaign, in 2013.

At the time forensic accountants Second Sight were drafted in to independently review cases involving the Horizon system in 2012.

In his email, Mr Bates said he was 'surprised' the pair had not met, 'bearing in mind what has been discovered so far' in the investigation.

He wrote: 'I have little doubt it is now feasible to show that many of the prosecutions the Post Office has pressed home should never have taken place.'

Ms Vennells replied saying she was happy to meet, but added: 'We are too early in the investigation to suggest that things have been discovered which call into question the integrity of the system or the validity of the prosecutions.'

And she reiterated to the inquiry into the scandal today her insistence that she had no reason to doubt Horizon's integrity.

Ms Vennells told inquiry lawyer Jason Beer KC: 'I was concerned to get the email from Alan. The point he was making about prosecutions was the point the JFSA made for a number of years - that wasn't new news to me at this stage.'

Mr Beer asked her: 'Is that how you would have thought of it, that this is just Mr Bates saying something that he's always said?'

The former Post Office boss replied: 'No, not at all.'

Mr Beer then said: 'Had you been given any inkling that anything had emerged that might undermine the safety of convictions?'

Ms Vennells responded: 'No.'

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

Alan Bates, former sub-postmaster and founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

The Post Office has come under fire since the broadcast of ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, which put the Horizon scandal under the spotlight

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

Some of the 39 convicted postmasters celebrate as their convictions are quashed in 2021

Ms Vennels was questioned on whether a deliberate choice was made to choose forensic accounting firm Second Sight over Deloitte to review independently the Horizon system because the former's proposal was 'much narrower in scope' and 'only looked at a sample of past cases'.

Ms Vennells said in repsonse: 'From a personal point of view, I would say that is absolutely not the case. I have no recollection of that at all.'

The inquiry heard the probe by Second Sight into the Horizon system in 2012 set out to probe a selection of past cases where subpostmasters were prosecuted despite insisting they did nothing wrong.

But Mr Beer said the review did not undertake what it had set out to.

He said: 'If what is described here had in fact been undertaken, there is a possibility that the decade that followed until faults in Horizon and the miscarriages of justice may have been discovered earlier?

Ms Vennells replied: 'I think that is a possibility.'

Asked if after reading a line in Second Sight's interim report that there were 'no systemic defects' in the system, the Post Office 'paraded that conclusion', Ms Vennells said: 'It did come to that conclusion in its interim report.

'There is no way I would have wanted to persuade Second Sight on something they were not prepared to say and I don't believe Second Sight would ever have agreed to that.

'If they came to that conclusion in their interim report, that was their conclusion.'

Counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC then asked: 'Isn't that what the Post Office wanted to drive them to and isn't this the evidence of such driving?'

Ms Vennells replied: 'The Post Office certainly wanted the reassurance that the Horizon system could be relied upon - that has been the objective all the way through this.

'At no stage did I get the sense that anybody in the Post Office was going to be able to influence Second Sight over what conclusions they came to.

'I would be very surprised if that was the case here.'

The inquiry later heard Alwen Lyons, former company secretary, emailed Ms Vennells in June 2012 expressing former Post Office general counsel Susan Crichton's concerns about including former subpostmistress Seema Misra's case in an independent review into the Horizon IT system.

Ms Misra, who ran a Post Office in West Byfleet, Surrey, was jailed in 2010 after being accused of stealing £74,000. She was pregnant at the time.

Ms Lyons wrote: 'The issue that came to light with the list of MP cases was that they included the Mishra (Misra), you will remember the case and the publicity, she went to prison and had her baby whilst in there.

'The husband got publicity through radio and press.

'Susan's anxiety, and she raised this at the meeting with Alice before you joined, was whether now contacting her to tell her we review the case would be a red rag to a bull.'

Asked if she shared Ms Crichton's concerns that even contacting Ms Misra 'would be a red rag to a bull', Ms Vennells told the inquiry: 'No.'

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

Paula Vennells is sworn in to the Horizon inquiry at Aldwych House on Wednesday

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

Post Office boss Paula Vennells gestures as she gives evidence to the inquiry at Aldwych House, central London on Wednesday

Yesterday Ms Vennells wept when questioned about subpostmasters being wrongly convicted, including Martin Griffiths who killed himself after he was accused of stealing money from the Post Office.

She became emotional again as she apologised for misleading MPs who were looking into constituents' complaints about the faulty software.

What Paula Vennells told the inquiry on Wednesday

'I am sorry'

'I would just like to say, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to do this, how sorry I am for all that subpostmasters and their families and others have suffered as a result of all of the matters that the inquiry is looking into.'

'Too trusting'

'One of my reflections of all of this - I was too trusting. I did probe and I did ask questions and I'm disappointed where information wasn't shared and it has been a very important time for me... to plug some of those gaps.'

'Unacceptable'

'It's completely unacceptable that that (not knowing the extent of the Post Office's criminal investigations) was the case and that people, including myself, didn't know.

'Status quo'

'My only explanation for that is that it had been going on for so long, that it was an accepted reality, it was the status quo that I joined and accepted, I shouldn't have done.'

'Disappointed'

'I have been disappointed, particularly more recently, listening to evidence of the inquiry where I think I remember people knew more than perhaps either they remembered at the time or I knew of at the time.'

'No conspiracy'

'I have no sense that there was any conspiracy at all. My deep sorrow in this is that I think that individuals, myself included, made mistakes, didn't see things, didn't hear things.'

'Should have known'

'I should have known and I should have asked more questions, and I and others who also did not know should have dug much more deeply into this.'

And she fought back tears when recalling reading 'disturbing' evidence of the impact of the scandal on Post Office workers.

The 65-year-old said her mistakes would 'live with me for ever.'

But she insisted she did not think there had been any miscarriages of justice until long after she left the organisation in 2019 – having previously told MPs the Post Office had 'never lost a case'.

Ms Vennells, who served as chief executive for seven years, came face-to-face with victims at the public inquiry in central London, and had to wipe away tears as she opened her evidence with a short apology.

Turning to address the more than 100 campaigners present, she said: 'I would just like to say – and I'm grateful for the opportunity to do this in person – how sorry I am for all that subpostmasters and their families and others who suffered as a result of all of the matters that the inquiry has been looking into for so long.

'I followed and listened to all of the human impact statements and I was very affected by them. I am very, very sorry.'

In a 775-page statement to the inquiry, she said she wished to repeat her apologies to all those who 'have suffered so much from this terrible miscarriage of justice'.

She added: 'Their lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system. I am truly sorry and will so [sic] for the rest of my life.'

Ms Vennells had to return her CBE earlier this year after ITV's acclaimed drama series Mr Bates Vs The Post Office brought the scandal – and her central role in it – to a new audience.

The ordained Anglican priest had refused to comment publicly since, but was taken to task by Jason Beer KC, lead lawyer to the inquiry, during her first of three full days in the witness box.

Ms Vennells wept as she apologised for telling the Commons business select committee in 2015 that the Post Office was successful in every court case against subpostmasters as it probed Horizon's integrity.

Inquiry lawyer Mr Beer said: 'Why were you telling parliamentarians every prosecution involving the Horizon system had been successful and had found in favour of the Post Office?'

Ms Vennells, becoming tearful and reaching for a tissue, said: 'I fully accept now – excuse me...

'The Post Office knew that (not every case was won). Personally, I didn't know that and I'm incredibly sorry that that happened to those people, and to so many others.'

There were murmurs in the inquiry room as she broke down briefly.

The inquiry heard Ms Vennells had sought advice from senior colleagues ahead of her appearance before the MPs when she asked for assurances that the system could not be accessed remotely.

She was subsequently presented with briefing notes on how to respond to MPs, which stated she was to say there was no functionality to change transaction data.

But, if pushed on the issue, she could add that there in fact was, although 'there are numerous test and checks including daily checks'.

She agreed with the inquiry chairman Sir Wyn Williams, who said the briefing note suggested Ms Vennells was being advised to 'be very precise, very circumspect, and very guarded' with her answers to MPs.

Ms Vennells also agreed with Mr Beer that it was a 'serious issue' for 'folklore' to develop within the Post Office, relating to incorrect claims about its 100 per cent success rate on prosecutions, that Horizon was faultless, and that remote access to the system was not possible – meaning errors were the result of the subpostmaster.

Mr Beer said: 'Each of these things turn out to be false. How is it that on all of these critical issues, so many false statements were circulating within the Post Office?'

Ms Vennells said: 'At the time they were not considered to be false statements. I didn't believe any of those statements were folklore at all.'

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells is seen breaking down in tears as she gave evidence at the Horizon IT inquiry on Wednesday

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

Paula Vennells, former CEO of the Post Office cries as she gives evidence at the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry on Wednesday

Crucial to Ms Vennells' evidence was the extent to which she knew about Horizon's failings, and when.

She drew laughter from a handful of those watching when she insisted that she believed the reassurances given to her by colleagues.

'One of my reflections of all of this – I was too trusting,' she said. 'I did probe and I did ask questions.'

She said she was 'disappointed' that some detail 'wasn't shared' with her. But she denied there was a 'conspiracy' to keep information from her. Mr Beer asked: 'Was there a conspiracy at the Post Office which lasted for nearly 12 years involving a wide range of people, differing over time, to deny you information and to deny you documents and to falsely give you reassurance.'

Ms Vennells smiled briefly as she replied: 'No, I don't believe that was the case.'

She added: 'I have been disappointed – particularly more recently listening to evidence at the inquiry – where I think I have learnt that people know more than perhaps they remembered at the time or I knew of at the time.

'My deep sorrow in this is I think individuals, myself included, maybe didn't see things, didn't hear things. Conspiracy feels too far-fetched.' She pointed the finger at unnamed 'colleagues' who 'did know more information than was shared'.

The probe later was shown a text message exchange between Vennells and Dame Moya Greene in January 2024, after the ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office aired.

Ms Vennells, the former Post Office chief executive, said Dame Moya was suggesting that there was a conspiracy within the Post Office.

Dame Moya messaged: 'When it was clear the system was at fault, the PO should have raised a red flag, stopped all proceedings, given people back their money and then tried to compensate them for the ruin this caused in their lives.'

Ms Vennells replied: 'Yes I agree. This has/is taking too long Moya. The toll on everyone affected is dreadful.'

Dame Moya said: 'I don't know what to say. I think you knew.'

Ms Vennells responded: 'No Moya, that isn't the case.'

Dame Moya said: 'I want to believe you. I asked you twice. I suggested you get an independent review reporting to you. I was afraid you were being lied to. You said the system had already been reviews multiple times. How could you have not known?'

Ms Vennells replied: 'Moya, the mechanism for getting to the bottom of this is the inquiry. I've made it my priority to support it fully.'

Dame Moya later said: 'I am sorry.. I can't now support you.'

'I have supported you. All these years.. to my own detriment. I can't support you now after what I have learned.'

Dame Moya said: 'I want to believe you. I asked you twice. I suggested you get an independent review reporting to you. I was afraid you were being lied to.

On Wednesday Ms Vennells also said she had no idea when she joined the company in 2007 that the Post Office was investigating its own staff, taking them to court, and trying to recover money from them.

She said: 'I didn't understand that the Post Office was bringing its own criminal investigations.

'Investigations can be taken at all sorts of different levels. I certainly didn't read into this that the Post Office was conducting criminal investigations to the level that I later understood.'

She said she did not appreciate the situation fully until 2012, when she became chief executive.

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

Text exchange between former Post Office boss Paula Vennells and former Royal Mail boss Moya Greene

moment post office scandal victims groan during public inquiry

As Vennells spoke, postmasters watching the inquiry livestream from Fenny Compton could be seen shaking their heads and laughing

Ms Vennells said: 'I should have known and I should have asked more questions. I and others who also didn't know should have dug much more deeply into this.

'It was a serious mistake that I didn't understand before 2012 the extent of what this meant.'

She said she thought Post Office workers were instead prosecuted by 'external authorities'.

She said she and other colleagues 'were surprised' when they learned about the prosecutions by the organisation.

Sir Wyn said it was 'extremely surprising' that news 'did not filter through' to Ms Vennells about high-profile convictions.

Timeline of a travesty that's still playing out 25 years on

  • 1999: The Horizon IT system from Fujitsu starts being rolled out to Post Office branches, replacing traditional paper-based accounting methods.
  • 2003: Sub-postmaster Alan Bates had his contract terminated by the Post Office after he refused to accept liability for £1,200 of losses in his branch in Llandudno, North Wales.
  • 2004: The branch in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, run by Lee Castleton, showed a shortfall of £23,000 over a 12-week period. Mr Castleton repeatedly asked the Post Office for help, but was sacked and sued for refusing to repay the cash. He was made bankrupt after a two-year legal battle, ordered to pay more than £300,000 for the company's legal bill.
  • 2006: Jo Hamilton, sub-postmaster at South Warnborough, Hampshire, was sacked over financial discrepancies. She re-mortgaged her house twice to fill the shortfall and was charged with theft of £36,000. She later admitted a lesser charge of false accounting to avoid jail.
  • 2009: Computer Weekly magazine told the story of seven postmasters who had experienced unexplained losses. The Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA) was formed.
  • 2010: Mr Bates, from JFSA, writes to minister Sir Ed Davey about the flawed Horizon system and urges him to intervene. His warnings were dismissed.
  • 2012: With MPs raising concerns about convictions and the Horizon system, the Post Office launches an external review, with forensic accountants Second Sight appointed to investigate.
  • 2013: An interim report by Second Sight reveals serious concerns and defects in the IT system. The Daily Mail reveals dozens of postmasters may have been wrongly taken to court and jailed.
  • 2015: It is revealed the Post Office failed to properly investigate why money was missing and concluded computer failures may have been to blame. The Post Office finally stops prosecuting sub-postmasters but 700 end up being convicted.
  • 2017: A group legal action is launched against the Post Office by 555 sub-postmasters.
  • 2019: The High Court case ends in a £43million settlement but much of the cash was swallowed up in legal fees and victims received around £20,000 each. Post Office chief Paula Vennells awarded a CBE in New Year's honours.
  • 2020: The Post Office agrees not to oppose 44 sub-postmasters' appeals against conviction.
  • 2021: A public inquiry begins and is ongoing. The Court of Appeal quashes a further 39 convictions.
  • 2022: The Government announces a new compensation scheme.
  • 2023: Every postal worker wrongly convicted for Horizon offences will receive £600,000 compensation.
  • 2024: Mr Bates vs The Post Office first aired on ITV1 on New Year's Day.

  Read more

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