Paula Vennells: What have we learned from ex-Post Office boss’s evidence?

Ms Vennells gave evidence over the course of three days at the Horizon IT inquiry.

The Horizon IT inquiry has heard from Paula Vennells over the course of three days
The Horizon IT inquiry has heard from Paula Vennells over the course of three days (Lewis Stickley/PA)

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells has broken her almost decade-long silence on the Horizon scandal as she was quizzed over the course of three days on how things unfolded on her watch.

During her evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, Ms Vennells cut an emotional figure as she broke down a number of times under questioning from both counsel to the inquiry lawyers on behalf of subpostmasters.

Here, the PA news agency looks at what we have learned from her evidence:

– Vennells said subpostmistress ‘lacked passion’ after TV show

Ms Vennells was booed by subpostmasters in the public gallery on Friday after she was seen describing Horizon scandal victim Jo Hamilton as someone who “lacked passion”.

She told colleagues she was “more bored than outraged” at a 2014 BBC One Show programme featuring campaigning subpostmasters.

Ms Vennells apologised directly to Ms Hamilton at the Horizon IT inquiry on Friday – saying: “I’m deeply sorry that I was so rude to you in that email.”

Ms Hamilton was falsely accused of stealing £36,000 from the Post Office branch she ran in South Warnborough, Hampshire.

– Vennells admits false statement to MPs

In an exchange on Wednesday that prompted her to reach for a tissue and compose herself, the former chief executive admitted she had made a false statement to parliamentarians, but unintentionally.

She had told MPs the Post Office had been successful in every case against subpostmasters in court.

After counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC listed a number of cases in which the business had not been successful, Ms Vennells said: “The Post Office knew that and I completely accepted.

“Personally I didn’t know that and I’m incredibly sorry that it happened to those people and to so many others.”

– Ms Vennells concedes ‘no one to blame’ but herself for scandal

Ms Vennells admitted she has “no one to blame” but herself for what happened during the Horizon scandal.

Questioned on Friday over whether she only had herself to blame during the scandal, Ms Vennells said: “Absolutely. Where I made mistakes and where I made the wrong calls… where I had information and I made the wrong calls, yes, of course.”

Edward Henry KC, on behalf of a number of subpostmasters, asked her on Friday: “What I’m going to suggest to you is that whatever you did was deliberate, considered and calculated. No-one deceived you, no-one misled you. You set the agenda and the tone for the business.”

Ms Vennells said: “I did my very best through this, and it wasn’t good enough, and that is a regret I carry with me.”

– Ms Vennells took advice not to review cases as it would end up ‘front page news’

The inquiry heard on Thursday that Ms Vennells followed a “grossly improper” suggestion to not review all subpostmaster prosecutions after her communications chief said it would end up as “front page news”.

The probe was shown an email exchange between Ms Vennells and then director of communications Mark Davies in July 2013 in which she said she would “take your steer” after he said looking at all past cases would be “in media terms… very high profile”.

Subpostmasters in the public gallery groaned loudly after the 65-year-old said she did not remember if she took the “advice of the PR guy” to review past prosecutions.

She said: “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.”

– Vennells ‘made mistakes’ but denied conspiracy

The 65-year-old apologised 23 times during her evidence on Wednesday while addressing a variety of topics, but maintained that there was no conspiracy at the Post Office during the scandal.

Ms Vennells said it was her “deep sorrow” that people, including herself, had “made mistakes” and “didn’t see things, didn’t hear things”.

But she told Mr Beer: “I have no sense that there was any conspiracy at all.

“I may be wrong but that wasn’t the impression that I had at the time. I have more questions now but a conspiracy feels too far-fetched.”

– Ms Vennells ‘possibly’ hoped mediation would ‘minimise’ subpostmaster compensation

Ms Vennells admitted to the inquiry on Thursday that it was “possibly” her hope that a mediation scheme with subpostmasters would “minimise compensation”.

In an email from August 2013 to Post Office lawyer Susan Crichton, Ms Vennells wrote: “When we discussed this, the hope of mediation was to avoid or minimise compensation.”

Ms Vennells accepted that the email sounded like subpostmasters were only welcome on the scheme if they agreed to receive a “pat on the head and a token payment”.

She told the probe she did not believe the mediation scheme, set up for people who believed they had been wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office, was for paying out “substantial figures”.

– Ms Vennells faced accusations of knowing about IT errors from ex-Royal Mail chief

On a day where subpostmasters accused the former Post Office boss of a “cover-up”, the probe heard on Wednesday that the ordained priest was accused of knowing about Horizon bugs by ex-Royal Mail Group chief executive Dame Moya Greene.

Dame Moya told her “I can’t now support you” after telling Ms Vennells: “I don’t know what to say. I think you knew.”

Ms Vennells then said: “No Moya, that isn’t the case.”

Dame Moya replied: “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.”

– Ms Vennells tried to ‘manipulate language’ in non-emotive Horizon bugs request

Ms Vennells admitted attempting to “manipulate language” when she sought to make Horizon bugs sound “non-emotive”.

In an email from July 2013, which was previously shown to the inquiry, Ms Vennells said she did not want to use the word “bugs” when referencing the faulty Horizon system in an attempt to be “non-emotive”.

In the message to then-communications chief Mark Davies, Ms Vennells wrote: “My engineer/computer literate husband sent the following reply to the question: ‘What is a non-emotive word for computer bugs, glitches, defects that happen as a matter of course?'” – adding the answer was “exception or anomaly”.

The former Post Office boss said she should “not have engaged” with the conversation, describing her words as “wrong and stupid”.

Ms Vennells claimed she was ‘noted’ within Post Office for ‘caring about subpostmasters’

During a tearful episode on Friday, Ms Vennells admitted she had let subpostmasters down, but claimed her “only motivation was for the best for the Post Office and for the hundreds of postmasters that I met”.

She claimed she was “noted” within the Post Office for “caring about subpostmasters”.

Ms Vennells added: “One of my huge regrets in this is that I did not do that for the subpostmasters affected in this way and that will be with me.”

Under questioning from Sam Stein KC, on behalf of a number of subpostmasters, Ms Vennells denied leading the Post Office through “deception” and “manipulation”.

Ms Vennells felt ‘uncomfortable’ during High Court case brought by Alan Bates

Vennells felt “uncomfortable” during the High Court case brought by lead campaigner Alan Bates and admitted the judgments made for “unacceptable reading”.

The case, known as the group litigation, racked up bills which Mr Justice Fraser considered to be “expensive” and subpostmasters have previously accused the Post Office of deploying a deliberate tactic to outspend them.

More than 550 claimants brought the group legal action against the Post Office over the Horizon IT system between 2017 and 2019.

Ms Vennells was grilled on whether she set a tone of “let’s get rid of these bugs in the system – the subpostmasters”, to which she replied: “I did not set a culture like that. I did not lead the litigation.”