'Craven' ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells sobs again as she is accused of 'talking rubbish' about role in scandal

24 May 2024, 10:25 | Updated: 24 May 2024, 12:24

Paula Vennells has broken down in tears again
Paula Vennells has broken down in tears again. Picture: Alamy/Horizon inquiry

By Kit Heren

Paula Vennells has broken down in tears again at the Horizon inquiry, as she was told her claim that she only wanted the best for the Post Office was "absolute rubbish".

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Ms Vennells, who is giving evidence for the third day, said she "loved the Post Office" before starting to cry again. The former Post Office boss' first day of giving evidence was also punctuated by tearful episodes.

Ms Vennells, who was chief executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, is being questioned by victims' lawyers on her final day of giving evidence to the inquiry.

The inquiry is looking into how between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of sub-postmasters were wrongly prosecuted after the faulty Horizon accounting system showed money was missing from Post Office branch accounts.

Fighting through the tears on Friday, Ms Vennells said: "I worked as hard as I possibly could to deliver the best Post Office for the UK."

Read more: Emails of Post Office boss Paula Vennells show she decided against review to avoid 'front-page news'

Read more: Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells breaks down during Horizon scandal grilling as she apologises to subpostmasters

Paula Vennells
Paula Vennells. Picture: Alamy

She added: "What I failed to do, and I have made this clear previously, is I did not recognise the imbalance of power between the institution and the individual and I let these people down."

Ms Vennells admitted that governance and data management should have been better. "I am very sorry that I was not able to find out what the inquiry has found out," she said.

"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."

But Sam Stein KC, a lawyer for the victims, said she was talking "absolute rubbish".

Paula Vennells
Paula Vennells. Picture: Alamy

Ms Vennells also denied leading the Post Office through deception.

Edward Henry KC, on behalf of a number of sub-postmasters, said earlier: "This is how you led, Ms Vennells. You led through deception, manipulation and word weaving the reality you wanted in place."

Ms Vennells said: "That is not the case Mr Henry. I worked in a very straightforward way." She added: "I did not work under deception.

"I was trying to address a culture in the organisation which I had found to be command and control where people couldn't speak their minds and they couldn't speak up.

"I was trying to encourage people to work in that way. I did not deal in deception."

Speaking earlier in the day, Ms Vennells also admitted she "made mistakes" and "made the wrong calls" during her tenure.

Under fierce questioning by lawyer Mr Henry she admitted that the fate of Lee Castleton, a sub-postmaster who was made bankrupt, was "completely unacceptable".

She added: "It was wrong... I completely agree with that, and what happened to Mr Castleton is unforgivable."

Asked if the Post Office had ground used public money to "crush" Mr Castleton and "grind him into the dirt", she said: "I agree with what you're saying."

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells arriving to give evidence on her third day at the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry at Aldwych House, central London. Picture date: Friday May 24, 2024.
Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells arriving to give evidence on her third day at the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry at Aldwych House, central London. Picture date: Friday May 24, 2024. Picture: Alamy

Asked by Mr Henry if the Post Office had "always taken the wrong path", Ms Vennells said: "It was an extraordinary complex undertaking, and the Post Office and I didn't always take the right path."

Mr Henry replied: "Ms Vennells, that's humbug. You preach compassion but you don't practise it."

Ms Vennells said: "It was an extraordinarily complex undertaking and the Post Office and I didn't always take the right path, I'm very clear about that."

Postmaster: People are still waiting for justice

Mr Henry went on: "You exercised power with no thought of the consequences of your actions despite those consequences staring you in the face?"

Ms Vennells replied: "The scheme was set up and for the time that I worked on that I believed... that we were doing the right things and clearly that was not always the case. We did look at the consequences."

She added: "I understand your point that there are no words that I can find today that will make the sorrow and what people have gone through any better."

Mr Henry also told her: "I suggest to you that you still continue to live in a cloud of denial and it persists even to today because you have given in 750-odd pages (of a witness statement) a craven, self-serving account haven’t you? ‘I didn’t know, nobody told me, I can’t remember, I was not shown this, I relied on the lawyers’."

All sub-postmasters who had their convictions overturned by the Post Office Offences Bill will be in line for compensation payments and have their names cleared.

The Post Office Offences Bill will receive royal assent on Friday.

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells
Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells. Picture: Alamy

Mr Henry continued: "Well, you are responsible for your own downfall, aren't you?"

She replied: "From when the Court of Appeal passed its judgment, I lost all the employment that I had, and since that time, I have only worked on this inquiry.

"It has been really important to me to do what I didn't, or was unable to do at the time I was chief executive - and I have worked for three years and prioritised this above anything else - for the past year it has probably been a full-time job.

"I have avoided talking to the press, perhaps to my own detriment, because all the way through, I have put this first and I was not working alone on this.

"I cannot think that any of the major decisions I took by myself in isolation of anybody."

She added: "I did my best through this. And it wasn't good enough, and that is a regret I carry with me."

Paula Vennells
Paula Vennells. Picture: Alamy

Mr Henry continued: "I suggest to you that you still continue to live in a cloud of denial and it persists even to today because you have given in 750-odd pages (of a witness statement) a craven, self-serving account, haven't you? 'I didn't know, nobody told me, I can't remember, I was not shown this, I relied on the lawyers'."

Ms Vennells replied: "I have tried to do this to the very best of my ability. I have taken ... all of the questions I was asked. I have answered them honestly, no matter how difficult or how embarrassing or how wrong I was at the time. I don't believe I could have worked harder for this."

Mr Henry went on: "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."

Paula Vennells
Paula Vennells. Picture: Alamy

Ms Vennells responded: "I was the chief executive, I did not set the agenda for the work of the scheme and the way the legal and the IT parts of it worked.

"I had to rely on those colleagues who were experts and I had no reason not to take the advice that I was given. I accept I was chief executive and, as I have said, as a chief executive you have ultimate accountability and that is simply fact.

"You are not responsible for everything that happens underneath you. You have to rely on the advice of internal and external experts and that is what I did and I was not working alone on this."

She added: "I did my very best through this, and it wasn't good enough, and that is a regret I carry with me."

Members of the Justice For Subpostmaster Alliance (JFSA) protest outside Aldwych House in central London where the inquiry is taking place
Members of the Justice For Subpostmaster Alliance (JFSA) protest outside Aldwych House in central London where the inquiry is taking place. Picture: Alamy

On the second day of giving evidence on Thursday, it emerged that Ms Vennells had decided against a review that would have exposed the Post Office scandal over a decade ago after being advised it would be "front-page news".

Ms Vennells confirmed a “lost decade” for those prosecuted could have been avoided by different decision-making.

A set of emails between the former boss and her head of communications, Mark Davies discussing a potential review of cases showed Ms Vennells saying the “most urgent” objective was to “manage the media”.

At the time of the decision not to launch the review in July 2013, Ms Vennells knew that Gareth Jenkins, an engineer at Fujitsu who designed the Horizon system, had withheld information from court about bugs in the network.

The public inquiry saw the emails exchanged between Ms Vennells and Mr Davies after she had received a critical independent report by Second Sight, a fraud investigation firm, into the claims of Post Office branch operators.

Vennells emailed several executives questioning why there would not be a full historical review of about 500 cases of operators accused of false accounting.

David Lammy caller annoyed annoyance Paula Vennells hasn't faced more repercussions

Mr Davies responded expressing concerns that such a move would “fuel the story” beyond the “usual suspects” who had been reporting on potentially unsafe convictions.

He said: “If we say publicly that we will look at past cases … whether from recent history or going further back, we will open this up very significantly into front-page news. In media terms it becomes mainstream, very high-profile.”

Ms Vennells responded: “You are right to call this out. And I will take your steer, no issue.”

On the first day, Ms Vennells burst into tears as she was asked why she told MPs that every prosecution involving Horizon had worked out in the Post Office's favour, despite evidence to the contrary.

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