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

23 May 2024, 17:51 | Updated: 23 May 2024, 17:53

Ms Vennells was chief executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019
Ms Vennells was chief executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019. Picture: Alamy

By Will Conroy

The former Post Office boss Paula Vennells 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”.

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Ms Vennells was chief executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, which included the last few years of the scandal.

Between 1999 and 2015, more than 900 sub-postmasters were wrongly prosecuted after faults in the Horizon accounting system said money was missing from Post Office branch accounts.

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells leaves after her second day of giving evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry
Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells leaves after her second day of giving evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry. Picture: Alamy

During her second of three days giving evidence at the public inquiry into the Horizon scandal, 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.

Read more: Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells refuses to answer questions on Horizon scandal as she's confronted at church

Read more: Post Office 'complaints handler' chief who 'misled' previous judge insists she did 'nothing wrong' in Horizon scandal

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

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.”

She added that the “most urgent” objective was to “manage the media”.

Jason Beer, the lead counsel at the public inquiry into the scandal, asked Ms Vennells: “It is a grossly improper perspective, isn’t it?”

She answered: “It is, yes.”

Postmasters Campaign Spokesman Alan Bates
Postmasters Campaign Spokesman Alan Bates. Picture: Getty

Ms Vennells denied that her decision not to review the many miscarriages of justice had been led by her public relations adviser.

After the Second Sight report, the Post Office ditched plans to review the conviction and opened a “mediation scheme” instead, for addressing complaints. 

According to papers seen by the inquiry, the organisation judged that this would “take the sting out of the issue as a media story”.

After breaking down in tears on the opening day of the inquiry, Ms Vennells repeatedly told the inquiry that she could not recollect events.

She also denied any knowledge of a conversation recounted by her general legal counsel Susan Crichton on the eve of a board meeting in July 2013.

Crichton told the inquiry that she informed Ms Vennells that she thought there would be “many successful claims against claims arising from past wrongful prosecutions”.

To audible groans from the audience in the inquiry, Ms Vennells responded: “I don’t recall that.”

Ms Vennells later criticised Ms Crichton for commissioning Second Sight saying that she “put her integrity as a lawyer above the interests of the business”.

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