Paula Vennells giving back her CBE was inevitable - but more retribution could be on the Horizon, writes Andy Coulson

9 January 2024, 16:42 | Updated: 9 January 2024, 17:22

Paula Vennells could face further consequences for the Horizon scandal, despite handing back her CBE
Paula Vennells could face further consequences for the Horizon scandal, despite handing back her CBE. Picture: Alamy
Andy Coulson

By Andy Coulson

Like a Christmas parcel that’s been lost in the broken Post Office system, former boss Paula Vennells’ common sense has finally landed in the right place.

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Her decision to hand back her CBE was as glaringly obvious as it was inevitable. But let’s not make the mistake of seeing it as any kind of full stop on what has been one of the slowest burning – and yet most shocking – miscarriages of justice in this country.

And that may well be why Ms Vennells took her time over the decision. She knows that the possibility of greater retribution may well lie ahead for those who threw so many innocent sub-postmasters under the van from 1999.

And she – or those who she relies on for advice – will be alive to the possibility that a handing back of her gong, rather than shutting down this problem may just accelerate it.

For many years, the victims of this scandal have called for those responsible for ruining their lives to be prosecuted.

Two years ago I interviewed the former sub-postmistress Pauline Stonehouse on my podcast ‘Crisis What Crisis?’

Pauline was wrongly and mercilessly pursued and prosecuted by the Post Office’s Stasi-like Criminal Prosecutions Division, who had inexplicably dismissed the idea that their own, flawed Horizon computer system was in fact to blame.

She was forced into bankruptcy, lost her home and in 2007 was convicted of six counts of false accounting – convictions which were only overturned very recently.

In our conversation Pauline told me about the devastating impact the conviction had on her, wrecking her life and blocking her chances of future employment.

As she says: "They had this idea in their heads that I was guilty of something and they weren’t willing to listen to anything else. They had their blinkers on, they knew what they wanted out of it."

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Pauline’s health suffered badly but she handled the unravelling of her happy life with incredible strength and without a hint of self-pity. Others were unable to cope with the stress, leading in some cases to truly tragic consequences.

It may be ITV’s current drama that has breathed fresh life into this outrage. But actually the credit should be reserved for journalist Nick Wallis who invested so much time, effort and nous on a story that he simply refused to let go of.

It is largely thanks to him that the light is now shining bright on this appalling and unnecessary crisis. A crisis driven by a misguided, one might say bonkers, institutional belief that more than 700 people were not pillars of their communities but were, instead, all individually and independently, sophisticated criminals.

The CBE that Paula Vennells has just handed back should be immediately redirected to Nick. Though I wouldn’t entrust the job to the Post Office.

Andy Coulson is former Downing Street Communications Director, host of the Crisis What Crisis? podcast and founder of strategic advisers Coulson Partners.

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