Ex-Post Office boss cries as she admits incorrect evidence

Tom Espiner,Business reporter, BBC News

Ex-Post Office boss cries while giving evidence

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells has admitted that evidence she gave to MPs looking into problems with the Horizon IT system in 2012 was not true.

Speaking publicly for the first time in almost ten years, Ms Vennells broke down as she was questioned over the scandal, saying her previous assertion that there had been no failed Horizon prosecutions was not correct.

In the most anticipated appearance of the long-running Post Office scandal inquiry, Ms Vennells was questioned in a packed inquiry room with sub-postmasters and post-mistresses coming to watch her give evidence.

Asked by inquiry lead counsel Jason Beer about evidence she gave to MPs in June 2012, in which she told them that every Horizon case brought against sub-postmasters had been successful, Mr Beer listed a number of cases that had not been.

“I fully accept now, that the Post Office – excuse me,” said Ms Vennells as she paused and began crying.

“The Post Office knew that,” she said. “I completely accept it. Personally, I didn’t know that, and I’m incredibly sorry that it happened to those people and to so many others.”

Throughout the day Ms Vennells repeatedly apologised, and she broke down in tears four times.

However, some who were present in the room had expressions of disbelief, some shook their heads, and some laughed at points made by lead counsel Mr Beer.

Between 1999 and 2015, more than 900 people who ran post offices were prosecuted after Horizon, a faulty computer system, made it look like money was missing from their branches.

Some sub-postmasters were sent to prison and many suffered financial hardship. Some have since died.

Ms Vennells was chief executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, a period of time when sub-postmasters were still being prosecuted, but the organisation continued to deny faults with the Horizon IT software was to blame for shortfalls in accounts.

This was despite mounting evidence of wrongful convictions.

Ushered into Aldwych House among crowds, cameras and photographers, she began to be questioned and key lines emerged:

  • She began with an apology, met with silence, saying she was “sorry” for “all the sub-postmasters and their families who have suffered”
  • She first broke down in tears as a list of sub-postmasters and postmistresses who had been acquitted after being accused of stealing money from the Post Office was read out
  • Ms Vennells said she was unaware the Post Office conducted its own prosecutions until 2012
  • The former chief executive also broke down when answering questions regarding the death of Martin Griffiths, a former sub-postmaster who attempted to take his own life on 23 September 2013, having been accused of a shortfall amounting to £100,000 at his Cheshire branch. He died in hospital weeks later.

‘Part of the cover-up’

Former sub-postmistress Jo Hamilton told the BBC that Ms Vennells had been on a “charm offensive” and that she didn’t believe that she had not been aware of Horizon faults earlier than she admitted.

Seema Misra, who was eight weeks pregnant with her second child when she was wrongly convicted of false accounting and theft and jailed, told the BBC that Ms Vennells denials of knowledge were part of a “cover-up”.

There was anger too, from some former sub-postmasters.

Harjinder Butoy, who was wrongfully convicted of stealing £208,000 and served an 18-month prison term, said he was struggling to to believe “anything that comes out of her mouth” and he didn’t believe her tears were genuine.

The inquiry was also shown text messages from January this year which revealed former Royal Mail boss Moya Greene said she believed Ms Vennells knew about Horizon faults earlier than she had admitted.

The text message exchange followed the screening of an ITV drama that thrust the scandal back into the spotlight.

Dame Greene wrote: “When it was clear the system was at fault, the [Post Office] 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. I hope you had good break and are well. BW Paula.”

Dame Greene then wrote: “I don’t know what to say. I think you knew.”

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

‘How could you not know?’

Mr Beer asked Ms Vennells: “How could you not know?”

Ms Vennells said: “This is a situation that is so complex, it is a question I have asked myself as well.

“I have learned some things that I did not know as a result of the inquiry and I imagine that we will go through some of the detail of that. I wish I had known.”

As she apologised to sub-postmasters, campaigners, and to the inquiry itself, people, some of whom were sub-postmasters, remained silent, with a few shaking their heads.

She said she was “very affected” by the human impact statements given by those affected by the scandal.

Ms Vennells also apologised to campaigner Alan Bates, to forensic accountants Second Sight who were sacked by the Post Office after finding bugs in Horizon, and to Lord Arbuthnot, who has also campaigned on the behalf of sub-postmasters.

Mr Beer asked the former Post Office boss if she thought she had been the “unluckiest” chief executive in the UK given that, according to her witness statements, she wasn’t given information about Horizon, didn’t see certain documents, and had been given assurances about the IT system by Post Office staff.

“I was given much information, and as the inquiry has heard, there was information that I wasn’t given, and others didn’t receive,” she said.

She added that she had been “too trusting” and that she was “disappointed” where information hadn’t been shared.


This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.