Skip to content

Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry: Paula Vennells Denies Email Warning Case Reviews Would Be ‘front Page News’ Was Factor In Restricting Them – Live

Vennells denies an email warning Horizon case reviews would be ‘front page news’ shows that was a factor in restricting themAt the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry former CEO Paula Vennells says she doesn’t recall “making any conscious decision not to go back and put in place a review of all past criminal cases” and has denied that media coverage was a factor in deciding to put a time limit on the review of cases.

She has been shown a document by Mark Davies, head of communications at the Post Office, in which he advised her that announcing a review of all past cases would “open this up very significantly into front page news”.

Beer then got her to reveal that even after she left the Post Office she has stayed in touch with Davies and he had been giving her personal PR advice about this inquiry. She says she stayed in touch with him “for reasons that were very personal to him.”

Mark Davies’ email Photograph: Post Office Horizon IT inquiryCounsel asks her:

Do you accept that this exchange of emails shows that in making decisions as to the substance as to what the Post Office should do to review whether there have been past miscarriages of justice, you took into account the views of your media adviser as to the extent to which your decision would meet with front page news.

Paula Vennells denies this. She says:

There were other conversations going on at the same time. The highlighted paragraph isn’t as clear as what you’re saying. I do not think and I would not have taken personally any decision on the review of historic cases. That was not to my role. I wasn’t qualified or competent to do that.

Paula Vennells was CEO of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019.

This has been a profoundly uncomfortable section for Vennells. At one point there were loud groans of dismay at one of her answers and chair Wyn Williams for the first time during her appearances had to intervene to silence the audience in the room.

Key events

The inquiry is now looking at the 12 July 2013 broad report prepared by general counsel at the Post Office Susan Crichton. It says in it the Post Office has immediately begun a review of “criminal cases conducted since separation on 1 April 2012”. In fact, Jason Beer KC, says, they went back to January 2010.

The briefing continues that the Post Office will work with the JFSA and “it is clear Second Sight will have to continue to be involved in this matter.”

Beer refers back to an email looked at earlier, by Paula Vennells, which had appeared to specify no forward role for Second Sight at this point. She said it had become clear Second Sight had the ear of MPs.

Vennells presented this paper, written by Crichton, at the often-mentioned board meeting where Crichton was left sitting outside and not called in to present her own paper. “We’ll get to that in a moment,” Beer tells Vennells.

Beer is asking Vennells why the Post Office seems to be “taking a proactive approach” to managing relations with subpostmasters, but a reactive approach to miscarriages of justice.

She says “it was not a deliberate strategy.”

The inquiry is shown a transcript of a conversation between Lesley Sewell, head of IT, and Second Sight. Second Sight are explaining that as far as MP James Arbuthnot was concerned, the Horizon system had a broader definition that encompassed the entire “user experience” including hardware, training, documentation and so forth. Sewell seems to be trying to narrow Horizon down to purely software and code.

Jason Beer KC is now asking Paula Vennells what she understood about this. She is saying something like a scratchcard issue, which affected 700,000 transactions, that was “systemic” because it could affect numerous branches. The Post Office wanted processes and training kept separate.

Beer is asking if systemic meant to the Post Office a technology failure that affected “the whole estate”.

She agrees, and then says “or a scale of branches”.

Beer is trying to pin her down on what “scale of branches” would meet the definition of “systemic”.

Paula Vennells again refers back to someone else’s evidence from a previous session in the inquiry, suggesting she or her legal team have been following the inquiry quite closely. Some witnesses have given the impression they have barely read the evidence documents sent to them in advance that they are due to be asked about. She clearly does not fall into that category.

Counsel is driving at the fact here that Paula Vennells appears to have been telling Second Sight (via others) that it was not their job to investigate miscarriages of justice, because it was the Post Office job to do that. And then the Post Office choose itself not to review cases or provide legal disclosure to previously convicted subpostmasters.

She argues that they set up the mediation scheme to deal with non-criminal cases, but had no power themselves to take up case appeals outside the court.

The inquiry has heard Jason Beer KC read the transcript of a covertly recorded meeting in which appears that Second Sight are being told that Paula Vennells was not interested in them discovering miscarriages of justice, but they should be looking for “systemic issues” with Horizon, not the implications that might follow from that.

The inquiry has resumed. Jason Beer KC says he wants to start but asking Paula Vennells what the Post Office understood or meant by the phrase “systemic issues” with regard to the Horizon IT system.

Summary of the day so far … Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells has been giving a second day of evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry in London. She said she doesn’t recall “making any conscious decision not to go back and put in place a review of all past criminal cases” and has denied that media coverage was a factor in deciding to put a time limit on the review of cases

She agreed that had the Post Office decided in 2013 to review all prosecutions of false accounting, it “may well have” avoided a “lost decade” until miscarriages of justice involving subpostmasters were discovered. She also agreed that the Post Office should have disclosed to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) there was a problem with evidence provided by Fujitsu Gareth Jenkins, but claimed she had no part in the decision not to do so

Jason Beer KC questioned her about the appointment of Second Sight to provide an independent audit of the Horizon IT system. Vennells said in retrospect hiring Deloitte for a forensic examination of the system may have been the better option in 2012, but said she had been concerned that would appear “corporate” and she wanted an organisation that could work with subpostmasters and understood small retail businesses

Vennells denied ever being informed of legal advice that said ordering a review of Horizon was a “high risk” approach, and the low risk approach was to review only cases that MPs were involved with

She said “there had been difficult conversations” at the time Second Sight’s interim report was published between her, the chair of the Post Office Alice Perkins and the general counsel Susan Crichton

It emerged that head of comms at the time she was at the Post Office had continued to informally advise her about PR to do with the inquiry after both had left the Post Office

Chair Wyn Williams intervened at one point to warn attendees after there were loud groans of disbelief at one of Vennells’ answers

The inquiry and this live blog resume at 1.50pm

Paula Vennells is being pressed on why her quotes and the press release that accompanied the Second Sight interim report publication did not mention that the Post Office had been aware of bugs in Horizon some time before the report was published.

The inquiry is now breaking for lunch and will resume at 1.50pm.

Paula Vennells concedes that at this time she should have asked Fujitsu for greater assurances that it was bug-free. “I’m not a technical expert,” she says – a refrain from a lot of senior leaders at this inquiry who were running a business that crucially was entirely dependent on that technology.

Jason Beer KC is saying to Paula Vennells that when she found out there were bugs in Horizon, this was “world changing” information.

He says to her “you tell us time and time again in your witness statement, that up until May 2013, you had been told time and time again that there were no bugs in Horizon.”

He asks her “did you explore why you had been given false information?”

She says she always knew there were “glitches” in the system, whether that was “the egg-timer issue, or the blue screens, or network failures or whatever.

He goes back again to her witness statement saying she had been assured there were no bugs to again ask, wasn’t the revelation of the existence of bugs “world changing”?

Jason Beer KC is now taking Paula Vennells to when the Second Sight interim report was published on 8 July 2013.

He says in her witness statement there is a discrepancy, where she says she knew of no bugs between 2007 and mid-2012, and then in the next sentence says she did not find out about bugs until 2013, when Second Sight were investigating.

“I suspect this is just a mistake,” she says. Her evidence, she says, is that she did not hear about bugs, errors or defects until 2013, and the first line of the paragraph Beer has highlighted is a mistake.

Paula Vennells is being asked if there were tensions between her, chair Alice Perkins and general counsel Susan Crichton. “There had been some difficult conversations,” Vennells says, adding that people felt “frustrated” by the Second Sight report. “It was a difficult time,” she says.

Vennells said Perkins “could not understand” why the business had ended up in a position being hammered after the Second Sight interim report was published, which some felt hadn’t taken enough of the Post Office’s position onboard.

Jason Beer KC asks Paula Vennells whether “the right and honest thing for the Post Office to have done” would have been to let the CCRC know immediately about the doubts over the evidence of Gareth Jenkins.

At the second attempt, after some explanation of other issues, she agrees. He says “That didn’t happen for years and years, did it?”. She says “I understand that to be the case now.”

Prior to that she had said she would have asked Susan Crichton to reply as general counsel, and would not have directed her how to reply or direct her to leave anything out.

The inquiry has resumed, and has started with Jason Beer KC showing Paula Vennells a letter from July from 2013 from the Criminal Cases Review Commission about past convictions using Horizon data.

“This must have been a very unwelcome development.” he says.

Sorry, I earlier lost an hour and said the inquiry would resume at 11.30 when it was already 12.21. My apologies.

Featured News