• Friday, June 21, 2024

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Paula Vennells ‘halted review’ that would have exposed Horizon scandal

Vennells ruled out Post Office review that ‘would be front-page news’, it has emerged.

Paula Vennells leaves after her third day of testifying at the Post Office inquiry on May 24, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

By: Pramod Thomas

FORMER Post Office boss Paula Vennells has faced scrutiny over her role in halting a review that could have shed light on the Horizon IT scandal more than a decade ago.

Despite allegations that she played a part in suppressing information, Vennells denied any cover-up during her testimony at the ongoing public inquiry into the scandal.

Vennells, who led the Post Office for nine years, revealed that a crucial decision made in July 2013 to not pursue a full review of approximately 500 cases involving post office operators accused of false accounting was influenced by concerns raised by the organisation’s director of communications, Mark Davies.

In an email exchange, Davies cautioned Vennells that such a review could escalate media attention and become front-page news, urging her to prioritise managing the narrative.

At the time of her decision in July 2013, Vennells was aware that Gareth Jenkins, an engineer at Fujitsu responsible for designing the Horizon accounting system, had not disclosed certain software bugs to the courts and was considered an unreliable witness.

Despite this knowledge, branch owner-operators faced prosecution and harassment until 2015 due to discrepancies in funds attributed to Horizon faults. Also, some victims took their own lives as a result. The Post Office persisted in challenging convictions until 2019, prolonging the legal battle.

Acknowledging the improper perspective conveyed in Davies’ message, Vennells admitted to yielding to his guidance but added that her decision was not guided by her public relations adviser.

However, she expressed regret over suggesting the use of the term “exception” in press releases as a substitute for technical issues related to the Horizon system.

The revelation of Vennells’ correspondence coincided with the emergence of a limited yet critical report by Second Sight, a fraud investigation firm, into the claims of branch owner-operators affected by the scandal.

Instead of pursuing a full review of convictions, the Post Office opted for a mediation scheme, a decision criticised for its potential to minimise compensation payouts to victims.

Despite maintaining her composure, Vennells faced intense questioning regarding her knowledge of the situation and her involvement in decision-making processes by Jason Beer KC, the lead counsel at the inquiry.

Vennells repeatedly stated to the inquiry that she couldn’t recall certain events and denied knowledge of a conversation recounted by Susan Crichton, the Post Office’s former general legal counsel, regarding potential wrongful prosecutions.

When confronted with Crichton’s account, Vennells responded, “I don’t recall that,” adding, “I would not cover anything up.”

Crichton faced internal criticism for engaging Second Sight. Vennells emphasised in a memo that she prioritised her integrity as a lawyer over business interests.

Following an email exchange between Vennells and Davies, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) requested information about Horizon system faults from the Post Office’s chief executive.

Vennells claimed she forwarded the correspondence to Crichton, asserting she wouldn’t have withheld information deliberately.

When asked if the Post Office should have immediately informed the CCRC about doubts over Jenkins’ evidence, Vennells agreed, acknowledging the delay in disclosure.

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