Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells booed by subpostmasters for saying their cases ‘bored’ her

Former chief executive in 2014 dismissed stories of injustice but tells inquiry she regrets everything she said

Jane Dalton
Friday 24 May 2024 23:37
During her three days of evidence, Ms Vennells was accused of talking ‘absolute rubbish’

Wrongly convicted subpostmasters booed former Post Office boss Paula Vennells when it was revealed she had dismissed their stories of injustice as “hype and human interest”, saying she was more bored than outraged by them.

The dramatic scenes occurred on the third day of her evidence to the Horizon IT scandal inquiry, during which the ex-chief executive apologised to a leading campaigner – who was accused of stealing £36,000 – for being rude to her.

Subpostmasters in the public gallery at the hearing in London groaned when Ms Vennells said she did not remember whether she took the advice of a public relations expert not to review five to 10 years’ worth of past prosecutions.

Paula Vennells admitted she had no one to blame but herself for what happened
Paula Vennells admitted she had no one to blame but herself for what happened (Reuters)

Ms Vennells, who ran the organisation from 2012 to 2019, said during her evidence there were no words that would make the “sorrow and what people have gone through any better”.

And she admitted she had no one to blame but herself for what happened.

More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and given criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 when Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon IT system made it appear as though money was going missing at their branches.

When the BBC’s The One Show featured subpostmasters fighting to clear their names in 2014, Ms Vennells told colleagues she was “more bored than outraged” at hearing about their cases, the inquiry was told, prompting boos.

An email from December 2014 was revealed in which the former chief executive claimed former subpostmistress and leading campaigner Jo Hamilton “lacked passion and admitted false accounting on TV”.

After the three days of evidence, Ms Vennells, who is also an ordained priest, apologised directly to Ms Hamilton on Friday, saying: “I’m deeply sorry that I was so rude to you in that email.”

But Ms Hamilton said: “I accept anyone’s apology but whether she means it or not is another matter. I’m not sure.

“I’m in two minds as to whether it was genuine or that she was so publicly ashamed.”

Ms Vennells was pushed to tears multiple times during the inquiry
Ms Vennells was pushed to tears multiple times during the inquiry (PA Media)

Sam Stein KC, on behalf of a number of subpostmasters, accused Ms Vennells of setting a “let’s eliminate them” tone for the Post Office’s attitude towards the High Court case brought by lead campaigner Alan Bates and others between 2017 and 2019.

The barrister said: “The tone was, ‘Let’s eliminate them, let’s get rid of these bugs in the system – the subpostmasters’. That’s what you set in place, wasn’t it Ms Vennells?”

She replied: “I did not set a culture like that. I did not lead the litigation.”

Post Office communications chief Mark Davies had told The One Show that convicted subpostmasters had faced “lifestyle difficulties”.

Boos came from the public gallery as Tim Moloney KC, for Ms Hamilton, read Ms Vennells’ response, which said: “Not denying the fact it is unhelpful and inaccurate, (especially the focus on Horizon but see below re thoughts on that), Mark (Davies) has achieved a balance of reporting beyond anything I could have hoped for.

“The statements stamped across the screen with the PO (Post Office) sign as a backdrop were really powerful. They emphasised everything we have done, and came across as ... fact! Very good.

“The rest was hype and human interest. Not easy for me to be objective but I was more bored than outraged.”

Boos came from the public gallery as Ms Vennells’ email was read out
Boos came from the public gallery as Ms Vennells’ email was read out (PA Wire)

She added in the email: “There was nothing about intimidation, poor coaching and the message about not knowing how to use the system, in my eyes made the SPMRS (subpostmasters) look inadequate.”

Ms Vennells told the inquiry on Friday: “I regret everything I said.”

She continued: “The pressure we were under at the time to try to manage – what we genuinely felt – was an imbalance of media coverage and representation about what was happening in the Post Office.

“I have no excuse for what I wrote, other than ... I was under pressure and I was relieved that the programme hadn’t been perhaps as bad or as hard-hitting as I expected it to be.”

She broke down in tears more than once during her three days of evidence and admitted she had let subpostmasters down.

On Friday she denied leading the Post Office through “deception” and “manipulation”, saying: “I was trying to address a culture in the organisation which I had found to be command and control, where people couldn’t speak their minds and they couldn’t speak up.”

She claimed she was noted in the Post Office for caring about subpostmasters.

She added: “One of my huge regrets in this is that I did not do that for the subpostmasters affected in this way and that will be with me.”

Hundreds of subpostmasters are still awaiting compensation despite the government announcing that those whose convictions were quashed are eligible for £600,000 payouts.

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