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Former Post Office boss hands back CBE – as she’s urged to give answers over Horizon scandal

Disgraced former chief executive apologises for ‘devastation’ caused – as Rishi Sunak eyes emergency bill to quash all 800 convictions at once

Adam Forrest,Archie Mitchell
Tuesday 09 January 2024 18:23 GMT
Justice secretary hints at new law to quash all 800 Horizon scandal convictions at once

Disgraced former Post Office boss Paula Vennells has been urged to tell the truth about her role in the Horizon IT scandal after she bowed to intense public pressure and returned her CBE.

The former chief executive said she was “truly sorry” for the devastation caused to staff who were falsely accused of fraud, amid outrage that saw 1.2 million people demand in an online petition that she hand back her honour.

Campaigners and MPs welcomed her decision to give up the award – but said Ms Vennells still had “questions to answer” about her role in the scandal at the public inquiry, which resumes this week.

Follow the latest updates on the Post Office scandal on our live blog.

Justice secretary Alex Chalk revealed that Rishi Sunak is actively considering an emergency bill to quash all 800 Horizon scandal convictions at once.

No 10 said the judiciary had not challenged the government’s proposal to overturn the convictions, after crunch meetings were held on Tuesday – and suggested that a legislative plan would be announced in the coming days.

It comes as:

  • Ministers were urged to explain why Ms Vennells was given a Cabinet Office job after the scandal broke
  • No 10 said Fujitsu – the IT giant at the centre of the scandal – will be “held accountable”
  • Some 100 new potential victims are reported to have got in touch with lawyers following the broadcast of the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office
  • Around 1,000 people affected by the Horizon scandal face a looming tax deadline
Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells has handed back her CBE, saying she is ‘truly sorry’ (Teri Pengilley for The Independent)

In a statement on Tuesday, Ms Vennells said she was “truly sorry for the devastation caused” to staff and their families “whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted”.

She said she had “listened” to calls from campaigners for the honour to be revoked after the ITV drama thrust the scandal into the spotlight, adding that her CBE would be returned with immediate effect.

Ms Vennells said: “I continue to support and focus on cooperating with the inquiry and expect to be giving evidence in the coming months.”

Convicted subpostmasters said they were “glad” the petition had worked. Former subpostmistress Jo Hamilton said it was a “shame it took just a million people to cripple her conscience”.

Ms Hamilton, who was wrongfully convicted in 2008 of stealing thousands of pounds from the village shop she ran in Hampshire, said: “It shows the people have spoken – about everything, really.”

Varchas Patel, whose father Vipin was wrongfully convicted of fraud in 2011, added: “Now the big question for me is who gave her that CBE?”

No 10 responded to Ms Vennells’ move, saying: “We think that is obviously the right decision.” Mr Sunak had said on Monday that he would “strongly support” any decision by the official body that reviews honours to revoke her CBE.

Rishi Sunak welcomes the decision by Paula Vennells to return her CBE, says No 10 (PA/EPA)

Ms Vennells was chief executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019. The public inquiry – which reconvenes on Thursday – has already been told that she sent a company-wide “Horizon defence piece” as early as 2009, while serving as a senior executive, in an effort to defend the IT system.

Ms Vennells and other board members have also been accused of taking the decision in 2015 to sack independent investigators Second Sight, who had been looking into what had gone wrong with the Horizon software.

Labour MP Kevan Jones – who has campaigned on behalf of those affected by the scandal – told The Independent that Ms Vennells still had “questions to answer”, as he urged her to explain her role in the affair.

Asked if Ms Vennells’ entitlement to a Post Office pension could be re-examined if she was found to have wronged the subpostmasters, Mr Jones said: “Let’s see what the inquiry brings out. The government needs to explain some things. Why was she given a post at the Cabinet Office?”

Senior Tory Sir David Davis told The Independent that the matter of bonus and pension payments awarded to Ms Vennells and other executives may have to be looked at – but only after the inquiry and police investigation have finished.

“I’m sure those questions will be asked,” said the former cabinet minister – arguing that it is important to set up “a proper process with a view to criminal convictions” for those behind the scandal.

National officer Andy Furey of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), which represents Post Office staff, said the decision by Ms Vennells to give back her CBE was a “token gesture compared to what real justice would look like”.

The union leader said it would “only be right” for her to return any bonuses she received from the Post Office – believed to amount to around £2.2m – while the relevant authorities must give “serious consideration” to bringing criminal proceedings against her.

Justice secretary Alex Chalk says an emergency bill is being considered (PA Wire)

Meanwhile, the justice secretary told MPs that the government is now giving “active consideration” to the proposal for new legislation that would clear the 800 or so subpostmasters who were convicted, adding: “I expect to be able to make further announcements shortly.”

Mr Chalk also said he would make sure that the government had “exhausted all alternatives before taking radical action”, referring to the introduction of new legislation. But No 10 later said the judiciary, during a meeting with Mr Chalk, had not raised “any significant challenges” over the plan to quash convictions.

Tory peer James Arbuthnot, who sits on the Horizon compensation advisory board, said he expects the government to come up with an “exceptional” law to deal with the matter. The campaigning peer said: “We need to deal with a mass miscarriage of justice in a mass way, a way that doesn’t force people to go cap in hand individually to the court.”

Mr Sunak’s ministers are also looking at changing the rules around private prosecutions brought by the Post Office and other companies, work and pensions secretary Mel Stride said earlier.

MPs have also called for Fujitsu – the firm behind the faulty Horizon accounting software that made it look as if money was missing from sub-post offices – to be told to pay compensation to wronged Post Office staff.

In 1999, Horizon, a defective IT system manufactured by Fujitsu, began incorrectly reporting cash shortfalls at branches across the country. The accusations tore people’s lives apart, with many losing their jobs and homes. Several people took their own lives as a result of the stress.

The scale of the government’s involvement with Fujitsu is significant. Since 2012, the public sector as a whole has awarded the company almost 200 contracts worth a combined total of £6.8bn, according to analysts Tussell.

Around 43 of those contracts are still in operation – worth a total of £3.6bn – including the contract for the Post Office Horizon system.

No 10 said on Tuesday that Fujitsu would be “held accountable”, legally or financially, if the public inquiry finds that the company blundered in the Horizon scandal.

But the PM’s spokesperson did not say the government would stop awarding contracts to the company if it was found to be at fault – saying only that the conduct of companies “in general” would be considered as part of the procurement process.

Lib Dem leader Ed Davey says the Post Office fed him a ‘conspiracy of lies’ (PA)

MPs on the business select committee have asked Fujitsu bosses to answer questions in parliament on Tuesday next week – with Labour chair Liam Byrne saying it is “vital that Fujitsu confess how they got it so wrong”. The company has not responded.

It comes as lawyers acting for the former subpostmasters said that more than 100 new potential victims of the miscarriage of justice had been in touch since the airing of ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Only 93 of between 700 and 900 convictions have so far been overturned.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey – who has been accused this week of “fobbing off” victims of the scandal while he was postal affairs minister between 2010 and 2012 – lashed out at “the people in the Post Office who were perpetrating this conspiracy of lies”.

Lib Dem deputy leader Daisy Cooper said the Conservatives “still need to explain” why Ms Vennells was awarded a CBE and was able to keep her job as a director in the Cabinet Office after her involvement in the scandal was exposed.

It also emerged that around 1,000 people who have been affected by the Horizon scandal are facing a looming tax deadline. But HMRC said it wants to reassure any postmasters who are struggling to meet the 31 January deadline as a result of late top-up payments that any penalties or associated interest will be cancelled.

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