Alan Bates says he has ‘no sympathy’ for tearful Paula Vennells


Lead campaigner and former subpostmaster Alan Bates has said he has “no sympathy” for Paula Vennells after she broke down twice during her first day of evidence to the Horizon IT inquiry.

Mr Bates said he met “senior” Metropolitan Police staff on Wednesday morning to discuss possible prosecutions following the Post Office Horizon scandal.

He said: “They certainly are going to investigate, I’ve had that assurance and I think the group (of subpostmasters) needs that as an assurance and it’s something that we’ve never been certain of until today.”

During her evidence to the probe, Ms Vennells stopped mid-answer and reached for a tissue as she was grilled about why she had provided a false statement to MPs that the Post Office had been successful in every case against subpostmasters.

The 65-year-old ordained priest also became visibly upset as the inquiry looked into the Post Office’s response to the suicide of subpostmaster Martin Griffiths in 2013.

Speaking outside Aldwych House after Ms Vennells gave evidence on Wednesday, Mr Bates said: “The whole thing is upsetting for everybody, including for so many of the victims.

“I’ve got no sympathy really.”

Asked if he thinks she is genuinely sorry, he added: “I wonder about these apologies, these are just words.”As she gave evidence on Wednesday, Ms Vennells admitted she “made mistakes” but denied there was a conspiracy to cover up the scandal.

Mr Bates described her evidence “like figure skating on the head of a pin”.

He told reporters: “It was a bit like figure skating on the head of a pin all day, isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

“It’s only the first day of three so I don’t know where we’ll get to but it was good to see her on the stand.”

The former chief executive said there was no “motivation” to put the needs of the Post Office over the suffering of subpostmasters but added: “There will be many examples of where that is clearly the case because the Post Office got this very wrong.”

Post Office Horizon IT scandal
Paula Vennells arrived at the Horizon IT Inquiry where she is expected to be giving evidence for around three days (Yui Mok/PA)

In her first of two witness statements to the inquiry, which is 775 pages long, Ms Vennells said Fujitsu Europe’s then-chief executive described the core of Horizon like “Fort Knox” or an “aircraft flight recorder” when discussing remote access.

Ms Vennells and Duncan Tait concurred it was “implausible” that Post Office branch accounts could be altered remotely.

She also told the probe she did not know the extent of the Post Office’s criminal investigations and private prosecutions until 2012.

Ms Vennells said: “The only acceptable answer (to what is being asked) is that I should have known and I should have asked more questions, and I and others who also did not know should have dug much more deeply into this.”

She agreed that it was a “frequent refrain” of the Post Office in 2014 that there were no systemic errors in Horizon – and described it as “completely unfair to use in the business”.

Ms Vennells began her evidence by apologising for “all that subpostmasters and families have suffered”.

Asked if she was the “unluckiest CEO in the United Kingdom”, she said she had been “too trusting”.

After detailing a number of cases in which the Post Office had not been successful after subpostmasters blamed Horizon, counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC asked: “Why were you telling these parliamentarians that every prosecution involving the Horizon system had been successful and had found in favour of the Post Office?”

After a short pause in which she appeared to compose herself, Ms Vennells said: “I fully accept now that the Post Office…”

She broke off her answer to grab a tissue and held her head in her hands for a brief moment before recomposing herself.

Ms Vennells continued: “The Post Office knew that and I completely accepted.

“Personally I didn’t know that and I’m incredibly sorry that it happened to those people and to so many others.”

Of her comment that subpostmasters were being led into temptation, Ms Vennells said: “The first thing I would say on that is to apologise because I’m very aware that that was not the case and it was an assumption I made.

Ms Vennells explained the assumption was based on “examples of cases” and what she had been told.

She also appeared to become emotional as Mr Beer asked her about Mr Griffiths.

n email from former Post Office boss Paula Vennells to Alisdair Cameron, Mark Davies and Jane MacLeod, which was shown during the evidence
An email from former Post Office boss Paula Vennells to Alisdair Cameron, Mark Davies and Jane MacLeod, which was shown during the evidence (Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry/PA)

An email chain between former Post Office general counsel Susan Crichton and Ms Vennells was shown to the inquiry, in which Ms Vennells said “if it is an attempted suicide, as we sadly know, there are usually several contributory factors”.

Asked why she was raising contributory factors, she said she was “very sorry”, adding: “Every email you will see from me about Mr Griffiths, I start with him and how he was and how his family are.

“The Post Office took far too long to deal with it.”

Asked about what current chief financial officer Alisdair Cameron told the inquiry previously – that Ms Vennells did not believe there had been any miscarriages of justice during her tenure – she said: “I think that’s right.”

Mr Beer also asked if she believed there was a “conspiracy at the Post Office… to deny you information and to deny you documents and to falsely give you reassurance”.

Ms Vennells replied: “No, I don’t believe that was the case.”

She went on: “I have been disappointed, particularly more recently, listening to evidence of the inquiry where I think I remember people knew more than perhaps either they remembered at the time or I knew of at the time.

“I have no sense that there was any conspiracy at all. My deep sorrow in this is that I think that individuals, myself included, made mistakes, didn’t see things, didn’t hear things.

“I may be wrong but that wasn’t the impression that I had at the time. I have more questions now but a conspiracy feels too far-fetched.”

Post Office Horizon IT scandal
Paula Vennells arrives to give evidence (Yui Mok/PA)

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

Hundreds of subpostmasters are still awaiting compensation despite the Government announcing that those who have had convictions quashed are eligible for £600,000 payouts.