Former Post Office boss welcomes statutory powers for subpostmasters inquiry

The former boss of the Post Office during the subpostmasters scandal has confirmed she is willing to appear as a witness in the inquiry into the UK’s biggest miscarriage of justice.

Paula Vennells, who ran the Post Office between 2012 and 2019, said she welcomed the move to give the inquiry statutory powers to compel witnesses to appear or risk jail for non-attendance.

She said in a statement: “It is beyond doubt there are serious and unanswered questions as to the manner in which subpostmasters were wrongly prosecuted.

“All those involved in any way have a duty to those subpostmasters and their families, who were innocent victims, to ensure that this can never happen again.”

Post Office court case
Paula Vennells has welcomed calls for the subpostmasters investigation to be given statutory powers (Anthony Devlin/PA)

Her comments came as the Government confirmed on Wednesday that the inquiry by retired High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams will be given the extra powers.

But the move means the inquiry’s report is now not expected until more than a year after originally planned.

Business minister Paul Scully told the House of Commons: “Sir Wyn (Williams) and I are both of the view that the context for the inquiry has changed in the light of the Court of Appeal’s judgment and that now is the right moment to convert the inquiry to a statutory footing.

“Therefore, I can now inform the House that with the agreement of the Prime Minister I will convert the inquiry to a statutory footing on 1 June 2021.”

He added: “The inquiry is now expected to report in autumn 2022 rather than summer 2021.

“Together, these changes will give Sir Wyn the powers and the time he needs to conduct an in-depth analysis of the decision-making processes that led to the Horizon scandal.

“He will be able to compel organisations to provide documents and witnesses to give evidence under oath if necessary.”

Mr Scully stressed the need to “get to the bottom of this appalling affair”.

Conservative MP Lucy Allan (Telford) sought assurances from Mr Scully that compensation will be paid to all of those affected.

The minister replied: “The Post Office is engaging in the compensation process. I will, with my regular meetings with the Post Office, make sure that we keep on top of that because we want to make sure that there is justice and fair compensation for all that have been affected.”

Nick Read, chief executive of the Post Office, also welcomed the announcement and said the company would “co-operate fully” with Sir Wyn.

He said: “There can only be closure for victims of the Horizon scandal by establishing a comprehensive picture of what went wrong.”

Ms Vennells oversaw the organisation whilst it routinely denied that there were problems with its Horizon IT system, instead accusing subpostmasters of stealing money.

But the Court of Appeal overturned convictions for 39 former subpostmasters, paving the way for 640 others to have their own convictions quashed.

Post Office court case
A protester outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London (Yui Mok/PA)

Jo Hamilton, who was one of the 39 to have their convictions quashed, said that giving the inquiry statutory powers was a “massive step forward”.

The 63-year-old, from South Warnborough in Hampshire, was handed a community sentence at Winchester Crown Court and had to pay the £36,644 shortfall the system had incorrectly found.

She told the PA news agency: “We have called for statutory powers and it’s come so it’s a massive step forward, it’s a really big thing.

“But we need compensation for the others in the group and we also need to know the terms of reference before we start dancing in the street.”

Following the scandal, which is thought to be the biggest miscarriage of justice in the UK, the former Post Office boss said she is “truly sorry” for the “suffering” caused to subpostmasters who were wrongly convicted of offences.

Ms Vennells, who was an associate minister in the Diocese of St Albans, announced at the time that she would also be stepping back from her regular church duties in the wake of the Horizon scandal.

She also quit non-executive board roles at high street retailers Morrisons and Dunelm.