Vennells booed after inquiry hears she said Horizon victim ‘lacked passion’

Vennells booed after inquiry hears she said Horizon victim ‘lacked passion’

Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells was booed by subpostmasters after she was seen describing a Horizon scandal victim as someone who “lacked passion”.

Ms Vennells told colleagues she was “more bored than outraged” at a 2014 BBC One Show programme featuring campaigning subpostmasters.

Former subpostmistress and leading campaigner Jo Hamilton said she doubts the sincerity of the former chief executive’s apology to her, after an email from December 2014 was shown to say she “lacked passion and admitted false accounting on TV”.

The 65-year-old ordained priest apologised directly to Ms Hamilton at the Horizon IT inquiry on Friday – saying: “I’m deeply sorry that I was so rude to you in that email.”

Paula Vennells
Paula Vennells was taking part in a third day of evidence at the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry at Aldwych House, London (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Ms Hamilton was falsely accused of stealing £36,000 from the Post Office branch she ran in South Warnborough, Hampshire.

Ms Vennells wrote to colleagues after her communications chief, Mark Davies, gave an interview on the programme in which he described convicted subpostmasters as having faced “lifestyle difficulties”.

Boos came from the public gallery as Tim Moloney KC, who represents Ms Hamilton, read the email, 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 back drop were really powerful. They emphasised everything we have done, and came across as … fact! Very good.

Members of the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance protest outside Aldwych House in London (Jonathan Brady/PA)

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

“The MP quoted (who?) was full of bluster, and inaccurate. Jo Hamilton lacked passion and admitted false accounting on TV.

“JA (Lord Arbuthnot) was nowhere to be seen. And the bulletin was too long.

“What I thought was helpful was that it presented Horizon as the problem, which is exactly what SS (Second Sight) say they haven’t found. And so easier for us to refute.

“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.

“Lastly, (belt and braces I know forgive me), can we find out how the SPMR in Nelson (Wales) thinks we’re about to go after him for £18k and why he thinks we haven’t been in touch. That sounds like a live issue, not one in the scheme? (I’m sure we have been in touch!)”

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

Asked if it meant something to hear Ms Vennells apologise, she said: “Not really, no.

Post Office Horizon IT scandal
Paula Vennells became emotional when she told the inquiry she loved the Post Office (Yui Mok/PA)

“I think people only say sorry, well some people say sorry and mean it, but I don’t know whether it was meant or not.

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

Addressing the email, Ms Vennells told the inquiry: “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 added: “I apologised earlier on to Mrs Hamilton about not having known about your prosecution file and the details we had of that earlier.

“And I’m deeply sorry that I was so rude to you in that email.”

Ms Vennells broke down in tears as she declared her “love” for the Post Office during a fierce grilling at the Horizon IT inquiry.

She has appeared visibly emotional on all three days of her evidence to the probe, and was forced to compose herself after she was accused of being someone who “couldn’t be bothered” to find a problem that would devastate the Post Office.

During a tearful episode at Aldwych House in central London, Ms Vennells admitted she had let subpostmasters down, but claimed her “only motivation was for the best for the Post Office and for the hundreds of postmasters that I met”.

Paula Vennells becoming tearful while giving evidence to the inquiry
Paula Vennells becoming tearful while giving evidence to the inquiry (Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry)

She denied leading the Post Office through “deception” and “manipulation”, as she told the hearing: “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.

“I was trying to encourage people to work in that way. I did not deal in deception.”

Ms Vennells also claimed she was “noted” within 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.”

Ms Vennells also admitted she had “no-one to blame” but herself for what happened during the Horizon scandal.

She told the hearing there are “no words” that will make the “sorrow and what people have gone through any better”.

Under questioning from Edward Henry KC, another lawyer representing a number of subpostmasters, she said she “didn’t always take the right path”.

She told the hearing she lost all employment since the Court of Appeal passed a judgment which ultimately led to a number of subpostmasters’ convictions being overturned.

Questioned on whether she had anyone to blame but herself during the scandal, Ms Vennells said: “Absolutely. Where I made mistakes and where I made the wrong calls … where I had information and I made the wrong calls, yes, of course.”

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.