Disgraced former Post Office chief Paula Vennells warned of possible contempt of Parliament on Horizon scandal

Disgraced former Post Office chief Paula Vennells warned of possible contempt of Parliament on Horizon scandal

Disgraced former Post Office chief Paula Vennells faces potentially being found in contempt of Parliament over evidence she gave on the Horizon IT scandal.

The cross-party Business and Trade Committee will explore “all options available” to sanction Ms Vennells if she is found to have misled Parliament over the historic miscarriage of justice which destroyed the lives and livelihoods of many sub-postmasters and postmistresses.

The moves comes after fresh allegations were broadcast about when Ms Vennells knew that the accounting system used by Post Office branches could be remotely accessed and data changed.

Committee chair Liam Byrne said: “We are deeply concerned by the latest revelations regarding the Post Office and will be exploring options for penalising the leadership that presided over the scandal.

“All options are on the table, including the Commons exercising its powers in relation to contempt of Parliament.”

He explained further: “We have to make absolutely sure that we don’t jeopardise any future legal action or undermine Sir Wyn Williams’ public inquiry. I will present my Committee with options upon Parliament’s return later this month for careful consideration.”

Last week it was claimed that a draft report had revealed the Post Office was aware of evidence that losses could be due to errors in the Horizon IT system but still pressed ahead with the Bates v Post Office Ltd case.

Campaigner Alan Bates led a group of 555 subpostmasters who took the Post Office to the High Court over the scandal, which was settled in December 2019.

Details of the document, first reported by the BBC, show “Post Office management” knew sub-postmasters may not be to blame for data discrepancies but continued to fight them in court regardless.

There have been calls for the police to investigate.

The draft report, called Bramble, was commissioned by the Post Office in March 2016 and carried out by consultancy firm Deloitte.

In the report, the firm said it had discussed its findings with “Post Office management”.

Errors in the Horizon IT system or remote tampering could have been responsible for losses discovered at branches, the report said.

Mr Bates’ story recently became the subject of an ITV drama titled Mr Bates vs The Post Office, starring actor Toby Jones.

At a secretly recorded Post Office meeting in July 2013, reportedly attended remotely by then chief executive Ms Vennells, management heard subpostmasters’ Horizon computers could be accessed remotely.

In 2015, Ms Vennells told MPs she was not aware of any miscarriage of justice.

The former chief executive ran the Post Office while it routinely denied there was a problem with its Horizon IT system, and wrongfully prosecuted hundreds of subpostmasters.

The Post Office continued to deny remote access was possible until 2019.

A Post Office spokesperson said: “The statutory public inquiry, chaired by a judge with the power to question witnesses under oath, is the best forum to examine the issues raised by this evidence.

“We continue to remain fully focused on supporting the inquiry get to the truth of what happened and accountability for that.”

In February, Ms Vennells forfeited her CBE for “bringing the honours system into disrepute”.

She received the honour in 2019 but was widely criticised amid the fallout from the Post Office scandal.

She had previously said she would give up the honour, amid the uproar about her handling of the Horizon IT scandal which led to the wrongful prosecution of hundreds of subpostmasters.

The King officially stripped her of the gong.

Ms Vennells said she had been aware of the calls from subpostmasters and others to return my CBE.

“I have listened and I confirm that I return my CBE with immediate effect,” she added.

“I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the sub-postmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system.”

Her move came after the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office gripped the nation and sparked a petition demanding Ms Vennells be stripped of her honour.

More than 1.2 million people signed it.

Based on the data from the Horizon system, the Post Office prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses between 2000 and 2014, or one per week on average.

As a result, following convictions for theft and false accounting, some were sent to prison; many others experienced financial collapse and have spoken of being shunned by their communities. Some have now passed away.

Campaigners have since won a legal struggle after 20 years, arguing that the computer system was broken, to have their cases reexamined.

The case, considered the country’s biggest miscarriage of justice, was brought back into the public eye when ITV aired its show.