Five things we learnt from Paula Vennells’ appearance at Post Office inquiry

Paula Vennells arrives at the Post Office inquiry to give evidence
Paula Vennells arrives at the Post Office inquiry to give evidence - Paul Grover

The five key moments from Paula Vennells’ first morning of evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry.

1. ‘I think you knew’

The inquiry in central London heard that a former Royal Mail chief executive texted Ms Vennells in January to say: “I think you knew.”

Dame Moya Greene, who stepped down from her role at Royal Mail in 2018, contacted Ms Vennells after the current Post Office boss had given evidence to a parliamentary select committee.

Dame Moya messaged Ms Vennells to say she thought Nick Read, who took over as chief executive of the Post Office from Ms Vennells in 2019, had been a “poor witness”.

In a later message shown to the inquiry, Dame Moya said: “I don’t know what to say. I think you knew…”

Ms Vennells responded: “No Moya, that isn’t the case.”

Asked what she thought she was denying, Ms Vennells told the inquiry: “I think Moya was possibly suggesting that there was some conspiracy as you mentioned earlier and, as I said, I didn’t believe that was the case.

“She may have been saying that I – no, I think it’s the same thing – I was going to say about a cover up but I think it’s the same thing.”

2. ‘I’m very, very sorry’

Ms Vennells began her evidence to the inquiry by making a statement in which she repeatedly apologised to hundreds of subpostmasters who were accused of theft and fraud, many of whom were jailed and some of whom took their own lives.

She also apologised to Alan Bates, the subpostmaster who led the fight for justice, Lord Arbuthnot, who as an MP helped in the campaign, and to the authors of a report into the Horizon IT scandal by Second Sight, the forensic accountants.

After asking permission to give a short statement before giving evidence, she told the inquiry: “I would just like to say, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do this in person, how sorry I am for all the subpostmasters and their families and others who have suffered as a result of all the matters that the inquiry has been looking into for so long.

“I followed and listened to all of the human impact statements and I was very affected by them.”

She added: “I am very, very sorry. I would also like to repeat the apology which is in my witness statement to Alan Bates, to Ron Warmington and to Ian Henderson from Second Sight and to Lord Arbuthnot.

“I, and those I worked with, made their work so much harder and I am very, very sorry for that.”

3. Breaking down in tears

Ms Vennells broke down in tears when the inquiry began discussing the Post Office’s reaction to the suicides of subpostmasters wrongly accused of criminal offences.

She was asked about her response to the news that subpostmaster Martin Griffiths was dangerously ill in hospital after stepping in front of a bus.

At the time, Mr Griffiths was being wrongfully blamed for shortfalls totalling £100,000 at his branch.

Responding to questions on why Ms Vennells emailed Susan Crichton, the general counsel, stating that there were usually “several contributory factors” and asking if the police were involved, Ms Vennells said: “I had a personal experience of a previous Post Office colleague who had took his own life and I phoned the family and I spoke to the father who explained to me that there were other issues involved and I imagined...” before crying, covering her face with a tissue.

She paused for some time to compose herself. Then she went on: “In this particular case, I had spoken to the subpostmaster’s father who had said to me that there were other contributory factors in his son’s death and they were very grateful for the call that I had made.”

Turning back to Mr Griffiths, Ms Vennells said: “In Mr Griffiths’ case, I also offered to do the same and I was told by the general counsel of the crown offices that that wasn’t needed and other people were in the loop.”

Ms Vennells also apologised to Mr Griffiths’ family.

4. Too curious but too trusting

There was a quiet burst of laughter in the hearing room when Ms Vennells told the inquiry she was sometimes criticised for being “too curious”.

The former chief executive defended herself as someone who asked questions within the business.

She said: “I was sometimes criticised in team development events for being too curious and stepping too much into people’s territory.”

Asked if she was the unluckiest chief executive in the United Kingdom, she replied: “I was given as much information as the inquiry has heard. There was information that I wasn’t given and others didn’t receive as well.

“One of my reflections on all this is that I was too trusting.”

5. I assumed people had a hand in the till

Ms Vennells told the inquiry that a comment she had made to MPs in 2012 that subpostmasters had been “tempted to put their hands in the till” was based on an “assumption”.

During an appearance before a parliamentary committee that year she said the Post Office had never lost a case that it had prosecuted and that whenever the Horizon system had been investigated it was not found to have been at fault.

Of her comment that subpostmasters were being led into temptation, she told the inquiry: “That’s a more difficult one to talk about. 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.”

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

Of her comment that the Post Office had never lost a case, Ms Vennells told the inquiry she drew that information from what she was told in a board meeting in January 2012, adding: “It was an understanding in the organisation that this was the case.”

“That the Post Office had a 100 per cent hit rate?” Jason Beer KC asked.

“I don’t think it was mentioned that way, but yes in terms of the way that it’s described here and clearly that was completely inaccurate in many different ways,” she replied.