Paula Vennells dismissed proposal to end sub-postmaster prosecutions, inquiry hears

Paula Vennells dismissed recommendations to cease criminal prosecutions of sub-postmasters in 2013, the Horizon scandal inquiry has heard.

The inquiry was told on Wednesday that Ms Vennells, who was the chief executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, opposed the view of the rest of its top management team that prosecutions should be halted.

The revelation was made during the testimony of Chris Aujard, the Post Office’s former most senior in-house lawyer, who said he was asked to review its prosecutorial policy when he joined the organisation and had recommended it cease private prosecutions.

He told the inquiry that the executive board were “in favour of ceasing prosecutions entirely” when his recommendations were put forward at a meeting in November 2013.

“But, when that proposition was discussed at the committee, Paula interjected or made the comment that [the] proposition should not be taken as what I’d intended it to be – never bringing prosecutions – but rather there should be limited prosecutorial activity and PO should continue to take some prosecutions,” he added.

The Post Office pursued cases against its staff, including more than 700 sub-postmasters involved in the Horizon IT scandal, using its own investigation branch under a right in English law for individuals and organisations to pursue private prosecutions.

It continued to do so until 2015 – some two years after this meeting with Ms Vennells took place.

Mr Aujard said in his written evidence that he was “very surprised to discover … that POL had been utilising the general right everyone has to bring private prosecutions” and that he had assumed when he started working there that it had “some specific prosecutorial power or duty because of its history”.

Notes previously shown to the inquiry suggest Ms Vennells was also told by James Arbuthnot, a Conservative peer and former MP, in 2013 to halt prosecutions until the Post Office could prove sub-postmaster accounts could not be accessed remotely.

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells
Paula Vennells is expected to give evidence to the inquiry in May - ANTHONY DEVLIN/PA WIRES

Ms Vennells resigned from her role as chief executive in 2019 and was stripped of her CBE in February this year after she came under fire following the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

Evidence provided to the inquest has raised further questions for the former Post Office boss, who is due to appear before the inquiry over several days in May.

It emerged on Tuesday that Ms Vennells sought advice from her husband on how the language around “bugs” in the Horizon IT system could be changed to make it “less emotive”.

An email shown to the inquiry, sent from Ms Vennells to Mark Davies, the Post Office’s director of communications, read: “My engineer/computer literate husband sent the following reply to the question: ‘What is a non-emotive word for computer bugs, glitches, defects that happen as a matter of course?’

“Answer: ‘Exception or anomaly. You can also say conditional exception/anomaly, which only manifests itself under unforeseen circumstances xx.’”

Mr Davies responded: “I like exception v much.”

The email exchange in July 2013 came as Second Sight, a forensic accounting firm, was preparing to publish its independent report, which identified computer bugs that would raise doubts over the reliability of Horizon data used to prosecute sub-postmasters.

The Post Office subsequently began using the term “exception” rather than “bug” when referring to Horizon in official documents.

The inquiry is set to hear from another key figure in the scandal on Thursday and Friday, Angela van den Bogerd, who was the director in charge of handling complaints about Horizon from 2010 onwards.