Paula Vennells lied to me over Horizon IT scandal, says Post Office campaigner

EDITORIAL USE ONLY File photo dated 13/05/13 of former Post Office boss Paula Vennells who is to hand back her CBE following the fallout of the Horizon IT scandal which led to the wrongful prosecution of hundreds of subpostmasters. The former chief executive, who ran the Post Office while it routinely denied there was a problem with its Horizon IT system, was appointed a CBE in December 2018. Issue date: Monday May 13, 2013.
Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells has been accused of lying over the Horizon IT scandal. (PA)

One of the lead campaigners fighting for justice in the Post Office scandal has accused its former CEO Paula Vennells of lying about her knowledge of the Horizon IT issues.

Tory peer Lord Arbuthnot is a member of the Horizon compensation advisory board and long-time campaigner on the issue. He has metvictims and spearheaded their fight for justice in parliament.

Speaking on BBC’s Newsnight on Wednesday, Arbuthnot accused Vennells of lying to him about what she knew about issues with Fujitsu’s Horizon technology.

He also pointed the finger at a series of ministers who he said “could have done more” to prevent the crisis. At the time, victims of the scandal had raised concerns that their IT systems could be accessed remotely, a key element that led to the convictions of hundreds of subpostmasters that have since been overturned.

Speaking to Newsnight after giving his own evidence to MPs on Tuesday, Arbuthnot referenced secret recordings that appeared to show Vennells knew about the Horizon issues at the same time as staff were being prosecuted. Separate recordings also appeared to show some senior Post Office staff being aware that Horizon might be faulty.

“We heard some of the recordings last week in which we heard that she [Vennells] herself was specifically told about the remote access that Fujitsu… had to subpostmasters’ accounts," he said. "So Fujitsu could and did sit in their basement bunker altering subpostmasters’ accounts without keeping a record of what they were doing and without any knowledge for the subpostmasters of what they were doing…

Lord Arbuthnot leaving Aldwych House, central London, after giving evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, as part of phases five and six of the probe, which will look at governance, redress and how the Post Office and others responded to the scandal. Picture date: Wednesday April 10, 2024. (Photo by Jordan Pettitt/PA Images via Getty Images)
Lord Arbuthnot has campaigned for justice for supostmasters in the Post Office scandal. (PA)

“That meant that the convictions had been based on the idea that it must have been the subpostmasters that caused these losses were unsafe and Paula Vennells knew about it. And yet when we the MPs and the subpostmasters asked Paula Vennells, ‘Is remote access possible?’, we were told no it’s not.”

When asked if Vennells had lied to him, Arbuthnot replied: “Yes… It is absolutely shocking to leave the subpostmasters convicted, humiliated and destroyed in their own lives.”

Yahoo News UK has contacted Vennells for a response. In a statement through her lawyers previously sent to Yahoo News UK, she said: “I continue to support and focus on co-operating with the Inquiry and expect to be giving evidence in the coming months.

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

“I now intend to continue to focus on assisting the Inquiry and will not make any further public comment until it has concluded.”

Lord Arbuthnot said former Labour ministers Pat McFadden (left) and Peter Mandelson (right) ‘could have done more’. (Alamy)
Lord Arbuthnot said former Labour ministers Pat McFadden (left) and Peter Mandelson (right) ‘could have done more’. (Alamy)

Ministers ‘could have done more’

During his appearance on Newsnight, Arbuthnot also named a series of ministers in various parties and administrations who “could’ve done more” to prevent the Post Office scandal. Arbuthnot said the problems started while Labour were in power and named two ministers.

He said: “I started by writing to Peter Mandelson when he was secretary of state for business. He could’ve done more.

"He passed it on to his junior minister Pat McFadden, he could’ve done more. The problem was at that stage, the government… decided the Post Office was to be an arms length organisation and so ministers weren’t going to take any proper responsibility of this organisation they owned.”

Arbuthnot said this “mantra which the Labour ministers set out” was pursued by Lib Dem and Tory ministers in the coalition government that followed. He named Lib Dems Ed Davey, Jo Swinson and Norman Lamb, as well as Tories Baroness Neville-Rolfe and Kelly Tolhurst.

Liberal Democrat leadership candidates Ed Davey (L) and Jo Swinson (R) sit together at an event to announce the new party leader after a leadership contest in central London on July 22, 2019. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)
Former Lib Dem ministers Ed Davey and Jo Swinson were named by Lord Arbuthnot. (Getty)
Norman Lamb, MP North Norfolk and Spokesperson on Health and Care, delivers a speech on the regulatory framework for cannabis during the second day of the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference at York Barbican Centre today on March 12 2016.
Norman Lamb served as a minister in the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government. (PA)

He added: “I think they were advised to pursue it by the civil servants…The trouble is the civil servants don't have the ability to answer whereas ministers do.”

However, Arbuthnot conceded that while civil servants advise the government, it is ministers who ultimately decide on what to do.

McFadden, now Labour’s shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, told Yahoo News UK in a statement: “Ministers were assured over and over again by the Post Office that they had full confidence in the Horizon system. This was reflected in replies sent to MPs and in the stance the Post Office took towards the subpostmasters.

London, UK. 20th Feb, 2024. Politicians leave the Cabinet Office 70 Whitehall London UK Baroness Neville-Rolfe DBE CMG Credit: Ian Davidson/Alamy Live News
Tory peer Baroness Neville-Rolfe was also named as a minister who ‘could have done more’. (Alamy)
Birmingham, UK. 4 October, 2022. Minister of State for School Standards Kelly Tolhurst speaks during the Conservative Party's annual conference at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham. Picture date: Monday October 4, 2022. Credit: Isabel Infantes/Empics/Alamy Live News
Kelly Tolhurst is one of the former Tory ministers named by Lord Arbuthnot. (PA)

“These assurances went on for some years and ultimately led to the appalling wrongful conviction of so many subpostmasters.”

A Lib Dem spokesperson told Yahoo News UK: “Lord Arbuthnot’s dogged determination over several decades on the Horizon scandal is an inspiration. In his interview last night he said he agreed with Alan Bates that it was officials rather than politicians who are to blame for this miscarriage of justice.

“Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers, along with the victims, the courts and parliament – were all lied to on an industrial scale by Post Office executives.”

Yahoo News UK has contacted the Conservative Party for a response.

File photo dated 23/04/21 of former post office workers celebrating outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, after their convictions were overturned by the Court of Appeal. Neil Hudgell, who represented 29 of the cleared subpostmasters, has told BBC Breakfast on Saturday they will seek compensation over the Horizon scandal. Issue date: Saturday April 24, 2021.
Wrongly-convicted subpostmasters are still fighting for compensation. (PA)

Compensation ‘has to be generous’

Arbuthnot responded to claims from convicted subpostmasters that they had still not had a compensation offer, despite prime minister Rishi Sunak announcing earlier this year that the government would pass a law exonerating wronged subpostmasters, as well as compensating them.

Under the plans, those whose convictions are quashed are eligible for a £600,000 compensation payment, or potentially more, if they go through a process of having their claim individually assessed. Sunak also announced a £75,000 offer for subpostmasters involved in a group legal action against the Post Office – with ministers setting aside up to £1bn for compensation.

Arbuthnot said the government “is struggling to break through the bureaucracy of spending taxpayers’ money”. He added: “It is concentrating at the moment of overturning hundreds and hundreds of convictions… once those convictions are overturned it will open the taps of the redress that needs to be paid to those newly unconvicted subpostmasters… But the government has to be generous. It’s taking time, too long.”

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