Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells hands in CBE after 1.2m sign petition

Paula Vennells has said she will hand back her CBE after public pressure in the wake of an ITV drama on the Post Office scandal.

Former Post Office Chief Executive Paula Vennells pictured during her tenure with the company from 2012 to 2019. (PA Images)
Paula Vennells was Post Office chief executive from 2012 to 2019. (PA)

A petition calling for former Post Office boss Paula Vennells to be stripped of her CBE passed 1.2 million signatures before she announced she would be handing it back with immediate effect.

The petition was started after ITV1's Mr Bates vs The Post Office looked back at the scandal that resulted in more than 700 branch operators being prosecuted between 2000 and 2014 based on incorrect information on the service's computer system.

Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting, some of whom were subsequently convicted and jailed.

Vennells, who served as Post Office chief executive from 2012 to 2019, oversaw the organisation while it routinely denied there were problems with its Horizon IT system.

She was awarded a CBE "for services to the Post Office and to charity" in the 2019 New Year Honours list.

On Tuesday she said she would be handing back the honour.

Vennells said: “I have so far maintained my silence as I considered it inappropriate to comment publicly while the inquiry remains ongoing and before I have provided my oral evidence.

“I am, however, aware of the calls from sub-postmasters and others to return my CBE. I have listened and I confirm that I return my CBE with immediate effect.

“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."

Petition passes one million signatures

The Post Office reached a settlement with 555 workers in 2019, but some died before they could see justice done. Only 93 convictions have so far been overturned, and just 30 of those have agreed "full and final" compensation payments, while an independent public statutory inquiry is set to continue this year.

Lia Williams as Paula Vennells in Mr Bates Vs the Post Office. (ITV)
Actor Lia Williams as former Post Office boss Paula Vennells in Mr Bates Vs the Post Office. (ITV)

An online petition calling for Vennells to be stripped of her title was started three years ago and received little attention at the time. However, after ITV's show was broadcast, signatures have skyrocketed, standing at 1,211,000 at Tuesday lunchtime.

"Having been handed a CBE for services to the Post Office, and moved out into other senior positions in government and healthcare, it is only right that this award is now withdrawn through the process of forfeiture," the petition, on the 38 Degree website, reads.

On Monday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he would “strongly support” the Honours Forfeiture Committee if it decided to consider stripping Vennells of her honour.

Paula Vennells was given a CBE in the 2019 New Years Honours. (PA)
Paula Vennells was given a CBE in the 2019 New Years Honours. (PA)

And Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake, speaking in the House of Commons on Monday evening said: "As a former CEO of this critical period, I think it would be clear, where the Post Office failed in so many different areas, in so many shocking ways, I think it would be sensible and reasonable for the CEO to hand back an honour that was given for services to the Post Office.”

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk told the Commons on Tuesday that the government was giving “active consideration” to the idea of legislating to quash the convictions of sub-postmasters caught up in the Horizon scandal.

He is holding talks with judges on Tuesday on expediting clearing the names of hundreds of sub-postmasters, and it is hoped a solution will be announced later this week.

Alan Bates, the Welsh sub-postmaster at the heart of ITV's drama, revealed how he turned down an OBE because it didn't feel right accepting it while Vennells still had her title.

Watch: Wrongly convicted sub-postmaster says Paula Vennells has 'ruined a major institution'

ITV drama 'brought it all back'

Those affected by the scandal have spoken of the emotion that the airing of the series has sparked, bringing back difficult memories.

One victim of the scandal said the compensation scheme for Post Office Horizon victims should be taken away from the organisations currently running it. Former sub-postmaster Lee Castleton said "a completely isolated, separate review and compensation scheme just makes more sense".

He told the BBC's Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme: "I would love it to be taken out of the hands of the people that really caused it in a way. This is not just a computer issue, this is a people issue.

"People took people to court. People made decisions on faulty data that they probably knew was faulty. There are so many differences, so many problems out there that really, to have a completely isolated, separate review and compensation scheme just makes more sense."

Pam Stubbs, who ran Barkham's Post Office in Berkshire, and who is portrayed in the series, said viewing it left her in tears. She told Bracknell News: "I'd already seen it at a pre-screening and I ended up in tears. It didn't get any easier watching it at home. It is a hard watch."

She added: "I've been told by several people in the village that they found it very difficult and had to turn it off. They said it was absolutely heartbreaking."

Deirdre Connolly said the drama "just brought it all back", telling the BBC: "It's been very, very hard for a lot of people." Connolly previously described how she was told to plead guilty and forced to repay a discrepancy of over £15,000 which she did not owe, leaving her family having to re-mortgage their home and being declared bankrupt.

She said her health has declined and she now has epilepsy, which she believes was brought on by stress, telling the BBC: "The stigma of it all was just awful. My life is never going to be the same."