Post Office boss was not fit to work for Church, suggests Justin Welby

Paula Vennells, the former Post Office chief executive, and the Most Rev Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury
Paula Vennells, the former Post Office chief executive, and the Most Rev Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury - GETTY IMAGES

Paula Vennells should have been prevented from working for the Church of England in the wake of the Post Office subpostmasters’ scandal, the Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested.

Ms Vennells, who was the Post Office’s chief executive from 2012 to 2019, held four senior advisory positions within the Church and is reported to have been shortlisted to become Bishop of London in 2017.

She took up the advisory roles after the Horizon scandal emerged and the Post Office agreed to pay out £58 million in compensation in 2019.

More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted between 1999 and 2015 after faulty Horizon accounting software suggested that they had stolen money.

The release of the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office earlier this year reignited the scandal, but fewer than 100 convictions have been overturned to date in what has been described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in British history.

The Most Rev Justin Welby, who Church sources have claimed “endorsed” Ms Vennells for Bishop of London, has now admitted that “questions should have been asked about the inappropriateness” of Ms Vennells’ seniority in the Church in his first comments since her work came to light last month.

“As has been said more generally about Paula Vennells’ involvement in various committees and working groups in the Church of England, by 2019 and 2020, it is clear that more questions should have been asked about the appropriateness of that involvement when more had come to light about the Horizon scandal,” he said in a written reply to a question submitted to General Synod, the Church’s legislative body.

“We recognise this and will need to reflect on it.”

Meanwhile Lord Cameron has said the government he led should “deeply regret” the Post Office scandal.

Speaking to the BBC during a visit to Brazil for a G20 meeting, the former prime minister described “the appalling way” post office branch managers had been treated.

He told the broadcaster: “I’ve said very clearly already many times, I think anyone who has been in government for the last 15, 20 years or perhaps more, should deeply regret what’s happened.

“That’s why it’s so important we have the public inquiry, we get to the bottom of what’s happened, and crucially we get that compensation money out to the people who’ve suffered.”

Lord Cameron was prime minister between 2010 and 2016, a period which took up more than a third of the time prosecutions were taking place.

The Foreign Secretary’s comments come days after a BBC report suggested his government knew that the Post Office had dropped an investigation which may have helped clear sub-postmasters.

The 2016 investigation was reportedly commissioned to look into why some branch manager’s cash accounts had been accessed and changed remotely.

However, it was abruptly axed when sub-postmasters launched legal action.

The BBC report stated that there was no suggestion the then-prime minister knew about the investigation personally or that it had been ditched.

In previous interviews he has claimed that he “cannot recall” being personally briefed about the Horizon scandal.

Church sources have claimed that in 2017 Ms Vennells made a four-person shortlist to become the Bishop of London, the Church’s third most senior position after the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, despite her never having served as a vicar, area dean or junior bishop.

The Church has declined to “confirm or deny” those claims.

In the Archbishop’s 2018 book Reimagining Britain, Foundations for Hope, he praised Ms Vennells for having “shaped my thinking over the years”.

She was ordained a priest in 2006 and served as part-time assistant minister at St Owen in Bromham, Beds, until April 2021, when she resigned from active ministry after the Court of Appeal quashed the convictions of 33 sub-postmasters.

Ms Vennells has not been stripped of permission to officiate, the most severe punishment in the Church’s powers. She has been backed by Alan Smith, the Bishop of St Albans, who said she should not be judged on the ITV drama which is “a bit like The Crown where it diverges from actual fact”.

The Archbishop’s comments came amid a series of questions asked by Anglicans about Ms Vennells, who gave up her CBE last month, ahead of this week’s Synod, which will meet from Feb 23 to Feb 27.

Her senior roles within the church included providing ethical investment advice to its Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) between January 2019 and April 2021 and joining the Archbishops’ Coordinating Group for the pandemic in March 2020.

‘Satisified of her suitability’

Alan Smith – not the Bishop of St Albans but the deputy chair of the EIAG – admitted in response to one question that the EIAG “was aware” of the allegations against Ms Vennells when it appointed her but remained “satisified of her suitability” on the “basis of what was known then”.

She also undertook a review of Church buildings in the spring of 2019 and discussed this in February 2020 with the board of the Church Commissioners, which manages the Church’s assets.

In the review, Ms Vennells said some within the Church had told her that it needed to close 1,000 churches to balance its books, a claim that has now been rebuffed by the Revd Canon Dr Flora Winfield, the third most senior Church Commissioner.

“I do not know how they arrived at this figure,” she said. “It is not one recognised or endorsed by the Church Commissioners as a body.”

The Archbishop’s comments follow accusations by Kemi Badenoch, the Business Secretary, that Henry Staunton, the former Post Office chairman, lied when he claimed a senior civil servant had told him to delay compensation payments for sub-postmasters so that the Tories could “limp into” the next election.

The Church of England and Ms Vennells were approached for comment.