Post Office lawyer ‘made to sit outside board meeting like a naughty schoolgirl’

A top Post Office lawyer was made to sit outside a board meeting “like a naughty schoolgirl” when an independent review into the Horizon IT system was discussed, an inquiry has heard.

The company’s former chief executive, Paula Vennells, presented former general counsel Susan Crichton’s board paper on an interim report into the computer system at the meeting on July 16 2013, the Horizon IT inquiry was told.

In the report, forensic accountants Second Sight identified bugs that raised concerns over the reliability of Horizon data used to prosecute subpostmasters.

Paula Vennells arriving at inquiry
Paula Vennells was giving evidence for a second day on Thursday (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Ms Crichton claimed when she gave evidence to the inquiry that she spoke to Ms Vennells before the meeting to say that in her view there would be many successful claims against the Post Office arising from past wrongful prosecutions.

Ms Vennells said she had “no recollection of that whatsoever”.

She agreed it would be “very significant information”.

“I don’t recall that at all, my recollection is what is in her paper which is that the lawyers thought it would be about 5% of the cases they had looked at,” Ms Vennells told the inquiry.

Counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC asked the former chief executive: “If she had told you that, that would be about the last thing you wanted to hear wouldn’t it?”

Ms Vennells replied: “No, not at all.

“Mr Beer I would not cover anything up in this process that would not have been – I’m sorry because this is an important point – if Susan had explained (that) to me very clearly, why in her paper did it say 5%?”

She said she “never once withheld information from the board” before adding: “I’m very sorry but my recollection on that is I don’t recall it.”

The inquiry heard that Ms Crichton was “made to wait outside on a chair”, which Ms Vennells said she “felt bad about”.

Mr Beer asked: “Sitting there like a naughty schoolgirl?”

Ms Vennells said: “She must have felt terrible.”

The former Post Office boss denied taking over the paper and presenting it to prevent the board from hearing Ms Crichton’s “opinion” and explained that she was expecting the lawyer to come in to the meeting but “minutes before that should have happened the chairman told me she had decided to stand Susan down”.

Mr Beer asked: “Did you say ‘I’m not a legal expert, the person that is is sitting outside on a chair?’.”

Ms Vennells replied: “I’m sure I did, but the chairman… I think she possibly had the thought of bringing Susan in at some stage, I’m not sure how Susan would have felt about that, but the board ran out of time and Susan didn’t come in.”

The former chief executive also denied putting “spin” on the Second Sight report in the board meeting.

Minutes of the meeting recorded: “The CEO explained that although the Second Sight report had been challenging it had highlighted some positive things as well as improvement opportunities.”

Asked if that was “to put it mildly spin on the Second Sight report”, Ms Vennells said: “I don’t believe I was doing that.”