Secret Post Office recordings ‘prove Paula Vennells knew about Horizon issues’

RETRANSMISSION CORRECTING TITLE Post Office Chief Executive Paula Vennells at the launch of the Post Office's three new current accounts, at the Norwich Crown Post Office branch in Norwich.
Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells has been accused of knowing about issues with the Horizon IT system while subpostmasters were being prosecuted. (Alamy)

Secret recordings offer the “final proof” that former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells knew about issues with the Horizon IT system at the same time as staff were being prosecuted, a long-time campaigner on the issue has claimed.

In an audio recording obtained by ITV News, Vennells was seemingly present at a meeting in 2013 which suggests she was made aware of reports that subpostmaster accounts could be accessed remotely. The warnings were made by forensic accountants Ian Henderson and Ron Warmington, the independent investigators from Second Sight.

It comes after recordings previously released by Channel 4 apparently showed that some members of Post Office management knew the Horizon IT system might be faulty.

On Wednesday, Lord Arbuthnot – a member of the Horizon compensation advisory board and long-time campaigner on the issue – told ITV News they were the “final proof” that showed Vennells was told about the faults with Horizon.

Fujitsu UK head office in Bracknell. Fujitsu has apologised to postmasters wrongfully convicted due to flaws in its Horizon IT software and admitted it has a
The recordings appear to show Post Office executives were warned about issues with Fujitsu‘s Horizon software. (Getty)

What’s in the recordings?

In the tape, Henderson and Warmington are reported to have told Post Office executives, including Vennells, that Fujitsu staff had access to live data. They said: "The last thing you want is a spot review response that says, categorically there was no access to live data from Bracknell if in a week's time some bloody whistleblower pipes up to say, well, actually I was working on the second floor and we routinely did ‘X’.

"When you say they didn't have access to the Horizon system, but actually they were passing entries to live data... that is really dangerous ground.”

Separate audio obtained by Channel 4 News and published on Tuesday also suggests that Vennells knew about the Horizon issues.

The recording, from 2013, shows Warmington refer to a "covert operations team” at Fujitsu’s Bracknell headquarters that could remotely access and alter subpostmasters’ accounts.

A Post Office lawyer can apparently then be heard saying: “[Paula] knows about the allegation. She knows we are working on it.

“She’s got everything. The way that I’ve tried to brief Paula is, as soon as I have evidence that, you know, that there is a problem, she knows about it the next minute.”

EDITORIAL USE ONLY File photo dated 09/03/12 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.
Paula Vennells ran the Post Office while it routinely denied there was a problem with its Horizon IT system. (PA)

The lawyer later adds: “She knows about the allegation. She knows we are working on it.”

Vennells was CEO of the Post Office between 2012 and 2019, during a time when subpostmasters were wrongly prosecuted for theft and fraud.

She told MPs in 2015, the Post Office said in written evidence to MPs that it was not possible for Horizon to remotely access payments. It was only in the High Court in 2019 that the Post Office admitted it might be a possibility.

In 2020 – seven years after the secret tapes were recorded, Vennells wrote to MP Darren Jones, who was chairman of the business, energy and industrial strategy committee, to tell him that she “raised this question repeatedly, both internally and with Fujitsu, and was always given the same answer: that it was not possible for branch records to be altered remotely without the subpostmaster’s knowledge”.

‘Serious consequences’

Responding to the tapes, Lord Arbuthnot told ITV News they were the “final proof” that showed Vennells was told about the faults with Horizon. He said: “This recording answers that question because Paula Vennells was in on the warnings given by Ron Warmington and Ian Henderson, that remote access was possible and that it would be very dangerous for her to continue to assert as she did continue to assert that remote access was not possible.”

He added: “Very, very serious retribution needs to be visited on these people who visited such terrible things on the subpostmasters. The consequences should be very serious indeed. They are not for me as a politician to establish, those seem to me to be things which should be dealt with by prosecuting authorities and by a judge and jury.”

Liam Byrne, Labour chairman of the Commons business and trade committee, said in response to the Channel 4 recording: “We are deeply concerned by the latest revelations regarding the Post Office and will be exploring options for penalising the leadership that presided over the scandal.

“All options are on the table, including the Commons exercising its powers in relation to contempt of parliament.

“We have to make absolutely sure that we don’t jeopardise any future legal action or undermine Sir Wyn Williams’ public inquiry. I will present my committee with options upon parliament’s return later this month for careful consideration.”

Lord Arbuthnot speaks to the media outside the Department for Business and Trade, Old Admiralty Building, central London, ahead of a meeting of the independent Horizon Compensation Advisory Board. Picture date: Wednesday January 10, 2024.
Campaigner Lord Arbuthnot said the recordings proved Paula Vennells knew about the Horizon allegations. (PA)

A statement to Yahoo News UK from Vennells, released through her lawyers, 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.”

A Fujitsu spokesman declined to comment on the latest recordings when questioned by Yahoo News UK, pointing to the ongoing public inquiry. He added: “The Fujitsu Group regards this matter with the utmost seriousness and offers its deepest apologies to the subpostmasters and their families.”

A Post Office spokesperson declined to comment on the recordings, telling Yahoo News UK: “We remain fully focused on getting to the truth of what happened and supporting the statutory public inquiry, which is chaired by a judge with the power to question witnesses under oath, and is therefore best placed to help achieve this.”

What has Paula Vennells said? Key comments

In an internal email chain written on 30 January 2015, Vennells wrote to two officials at the Post Office:

“Dear both, your help please in answers and in phrasing those answers, in prep for the SC [select committee]:

"1) 'is it possible to access the system remotely? We are told it is.'

"What is the true answer? I hope it is that we know this is not possible and that we are able to explain why that is. I need to say no it is not possible and that we are sure of this because of xxx and that we know this because we have had the system assured.”

Speaking to MPs on the BIS select committee on 3 February 2015, Vennells said:

"We are a business that genuinely cares about the people who work for us. If there had been any miscarriages of justice, it would have been really important to me and the Post Office that we surfaced those.

"As the investigations have gone through, so far we have no evidence of that. As you will know, we are bound by the Disclosure Act to make known anything that we come across that might contribute to that. The difference is that we simply wanted to know, to give those people the opportunity to be heard, because they told us they hadn’t been."

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