Vennells felt ‘uncomfortable’ during High Court case brought by Bates

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells felt “uncomfortable” during the High Court case brought by lead campaigner Alan Bates and admitted the judgments made for “unacceptable reading”.

The case, known as the group litigation, racked up bills which Mr Justice Fraser considered to be “expensive” and subpostmasters have previously accused the Post Office of deploying a deliberate tactic to outspend them.

More than 550 claimants brought the group legal action against the Post Office over the Horizon IT system between 2017 and 2019.

Screen grab taken from the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry of former Post Office boss Paula Vennells becoming tearful while giving evidence to the inquiry at Aldwych House, central London
Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells becoming tearful while giving evidence to the inquiry at Aldwych House, central London (Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry/PA)

Mr Justice Fraser concluded that the Horizon system contained a number of “bugs, errors and defects” and that there was a “material risk” that shortfalls in Post Office branch accounts were caused by the system.

At the Horizon IT inquiry on Friday, Sam Stein KC, on behalf of a number of subpostmasters, asked Ms Vennells: “You set the tone, didn’t you Ms Vennells?

“The tone was ‘Let’s eliminate them, let’s get rid of these bugs in the system – the subpostmasters’. That’s what you set in place, wasn’t it Ms Vennells?”

The former Post Office chief executive replied: “I did not set a culture like that. I did not lead the litigation.

“I had two conversations with Jane MacLeod (former Post Office general counsel and company secretary) and I’m disappointed… she can’t come and give evidence to the inquiry, because I think it is important that the inquiry understands more around the approach to the group litigation.

“I sat down with Jane twice on this to say I was very uncomfortable that the Post Office was going through this.”

Ms Vennells continued: “The Post Office didn’t call the group litigation, it was set in place by the postmasters, and I understand why, and I’m pleased that it was so that we’ve got to where we are today – but it wasn’t a policy I put in place.

“The questions I asked of Jane (MacLeod) on those two occasions were ‘This feels completely wrong to me, what can we do?’ (and) ‘We should not be in the process where we are fighting in court with subpostmasters’.”

Ms Vennells told the inquiry that the first time she asked the question, Ms MacLeod said the Post Office would try to settle the case, and the second time “the view the leading counsel, that we took… the only way to solve this was to take it through”.

She added: “I regret hugely the group litigation, and I’ve seen all of the paperwork behind it, and in view of the judgments that were taken and where we are today, it is unacceptable reading.”