Vennells ‘possibly’ hoped mediation would ‘minimise’ subpostmaster compensation

Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells has admitted it was “possibly” her hope that a mediation scheme with subpostmasters would “minimise compensation”.

It came as the 65-year-old gave evidence for a second day at the Horizon IT Inquiry, where she continued to grow emotional over questions after a first day which saw her become visibly upset on a number of occasions and break down in tears twice.

Ms Vennells accepted that an email she sent in August 2013 which said “the hope of mediation was to avoid or minimise compensation” sounded like subpostmasters were only welcome on the scheme if they agreed to receive a “pat on the head and a token payment”.

She told the Horizon IT inquiry she did not believe the mediation scheme, set up for people who believed they had been wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office, was for paying out “substantial figures”.

In an email from August 2013 to Post Office lawyer Susan Crichton, Ms Vennells wrote: “When we discussed this, the hope of mediation was to avoid or minimise compensation.”

After a lengthy discussion about the email, counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC said: “Why did you write an email that says ‘when we discussed this the hope of mediation was to avoid or minimise compensation’?”

Ms Vennells replied: “Because that was what we discussed.”

Mr Beer continued: “Right, good – that was easy then, wasn’t it?”

The former Post Office boss said: “But not as the purpose of doing it.”

Mr Beer then said: “A hope?”

Ms Vennells said: “Possibly, yes.”

The counsel to the inquiry put to Ms Vennells that she “never intended to pay out any substantial figures in compensation for those issues at all”.

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells arrives to give her second day of evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry at Aldwych House, central London
Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells arrives to give her second day of evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry at Aldwych House, central London (Jonathan Brady/PA)

The former Post Office boss replied: “No, that’s right. Not in terms of the mediation scheme, because that was not what I had understood it would do.”

Mr Beer said: “You wanted to give them a meagre sum and an apology without really understanding or investigating what the cause of their problems was, didn’t you?”

Ms Vennells said: “No, that isn’t the case. All types of cases were welcomed into the scheme, but my understanding at the beginning of it was very different to what it turned out to be.”

Mr Beer went on: “Everyone was welcome so long as they had a pat on the head and a token payment when they left?”

She replied: “I agree that it sounds like that now. This was not the case at all.”

Mr Beer added: “You wanted everyone to get the bare minimum to forget all of this and move on, didn’t you?”

Ms Vennells said: “No.”

The probe was told the ordained priest said it was a “goal” of hers that all press “should be scoured for negative comment and refuted” in an email she sent in 2011.

She made the comments after she was notified about a Private Eye article on the Horizon IT system and criticism from subpostmasters.

Ms Vennells told the inquiry: “This was a general ambition of mine.”

The probe also heard the ex-chief executive followed a “grossly improper” suggestion to not review all subpostmaster prosecutions after her communications chief said it would end up “front page news”.

The probe was shown an email exchange between Ms Vennells and then-director of communications Mark Davies in July 2013 in which she said she would “take your steer” after he said looking at all past cases would be “in media terms… very high profile”.

Ms Vennells agreed that had the Post Office decided to review all prosecutions of false accounting, it “may well have” avoided the “lost decade” until miscarriages of justice involving subpostmasters were discovered.

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells arrives to give her second day of evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry at Aldwych House, central London
Paula Vennells arrives to give her second day of evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry (Jonathan Brady/PA)

The public gallery at the inquiry, made up of mainly subpostmasters, groaned loudly after Ms Vennells said she did not remember if she took the “advice of the PR guy” to review past prosecutions.

After chairman Sir Wyn Williams intervened, Ms Vennells continued: “As I tried to say before, what we were working to at this stage was numbers of cases going through a scheme, and a scheme that was going to be opened up to anybody who wanted to come forward.

“I understand how this reads, but I don’t recall making any conscious decision not to go back and put in place a review of all past criminal cases.”

After Ms Vennells asked him for his thoughts on whether the business should look at cases going over 5-10 years, Mr Davies said: “If we say publicly that we will look at past cases – and whatever we say to JA (Lord Arbuthnot) or JFSA (Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance) will be public – whether from recent history or going further back, we will open this up very significantly, into front page news.

“In media terms it becomes mainstream, very high profile.”

Ms Vennells conceded that the view of Mr Davies was a “grossly improper perspective”.

Post Office Horizon IT scandal
Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells leaving after giving evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry (Yui Mok/PA)

In her response to Mr Davies’ email, Ms Vennells said: “You are right to call this out. I will take your steer.”

On Thursday, Ms Vennells grew emotional when asked questions about “personal circumstances” that meant she had to step back from aspects of her role in 2019.

She apologised for her actions during the scandal 23 times during her first day of evidence, according to the inquiry’s official transcript.

During her second day of evidence, she claimed she had no inkling subpostmaster convictions were unsafe in 2013 despite a “concerning” email from lead campaigner Alan Bates.

Ms Vennells also said the Post Office did want “reassurance” the Horizon system could be relied upon but denied seeking to persuade Second Sight to come to a conclusion favourable to the company.

Forensic accountants from Second Sight were drafted in to independently review cases involving the Horizon system in 2012.

More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon IT system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

Hundreds of subpostmasters are still awaiting compensation despite the Government announcing that those who have had convictions quashed are eligible for £600,000 payouts.

At the end of the hearing on Thursday, Sir Wyn said the inquiry will not sit on July 4 and July 5 after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called a General Election.