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‘You knew’ – former ally accused Paula Vennells of knowing about Horizon problems

Former Royal Mail CEO Moya Greene accused Paula Vennells of knowing what was going on at the Post Office while its practices were destroying the lives of hundreds of subpostmasters.

During the latest Post Office scandal public inquiry hearing, text exchanges between former Post Office CEO Vennells and Greene were revealed.

Following the broadcast in January of the ITV drama about the scandal, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, Greene, who was Royal Mail CEO from 2010 to 2018, messaged Vennells questioning what she knew about the Horizon problems.

In the iMessage exchange, Greene wrote: “Paula, just back in the UK. What I have learned from the [public] inquiry/parliamentary committee is very damaging.

“When it was clear the system was at fault, the Post Office should have raised a red flag, stopped all proceedings, given people back their money and then try to compensate them for the ruin this caused in their lives.”

After a reply from Vennells about the time it was taking for justice, Greene accused Vennells of being aware of what the Post Office was inflicting upon subpostmasters: “I don’t know what to say, I think you knew.”

Vennells denied this, but Greene said: “I want to believe you. I asked you twice. I suggested you get an independent review reporting to you. I was afraid you were being lied to. You said the system had already been reviewed multiple times. How could you not have known?”

She continued: “I am sorry I now can’t support you. I have supported you all these years to my detriment. I can’t support you now after what I have learned I cannot support you. How could you have not known?”

Vennells told Greene the inquiry would get to the bottom of the scandal and that she was fully supporting it.

Greene criticised the Post Office for not properly supporting the public inquiry. “They dragged their heels, they did not deliver documents, they did not compensate people,” she wrote. She also criticised Vennells for the Post Office appealing against the decision of judge Peter Fraser in the 2018/19 High Court battle, which the subpostmasters won.

Read more about the fall from grace of Paula Vennells

Read more about the Post Office clique that covered up Horizon problems

When asked by the public inquiry, Vennells said she had always had a good working relationship with Greene while they were in charge of the two organisations.

The Post Office was part of the Royal Mail Group until the two firms separated in 2012. Vennells was a senior executive at the Post Office for 12 years. She was appointed managing director in 2010, before becoming CEO when the Post Office split from Royal Mail, until she left in disgrace in 2019.

During the hearing, inquiry barrister Jason Beer KC read a long list of the things Vennells said, in her witness statement, that she didn’t see or was not told about.

Vennells claimed that nobody in the Post Office told her that there were bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system or that it lacked integrity, nor that there were even allegations to that effect when she joined the Post Office in 2007.

She also said that when she joined she was not briefed on the contract with Fujitsu.

In her witness statement, she said that when Computer Weekly investigated and reported on Horizon in 2009, revealing serious concerns, operations director Mike Young was dismissive. “I recall he said it was a trade magazine that did not know what it was talking about in relation to Horizon. He assured me that there was nothing wrong with the system and that the article was nonsense (or words to that effect).”

She also denied knowledge of numerous bugs in Horizon, claiming no one ever told her about them.

Responding to Beer’s questioning on what she did and did not know, Vennells shifted the blame to others who she said did not tell her what they knew. She pointed a finger at Fujitsu, as well as a lack of corporate memory and substandard management information.

Beer asked whether the fact she did not know any of the information put to her amounted to “a conspiracy” at the Post Office over a long period of time involving a wide range of people, to withhold information and to falsely reassure her over Horizon.

Vennells said she did not believe this to be the case and was disappointed to learn that people knew more than she was told. “I don’t think there was a conspiracy, but I think individuals like myself made mistakes and didn’t hear things.”

Beer also pushed Vennells on her knowledge of the potential for Post Office branch accounts to be manipulated remotely. In 2015, she was due to face a parliamentary select committee hearing, where she was expecting to be asked about the ability of Fujitsu to remotely access Horizon. Remote access was controversial because the Post Office had consistently denied that remote access to branch accounts was possible.

During the public inquiry hearing it was revealed that, in preparation for the select committee, Vennells was given three potential scenarios in a briefing pack. She was given three different answers to the questions about remote access from MPs, depending on how far they pushed her.

The first answer said it was not possible, but by the third, it was an admission that it was in fact possible.

However, Vennells told the inquiry in her witness statement that when she went to the hearing in Parliament, she still believed remote access was not possible.

The inquiry had asked Vennells what was her “state of mind” on the morning of the 2015 select committee hearing regarding functionality in Horizon for branches, Post Office or Fujitsu to edit, manipulate or remove transaction data once it had been recorded in branch accounts.

In her statement, Vennells said she believed it to be true that there was no such functionality in Horizon. She said this view was based on the briefing pack she was given the night before, including the document with the various scenarios for answering MP questions.

Beer asked: “How could you believe there was no functionality to remove transaction data once it had been recorded in branch accounts, in the light of the briefing you received, which said balancing transactions could be undertaken, which involved editing, manipulating or removing transaction data after they had been recorded?” Vennells attempted to answer, but could not.

At that point, inquiry chair Wyn Williams interjected and asked a further question about the briefing document Vennells was given in preparation for the select committee.

He asked: “If I was to suggest to you that you were being advised to be very precise, very circumspect, and very guarded about what you said – that was the effect of that document – would you agree? Vennells agreed but said she might not have noticed it on the morning of that day.

Williams asked: “That was the effect that was trying to be created by those who created the document?” Vennells agreed that it “could have been”.

In a dramatic moment, he then asked: “Why?”

There was a long period of silence before Vennells was able to answer, during which she came close to tears. She said she didn’t ask the question at the time because “it didn’t cross her mind at all”.

She went on to blame others. “I could be too trusting of people, I took the information I was given into a select committee. Why might they have set it out that way? With what I know now, maybe people knew more than I did and were trying to direct me to answer in a certain way.”

Vennells was an Anglican minister, has held non-executive directorships at large UK businesses, and became chair at Imperial College NHS Trust after leaving the Post Office in disgrace with a pocket full of bonus payments.

When she left the Post Office, the organisation had just lost a High Court battle against subpostmasters and blown £100m of taxpayer money in the process. The case proved that subpostmasters had been wrongly blamed, and in many cases prosecuted, for accounting shortfalls caused by computer errors. She still managed, in 2019, to be awarded a CBE for services to the Post Office, which was withdrawn by the King earlier this year following a public outcry.

The Post Office Horizon scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to accounting software (see below for a timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal, since 2009).

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story

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