Ex-Post Office boss agreed with PR who advised her to ditch review into 'past cases' to avoid 'front page news'

By John Mercury May 23, 2024

Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells agreed with a PR adviser who called on her in 2013 to drop reviews into “past cases” involving sub-postmasters because it would “fuel” media interest, the Horizon IT inquiry has heard.

The inquiry was shown a July 2013 email exchange with then director of communications Mark Davies about a review into a number of convictions the Post Office had been told about at that point which might be wrongful because of its IT system.

He had told her that looking at “recent” past cases or those “going further back” would be “in media terms… very high profile” and “fuel the story”.

“If we say publicly that we’ll look at past cases, whether from recent history or going further back, we will open this up very significantly into front page news,” he wrote.

He said there was a “real danger in going too far in commitments about past cases”.

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

In the inquiry, she said she did not remember whether she took Mr Davies’ advice, but her comments drew a loud groan from the public gallery, made up of mainly sub-postmasters, prompting an intervention from the chair Sir Wyn Williams.

More on Post Office Scandal

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

She also admitted that had the Post Office decided to review all prosecutions of theft and false accounting at that time, it “may well have” avoided a “lost decade” until miscarriages of justice over its flawed accounting system were discovered.

Post Office inquiry: Day 2 of evidence from former CEO – As it happened

The organisation’s former chief executive officer was giving evidence to the inquiry for a second day, having apologised repeatedly for her part in the scandal on Wednesday.

The official transcript showed she said the word “sorry” 23 times on her first day of evidence.

On Thursday – a day on which she frequently answered that she couldn’t “recall”, “remember” or “wasn’t involved in” what was put to her – she admitted it was “possibly” her hope that a mediation scheme with sub-postmasters would “minimise compensation”.

‘Avoid or minimise compensation’

The 65-year-old ordained vicar accepted that an email she sent in August 2013 which said “the hope of mediation was to avoid or minimise compensation” sounded like sub-postmasters would only be welcome on the scheme if they agreed they would get a “pat on the head and a token payment”.

She told the 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’?”

Post Office Horizon IT scandal inquiry counsel Jason Beer KC. Pictured on 26/04/24 while questioning Angela van den Bogerd. Pic: Screen grab from inquiry live stream.
Image:
Post Office Horizon IT scandal inquiry counsel Jason Beer KC.

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.”

‘You were seeking to manipulate language’

She admitted attempting to “manipulate language” when she sought to make Horizon bugs sound “non-emotive” – admitting she had been “wrong and stupid”.

She told Mr Davies in a July 2013 email: “My engineer/computer literate husband sent the following reply to the question: ‘What is a non-emotive word for computer bugs, glitches, defects that happen as a matter of course?

“Answer: Exception or anomaly.”

Read more:
Key questions ex-Post Office boss must answer
Post Office inquiry latest: Chair forced to intervene as room scoffs at ex-CEO Paula Vennells’ remarks over ‘grossly improper’ email

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Mr Davies replied: “I like exception v much.”

Under questioning from Mr Beer on why she sought alternative words to ‘bug’, Ms Vennells replied: “Because, as I’ve tried to explain, wrongly and stupidly… we were trying to keep the proportionality around two issues that had arisen that were not anything to do with the systemic impact on the system or the Second Sight interim report.”

Mr Beer then asked: “You were seeking to manipulate language here, weren’t you?”

Ms Vennells said: “Yes, we were seeking to use language that I thought described better the situation and avoided confusion and conflation with something that I viewed as completely separate.”

It comes on the day MPs passed amendments made in the House of Lords to the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill, which will quash convictions of those affected by the Post Office Horizon scandal and which now only requires royal assent to become law.

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