Post Office: Former IT boss has blocked Paula Vennells’ phone number – BBC News

Image source, Investigate the post office

  • Author, Andy Verity
  • Role, Financial Research Correspondent, BBC News

The Post Office’s former IT head has told the inquiry into the Horizon scandal that she blocked Paula Vennells’ phone number after the ex-chief executive sought help to avoid an independent investigation.

Lesley Sewell revealed in a witness statement that Ms Vennells contacted her four times in 2020 and 2021 via email, phone call and text message.

After the fourth time, Ms. Sewell said she blocked her former boss because “I didn’t like her contacting me.”

Ms Sewell appeared before the long-running inquiry investigating Horizon – hundreds of sub-postmasters were prosecuted based on evidence from the flawed IT system.

At times visibly tearful, Ms Sewell was told by Sir Wyn Williams, chairman of the inquiry: ‘I understand this may be distressing to you, [barrister Emma] Price will ask you some questions in a fair and sensible manner, but if at any point you feel like you need a break, just let me know, okay?”

Ms Sewell, who worked at the Post Office between 2010 and 2015, said in her witness statement that Ms Vennells contacted her via a personal email account on March 8, 2020 – a year after she resigned as CEO.

Ms Sewell said that in the email, which was passed to the inquiry, Ms Vennells said she had been “asked at short notice to appear before a BEIS Select Committee on all things Horizon/Sparrow and that she had some memory gaps need to be closed! My hope This could help prevent an independent investigation, but to do that I must be well prepared.”

“I hadn’t spoken to Paula since I left the Post Office in 2015,” she added.

Project Sparrow was a subcommittee that looked into Horizon issues and ultimately removed forensic accountants who found flaws in the broken system.

Ms Sewell said they spoke on the phone later that day and she took notes.

The witness statement also indicates that, prior to a hearing at the Court of Appeal in 2021, Ms Vennells was aware of a 2014 report from Deloitte which showed remote access to sub-postmasters’ accounts.

Hundreds of people running post offices were convicted of theft and false accounting after the Horizon system developed by Fujitsu gave the impression that money was missing from their accounts.

The report, codenamed “Project Zebra”, was not made public prior to a 2018 class action lawsuit brought by campaigner Alan Bates and 554 other sub-postmasters.

Ms Sewell says Ms Vennells contacted her again via text message on April 12, 2021, asking her to call and took notes.

“I can see from my notes that there is a reference to the Project Zebra Deloitte report and a reference to a phone call to Gareth James at Deloitte, who I remember was in charge of this project with whom I had a lot of worked together. I can’t remember why he was mentioned. I don’t know what is meant by ‘lawyers say we didn’t do anything about it’.”

Her witness statement also shows that the Post Office wanted to publish Deloitte’s Project Zebra report, but that the accounting firm would only do so if it was “widely objected to”.

Ms Sewell said her notes also say: “PV got nervous”, but she could not remember what this was a reference to.

The witness statement states that her notes from that telephone conversation also refer to the upcoming case at the Court of Appeal on April 23, 2021.

She wrote: “I also see that I referred to ‘Deloitte’s report said transactions could be changed/altered?’ and added ‘not my understanding’.

“At the time of writing this post, I understood Deloitte’s findings that only one balancing transaction had occurred.”

Ms Sewell said that “Paula contacted me a total of four times”.

“I remember blocking her number after the last call because I didn’t like her contacting me.”

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