The key questions that Post Office boss Paula Vennells must answer now begin three days of questioning

With protesters gathering and media cameras carefully positioned in the corner, one of the most important people in the entire Post Office Horizon IT scandal will spend three full days asking questions.

Wednesday is the moment that the victims of the sub-postmasters, and probably everyone involved in the injustice at the post office over the years, have been waiting for. It’s been five years since the Post Office apologized, but victims are waiting for redress and the answers they’re hoping for Paula Vennells may offer.

Why is Paula Vennells important?

Former CEO Ms Vennells was at the helm of the government body during Horizon’s key operational years, from 2012 to 2019.

She is regularly referenced in the research designed to get a clear picture of the introduction and failure of Fujitsu’s Horizon accounting software.

Horizon has wrongly generated shortages at the post offices and led to hundreds of false accountings and theft prosecutions. Many more sub-postmasters incurred significant debts, lost homes and livelihoods, became unwell, left communities and some took their lives as they struggled to repay imaginary losses.

Although this is the first opportunity for investigating lawyers to publicly question Ms. Vennells, she has maintained an ongoing presence through the documents presented to dozens of witnesses and the answers they gave.

Mrs Vennells, a previously unknown name, may now be known to the millions who saw a dramatized version of her in the ITV drama Mr Bates vs. the Post Office, which revived interest in the injustice.

In the aftermath of the show Mrs Vennells, an ordained minister, gave up her CBE (Commander of the British Empire) and reiterated her apology and regret for the harm caused to the victims of sub-postmasters.

As she had agreed in a government select committee in 2015, the buck stopped with her.

Did she turn a blind eye or participate in a cover-up?

The issue of what Ms. Vennells knew and when has been the subject of news reports detailing the details extent of her knowledge of the scandal, years before the prosecution was dropped and an apology issued.

Whether Ms Vennells sought to suppress or minimize evidence, or simply overlooked it, will shed light on why the scandal has dragged on for so long – ever since sub-postmaster and barrister Alan Bates raised issues in 2003 until 2019, when an apology was released. .

When did she first know that sub-postmaster accounts could be changed remotely?

The key to understanding why Ms Vennells acted as she did is when exactly she knew that the Post Office IT helpdesk or that people in Fujitsu could access and edit the Post Office accounts.

Why did she allow the prosecution to proceed because there was no remote access, despite legal advice?

Whatever her answer, there is evidence – in the form of recordings leaked to Sky News – that suggests Ms Vennells was informed of remote access by May 2013 at the latest.

But three years earlier, in 2010 and before Ms. Vennells’ tenure as CEO, the Post Office prosecutors warned about bugs with Horizon, just days before the trial and eventual conviction of Subpostmaster Seema Misra, who was pregnant at the time.

A former sub-postmistress who was wrongly jailed while pregnant has rejected an apology from a former post office director.

Issues surrounding the Post Office convictions were raised again during Ms Vennell’s tenure when Simon Clarke, a lawyer for a firm advising the organization, wrote in 2013 that a key Fujitsu witness had failed to reveal his knowledge of bugs, “in clear breach of his duty as a supervisor”. expert witness”.

This put the Post Office “in clear breach of its duty as a plaintiff,” he told the company in his formal legal opinion.

Did she authorize £300,000 in legal expenses after a £25,000 loss?

Sub-postmaster Lee Castleton, recognizable from the Mr Bates versus The Post Office drama, will be particularly curious to know whether Ms Vennells – as former director Alan Cook told the inquiry – signed off on the £300,000 legal costs to prosecute Mr Castleton for a lawsuit. assumed a £25,000 deficit when she was network director at the Post Office.

What’s her story about how she got it so wrong? Why did she allow the scandal to continue?

Given the evidence suggesting that Ms. Vennells was aware of bugs and flaws in Horizon for years before the prosecution dropped and apologies were made, the public and victims alike will want to hear her story about why she failed to act to stop Horizon delete.

Why didn’t she take action and apologize sooner?

Many will want to know why she had so much confidence in Horizon, Fujitsu and those who worked for the Post Office, when sub-postmasters, MPs representing constituents, legal advisors and even Second Sight, the forensic accountants hired to investigate, told her that there were problems. .

What did she think of sub-postmasters’ complaints against Fujitsu?

Mrs Vennells was clearly not so concerned about Horizon that she did everything she could to minimize its role, not least to put an end to it. So what did she think of what sub-postmasters were telling the organization they were going through – did she think they were not credible, or perhaps that they were few in number and easy to ignore?

Why was she closed to the idea of ​​mistakes in Horizon?

There had been horizon shortages discussed at the post office for years – why did Mrs Vennells think it could be trusted over hundreds of sub-postmasters? How did she conclude that Horizon was robust and claims against it were not?

Why did she say the Post Office “failed to identify” the defects at Horizon in 2020?

We do understand how Ms Vennells viewed the Post Office’s role and its oversight of the scandal – it is one of ignorance. Since resigning in 2019, Ms Vennells said the Post Office was not aware of this and it is one of the things she is apologizing for.

“I am sorry for the pain caused to sub-postmasters and colleagues and their families, and I am sorry for the failure of the Post Office to identify the defects during my tenure as CEO, despite genuine hard work to resolve the issues and addressed in Horizon technology,” she wrote in June 2020.

Why did she say this when there is evidence that the Post Office knew about it?

Follow Paula Vennells’ interrogation during the investigation live on Sky News on Wednesday. Watch Sky News live here and on YouTube, or on TV on Freeview 233, Sky 501, Virgin 603 and BT 313. You can also keep up with the latest news on the Sky News website and app.

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Why did she tell Parliament there was ‘no evidence’ of ‘miscarriages of justice’?

There are many questions to be asked about Ms Vennell’s previous statements. Top of the list for many will be her responses to a February 2015 meeting of the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) committee.

At that point – after forensic accountants Second Sight discovered the Horizon bugs and notified her – she told members of the parliament committee that there was “no evidence” of “miscarriages of justice”.

Why were forensic accountants who got to the bottom of Horizon issues fired?

Sub-postmaster lawyer and former MP Lord Arbuthnot said he believed this was because they were getting too close to the truth.

Lord Arbuthnot provides evidence for the Post Office investigation

Why, when she said she would be “fully focused on working on the ongoing government investigation,” did her lawyers hand over documents for hours before hearing evidence?

When an investigation into the scandal was announced in 2020, Ms Vennells said she would be “fully focused on working with the ongoing government investigation”.

However, the investigation had set a deadline by which all relevant documents had to be submitted additional documents have been submitted on behalf of Mrs Vennells at 11.17pm on Thursday evening and continued to attend on Friday.

Open questions from a previous study

A further questioning of Ms Vennells was due to take place in March 2020 by MPs on (what was then called) the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee.

Given the evolving COVID-19 virus crisis, the hearing was postponed, but questions were still asked of Ms Vennells by letter rather than in person.

Some of those questions were not answered.

Committee chair Darren Jones had asked 17 questions but received only 13 answers in her written response in June 2020.

While she responded to his other questions, these received no response:

• How would you answer the sub-postmasters and postmen who said that the Post Office investigation department was more interested in recovering assets than in finding the source of errors in Horizon, and that they felt they were being treated as if they were guilty until their innocence was proven?

• Did the board of Post Office Ltd review the approach and attitude of Post Office investigators at any time during your tenure as CEO? If so, how often and what was the result?

• As CEO of Post Office Ltd, were you comfortable with your organization prosecuting sub-postmasters without CPS involvement? [Crown Prosecution Service]?

• Into the judge Bates v. Post Office stated that Post Office Ltd had operated with a culture of “secrecy and excessive confidentiality”. As CEO of Post Office Ltd, did you oversee a culture of “secrecy and excessive confidentiality”; Was Post Office Ltd, as the judge suggested, afraid of what it might find if it looked too closely at Horizon?

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“I continue to support and focus on the investigation,” said a statement from Ms Vennells.

“I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the sub-postmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart as they were wrongly accused and wrongfully prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system.”

“I now intend to remain focused on assisting the investigation and will make no further public comment until it is completed,” she added.

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