Post Office Survey: If Paula Vennells’ first day was about ignorance, then day two made ignorance seem like bliss

Paula Vennells’ first day in the witness box was memorable for her tears and self-justifications as she faced public criticism for the first time in nine years, the second was less dramatic but more substantial.

During her seven years as CEO, hundreds of sub-postmasters were sent to prison based on flawed evidence provided by the Post Office’s Horizon IT system.

Ms Vennells’s defense is that despite her experience – she spent five years in senior positions before getting the top job – she just didn’t know.

She spent much of the first day determining how complete her ignorance was.

Post Office Investigation: Day 2 with Evidence from the Former CEO – As It Happened

Ms Vennells was in tears during her first day of evidence

Before she became CEO, she didn’t know there were bugs in the Horizon system. She didn’t know that branch accounts could be accessed remotely.

She didn’t even know that the Post Office conducted its own prosecutions, a power it has held since the days when Dick Turpin was a bigger threat to the bottom line than sub-postmasters.

Day two was all about what she did when she finally figured out what was going on, and it made ignorance seem like bliss.

After more than six hours of questioning, a picture emerged of an obsession with spin, public relations, media management and the reputation of the Post Office placed above the care of sub-postmasters.

PABest Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells arrives to give her second day in evidence at Post Office Horizon's IT investigation at Aldwych House, central London.  Date of photo: Thursday, May 23, 2024.
Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells arrives for her second day of testimony at Post Office Horizon’s IT inquiry. Photo: PA

It was most clearly exposed in correspondence between Mrs Vennells and the Post Office’s then communications director, Mark Davies.

It involved her suggestion in 2013 that the Post Office investigate all cases of false accounting over the past five to 10 years.

That plan was never carried out, and investigative attorney Jason Beer wondered whether that amounted to “a lost decade until miscarriages of justice were discovered?”

“Maybe it was,” she agreed. “Maybe that worked.”

Post Office Horizon IT Scandal Investigative Advisor Jason Beer KC.  In the photo on 26/04/24 during interrogation of Angela van den Bogerd.  Image: Screenshot of the live stream for questions.
Post Office Horizon IT Scandal Investigative Advisor Jason Beer KC

That begged the question: why didn’t that happen, and part of the answer came in an email from Mr Davies setting out his position.

“If we say publicly that we will look at the latest cases… whether they are from recent history or further back, we will make this widely public in front-page news. In media terms it is becoming very mainstream, very high-profile,” he wrote. .

“To what extent has Mr Davies’ advice here influenced your decision-making?” she was asked.

“I would never do that, it just wasn’t the way I worked,” she said.

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Mr Beer then gave her response to Mr Davies: “You were right when you brought this up. And I will follow your lead, no problem,” she wrote.

“There are two main objectives, the most urgent is to manage the media, the second to ensure that we address the concerns of JA [James Arbuthnot] and Alan Bates.”

Read more:
Former CEO ‘agreed with PR advisor’

Important questions that ex-post office boss must answer
“I don’t feel sorry for her,” Mr. Bates says

“You took the PR guy’s advice, didn’t you?” asked Mr. Bear.

Her response, which she honestly could not remember, was drowned out by the mocking groans of the sub-postmasters in the room, prompting Chairman Sir Wyn Williams to call for order.

Failure to remember is a consistent theme in Ms Vennells’ evidence, perhaps culminating in this highlight, when she was asked about a board meeting in 2013: ‘My recollection,’ she said, ‘is that I don’t remember.’

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