Post office investigation: Sub-postmasters shine as ex-chief executive Paula Vennells finally faces their questions

The full force of more than a decade of frustration, anger and injustice was channeled through their lawyers, including a pair of baritones whose questions boomed like incoming fire at Paula Vennells.

By means of Paul Kelso, business correspondent @pkelso


Friday May 24, 2024 7:49 PM, UK

In the 15-year Post Office scandal, this may go down in history as the day when hundreds of sub-postmasters, subjected to the greatest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, were finally heard.

At Westminster, the Post Office Offenses Act was rushed through Parliament, part of the ‘wash-up’ caused by the general election. Early in the evening, when it received formal royal assent, as if by legislative magic, some 700 wrongful convictions were erased.

Before that, about a mile east at Aldwych House, Paula Vennells finally faced the sub-postmasters’ questions, on her third and final day of evidence at the Investigate the post office.

The full force of more than a decade of frustration, anger and injustice was channeled through their lawyers, including a pair of baritones whose questions thundered like incoming fire at the former CEO.

After two days of painstaking examination by inquiry advisor Jason Beer QC, during which they politely laid trip wires, Ed Henry and Sam Stein KC arrived with metaphorical brass knuckles.

“There were so many forks in the road…but you always took the wrong one,” Mr. Henry began.

“You exercised power without thinking about the consequences, even when they were staring you in the face?”

When Ms Vennells tried to explain that she was motivated by “compassion”, he cut her off. ‘That’s nonsense. You preach compassion, but you don’t practice it.’



Image:
Paula Vennells arrives to testify at the Post Office inquiry. Image: Reuters

In the public seats, the sub-postmasters, perhaps 150 of them, beamed. They had waited a long time to hear this.

The former CEO told the inquiry she had spent the past three years preparing for this inquiry, but Mr Henry was unimpressed.

He said: “You are still living in a cloud of denial and it continues to this day… you have given us a witness statement that runs to some 750 pages, a cowardly, self-serving account.”

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The questions were direct, but this was not a random attack. The lawyers focused on the period around 2013, when Ms Vennells admits she first became aware of the flaws and flaws in the Horizon IT system that could make previous convictions unsafe.

What could have been the impetus to confront missteps and right past wrongs instead became a corporate cover-up.

Ms Vennells’ defense was that she was not aware of the key facts or of inappropriate action when it mattered because she was not told. “I was too confident,” she said on the first day.



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Former sub-postmistress Jo Hamilton leaves after Paula Vennells gives her third day in evidence to the inquiry. Photo: PA

When confronted with written evidence that she must have known, she said she didn’t understand or, “I can’t remember,” a line that has become thin with repetition.

When occasionally cornered by documents, such as the email to her communications director in which she agreed to forego a full review of the prosecutions because it might make “front-page news,” she denied that the words they had written meant what everyone else thought they meant.

All this was delivered with an air of detachment, occasionally punctuated by tears that were perhaps understandable given the tension of the experience, but did not earn her an ounce of sympathy.

Read more:
Vennells removed the reference to Horizon from Royal Mail’s prospectus
Analysis: Day one of Vennells’ evidence

Analysis: Day two of Vennells’ evidence

“Did the mask slip into this email, Ms. Vennells?”

Sam Stein summed up her approach as she dodged a direct answer to one of his questions.

He said, ‘You’re doing it again, Mrs. Vennells, aren’t you? You say that other people might – it would have been kind of nice if they had explained this to me, but you do it in a way that avoids the problem, which is that at best you didn’t ask the question.

“Worst case, you knew the answer wouldn’t help the post office. That’s what you do, isn’t it, Mrs Vennells? You distance yourself again and again and blame these mysterious other people for not telling you the truth. “

The most damning moment of the day came at the very end, when she was questioned by Tim Moloney KC, who was appearing for a group of sub-postmasters including Jo Hamilton.

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The sub-postmistress of Wiltshire was one of the first to take her case to James, now Lord, Arbuthnot, and played a prominent role in the ITV drama that increased public concern.

She has campaigned relentlessly, participated in this investigation every day that matters, and comes across to everyone who encounters her as a gentle, honest soul. She sat next to Mr Moloney as he read Ms Vennells an email she wrote to her team in response to an early local news story about her case.

“Jo Hamilton lacked passion,” she wrote. There were boos in the room, and then Mrs. Vennells’ apology was hardly worth it.

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