Vennells told not to make Post Office top page news

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By Creative Media News

  • Post Office withheld review of convictions to avoid negative publicity
  • Ex-CEO Vennells followed PR advice, potentially delaying justice
  • Horizon IT faults led to wrongful convictions; inquiry ongoing

The Post Office withdrew a comprehensive assessment of sub-postmasters’ convictions due to concerns that it would generate “front page news. 

In 2013, Paula Vennells, the former head of the Post Office, proposed that convictions dating back a decade could be examined. 

However, it was disclosed at the inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal on Thursday that ex-Post Office media chief Mark Davies informed Ms. Vennells that it would “fuel the story and turn it into something bigger than it is” in an email. 

Ms. Vennells responded at the time that she would follow the guidance of her public relations adviser; however, she acknowledged during the inquiry that such a review could have “averted a lost decade” in identifying miscarriages of justice. 

Ms. Vennells was questioned on a second day of inquiries regarding a report published on 8 July 2013 by forensic accountants Second Sight, which identified vulnerabilities in the Horizon IT system. 

Horizon, accountancy software utilized by sub-postmasters in their branches, was previously maintained by the Post Office as robust. 

Before the report was published, Ms. Vennells emailed her colleagues to suggest ways to resolve campaigners’ concerns about the safety of previous Horizon convictions, such as Alan Bates and Lord Arbuthnot. 

This involved a review of all convictions for fraudulent accounting that date back up to a decade “in the context of the Second Sight findings.” 

Mr. Davis stated, “If we publicly declare that we will investigate past cases, we will significantly escalate this issue to the forefront of the news.” In terms of media, it has become ubiquitous and highly high-profile. 

Ms. Vennells replied, “You were correct to point this out, and I will follow your lead without hesitation.” 

Jason Beer KC, the lead counsel for the inquiry, asked Ms. Vennells whether this implied that she had followed Mr. Davis’s recommendation to refrain from conducting additional research into past cases. 

Ms. Vennells responded, “I truly do not recall it being related to the decision,” which elicited murmurs from the public gallery, where former sub-postmasters and postmistresses were observing the proceedings. 

This prompted Sir Wyn Williams, the inquiry’s chairman, to issue a rare intervention, urging for composure. 

Mr. Beer stated that implementing the concept could have “averted a lost decade” in identifying miscarriages of justice. 

Ms. Vennells acknowledged, “It is possible that it did.” 

The Horizon data was faulty, resulting in hundreds of sub-post managers and postmistresses being convicted for theft and fraudulent accounting offenses. Money was reported as missing from Post Office accounts when, in fact, it was not. 

The Post Office, which the government owns, prosecuted the majority of the 983 UK convictions from 1999 to 2015.

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The Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted a lower number of cases. 

On Wednesday, Ms. Vennells acknowledged that she was unaware until 2012 that the Post Office was prosecuting sub-post managers rather than external entities. 

She became a member of the organization in 2007 and was appointed its managing director three years later. 

Only 103 sub-postmasters have had their convictions overturned thus far. 

The alleged missing funds were to be repaid by sub-post managers, and many of them were still prosecuted. Several individuals were incarcerated, and a significant number of them suffered financial devastation.

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