Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells has stepped down from two business roles and as an associate Church of England minister after the Court of Appeal ruled that the organization she ran for seven years from 2012 had prosecuted innocent people.
Vennells’ roles on the boards of retailers Morrisons and Dunelm and at the Church of England became untenable following the damning judgments.
Last week, the Court of Appeal overturned the convictions of 39 former subpostmasters who the government-owned Post Office had blamed for accounting shortfalls. Some were sent to prison, and the lives of individuals and their families were ruined.
The total number of convictions overturned so far is 45, with six others overturned at Southwark Crown Court in December, and there could be more. The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which referred the latest cases to the Court of Appeal, is currently reviewing 22 more points, and the Scottish CCRC is looking at five.
More than 700 people were prosecuted based on evidence from the Post Office’s Horizon IT system, which contained errors.
Vennells left the Post Office in 2019 just before a bad High Court judgment that slammed the organization’s management that punished subpostmasters for mistakes made by its own computer system. She took more than £400,000 in pay and bonuses with her.
Vennells left her role as chair at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in December following revelations about her role in the Horizon scandal but remained in her other parts.
But the Court of Appeal’s judgment increased the pressure by ruling that the prosecutions of subpostmasters were more than incompetence on the Post Office’s part but were carried out despite the Post Office knowing that they could not get a fair trial. The Post Office had admitted that it wrongly prosecuted subpostmasters because the computer evidence used in prosecutions was potentially unreliable (“Limb 1”). Still, after Paul Marshall of Cornerstone Barristers insisted on pursuing the issue, the court accepted an additional limb as an arguable ground for appeal.
“Limb 2”, as it is known, meant the Post Office knew subpostmasters couldn’t have a fair trial but prosecuted them anyway, which was an “affront to the public conscience,” according to the CCRC – or, as the Court of Appeal said in its judgment, “an affront to the conscience of the court”. In effect, this is conduct that undermines the criminal justice system or public confidence in it.
The 39 convictions that were overturned were quashed on both grounds. This throws the spotlight on the Post Office leadership because it is no longer a case of mere incompetence that led to the wrongful prosecutions but a deliberate Post Office strategy.
Marshall insisted on the court hearing the Limb 2 argument, and the Court of Appeal eventually agreed to hear it despite opposition from the Post Office in the March 2021 appeal.
Marshall said that without that second ground for appeal, Vennells could have said the decisions to prosecute were merely operational errors and had nothing to do with her. “What the Court of Appeal decision on Limb 2 does is to say the entire course of prosecutions that were concerned with Horizon issues and the Post Office’s entire strategy around them, for which she was ultimately responsible, was an abuse of the courts’ process,” he said.
The Post Office was made aware of potential computer errors over many years. Computer Weekly first revealed the scandal in 2009, with the stories of seven subpostmasters. But the Post Office, led by Vennells from 2012 to 2019, consistently denied any errors in the Horizon system (see timeline below of Computer Weekly articles since 2009).
Even in 2015, after an independent report on Horizon by forensic accounting firm Second Sight found severe problems in the system, the Post Office still denied their existence.
That year, the Post Office’s then head of communications, Mark Davies, wrote this about the Post Office-commissioned report in the Subspaceonline magazine, which was sent to subpostmasters: “Much of the reporting is designed, as reporting often is, to present a picture which appears alarming: it does not, however, reflect the reality of the situation, which is some way from that you may read about or see on the TV.”
Davies also wrote at the time: “Unfortunately, the forensic accountants have also repeated allegations which are not supported by the facts. We cannot, of course, support their findings on these points – and you would not expect us to do otherwise.”
This denial reflected the Post Office’s stance on Horizon’s problems for many years. Vennells was in charge of the organization and, therefore, responsible for this.
Former subpostmaster Jo Hamilton, who had her criminal conviction overturned, said the scandal victims could have had their lives back almost a decade ago if Vennells had not ignored their claims and reports that Horizon was potentially at fault for the accounting shortfalls.
“From the disclosure in court, it is clear she knew almost a decade ago what was happening, and yet she chose to stay and tough it out,” said Hamilton. “She allowed two High Court trials to go ahead at the cost of hundreds of millions of pounds, and only when it was clear we were winning did she step down from her Post office role. We could have had our lives back 10 years ago.
“By taking on many senior roles elsewhere, including the Cabinet Office, it is clear she has no moral compass at all.” In 2019, Vennells was awarded a CBE for services to the Post Office and charity. There are calls in the House of Commons and the public for her to be stripped of this.