The main questions that Postmaster General Paula Vennells must answer as she begins three days of questions | business news

With protesters gathered and media cameras carefully focused, one of the most important people in the entire Post Office Horizon IT scandal will sit through three full days of questions.

Wednesday is the beginning of the moment that the victims of the subpostmaster, and likely anyone involved over the years in which the Post Office injustice was perpetrated, have been waiting for. It has been five years since the Post Office apologized, but victims are waiting for the reparations and answers they expect. Paula Vennells could provide.

Why is Paula Vennells important?

Former chief executive Ms Vennells led the government-owned body during Horizon’s key operating years from 2012 to 2019.

It has been regularly referenced in research created to establish a clear explanation for the introduction and failure of Fujitsu’s Horizon accounting software.

Horizon wrongly generated deficits in Correos branches and caused hundreds of false accounting and prosecutions for theft. Many more subpostmasters ran up significant debts, lost homes and livelihoods, fell ill, abandoned communities, and some took their own lives as they struggled to pay for imaginary losses.

While this is the first opportunity for investigating lawyers to publicly question Ms. Vennells, hers has been a continuing presence throughout the process. Documents submitted before dozens of witnesses and the answers they provided.

A previously unknown name, Ms Vennells may now be familiar to the millions who saw a dramatized version of her portrayed in the ITV drama Mr Bates v the Post Office which revived interest in injustice.

Following the spectacle, Mrs. Vennells, ordained vicar, resigned his CBE (Commander of the British Empire) and reiterated his apologies and regrets for the harm caused to the victims of the subpostmaster.

As agreed at a government select committee in 2015, the onus fell on her.

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

The question of what Mrs Vennells knew and when has been the subject of newspaper reports detailing the scope of your knowledge of the scandal, years before the prosecutions were stopped and an apology was issued.

Whether Ms Vennells attempted to suppress or minimize the evidence or simply overlook it, it will shed light on why the scandal lasted so long: from when issues were raised by deputy postmaster and advocate Alan Bates in 2003 to 2019, when a sorry. .

When did you first learn that sub-mailmaster accounts could be modified remotely?

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

Why did you allow proceedings to continue on the basis that there was no remote access, despite legal advice?

Whatever his answer, there is evidence (in the form of recordings leaked to Sky News) to suggest that Vennells had been told about the remote access by May 2013 at the latest.

But three years earlier, in 2010 and before Ms. Vennells’ tenure as chief executive, Post Office prosecutors were alerted about errors with Horizon, just days before the trial and eventual conviction of Deputy Postmaster Seema Misra, who was pregnant at the time.

A former deputy postmaster who was wrongfully jailed while pregnant has rejected an apology from a former Post Office executive.

Issues surrounding the Post Office convictions arose again during Vennell’s tenure when Simon Clarke, a lawyer at a firm advising the organisation, wrote in 2013 that a key Fujitsu witness failed to disclose that he knew of the errors, ” “in clear breach of his duty as an expert witness.”

This put the Post Office “in clear breach of its duty as a prosecutor”, it told the company in its formal legal advice.

Did you authorize £300,000 of legal costs to compensate for a loss of £25,000?

Deputy postmaster Lee Castleton, recognizable from the drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, will be particularly interested in whether Mrs Vennells – as former chief executive Alan Cook told the inquiry – approved £300,000 legal costs to prosecute to Mr Castleton for a £25,000 deficit when she was network manager at the Post Office.

What is your explanation for how you got it so wrong? Why did you allow the scandal to continue?

Given the evidence suggesting that Ms Vennells was aware of the errors and shortcomings at Horizon years before the prosecutions were stopped and an apology was made, both the public and victims will want to hear her account of why she did not act to discard Horizon.

Why didn’t he act and apologize sooner?

Many will want to know why he had so much faith in Horizon, Fujitsu and those working for the Post Office when sub-postmasters, MPs representing constituents, legal advisers and even Second Sight, the forensic accountants hired to investigate, They told him there were problems. .

What did you think of the deputy postmaster’s complaints against Fujitsu?

Clearly, Vennells wasn’t so concerned about Horizon that she would do anything to minimize her role, much less put an end to it. So what did she think of what the subpostmasters were telling the organization they were going through? Did she think they lacked credibility or perhaps that they were few in number and easy to ignore?

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

The horizon deficits had been discussed at the post office for years – Why did Mrs. Vennells believe he could be trusted more than hundreds of subpostmasters? How did she conclude that Horizon was solid and the claims against it were not?

Why did you say in 2020 that Correos “did not identify” defects in Horizon?

We understand how Ms Vennells viewed the role of the Post Office and its oversight of the scandal: it is one of ignorance. Since she resigned in 2019, Ms Vennells said the Post Office was not aware and that is one of the things she has apologized for.

“I regret the harm caused to subpostmasters and colleagues and their families and I regret the fact that during my tenure as postmaster general, despite working really hard to resolve the difficulties, the Post Office failed to identify and address the defects. on Horizon technology,” he wrote in June 2020.

Why did he say this when there is evidence that the Post Office did know?

Follow Paula Vennells’ questioning at the inquest 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 follow the latest news on the Sky News website and app.

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Why did he tell Parliament that there was “no evidence” of “miscarriages of justice”?

There is much to ask about Ms Vennell’s previous statements. For many, top of the list will be her responses to a February 2015 meeting of what was then the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) select committee.

At the time, after Horizon’s errors were discovered and reported on by forensic accountants Second Sight, she told MP committee members there was “no evidence” of “miscarriages of justice”.

Why were the forensic accountants who were getting to the bottom of Horizon’s problems fired?

Lord Arbuthnot, defending the deputy postmaster and a former MP, said he believed it was because they were getting too close to the truth.

Lord Arbuthnot testifies at Post Office inquiry

Why, when he said he was going to “fully concentrate on working with the ongoing government investigation,” did his lawyers serve him with documents hours before hearing the evidence?

When an investigation into the scandal was announced in 2020, Vennells said he would “focus fully on working with the ongoing government investigation”.

The investigation had set a deadline to submit all relevant documents; however, 50 additional documents were submitted on behalf of Ms Vennells at 11.17pm on Thursday night and continued to come on Friday.

Pending questions from a previous consultation

In March 2020, parliamentary members of the (what was then called) Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (BEIS) were due to carry out another questioning of Ms Vennells.

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.

Several of those questions were not answered.

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

While she answered his other questions, these went unanswered:

• How would you respond to those deputy postmasters and postal workers who said the Post Office’s investigative arm was more interested in asset recovery than finding the source of the errors in Horizon and who felt they were being treated as if Were they guilty until proven innocent?

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

• Did you feel comfortable, as CEO of Post Office Ltd, knowing that your organization was prosecuting subpostmasters without recourse to the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service)?

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

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“I remain supportive and focused on cooperating with the investigation,” Vennells said in a statement.

“I am very sorry for the devastation caused to the subpostmasters and their families, whose lives were shattered by being unfairly accused and prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system.”

“I now intend to continue focusing on assisting the investigation and will not make any further public comments until it is concluded,” he added.