Secret recording 'final proof' former Post Office boss Paula Vennells knew about Horizon issues

Lord James Arbuthnot, who campaigned for Sub-postmasters wrongly accused in the Horizon scandal, has told ITV News that the former head of the Post Office, Paula Vennells, should face 'serious consequences'. ITV News Investigations Editor Daniel Hewitt reports

The politician, who campaigned for justice for wrongly convicted sub-postmasters, says the secret recording of a meeting in 2013 attended by Paula Vennells - exclusively revealed by ITV News last week - answers a question campaigners have been asking for years about what she knew and when.

On July 2 2013, in a meeting with independent investigators Ian Henderson and Ron Warmington from Second Sight, Ms Vennells was made aware of allegations that Sub-postmaster branch accounts could be accessed remotely.

This is something the Post Office had denied for years as hundreds of Sub-postmasters were convicted.

She was also told by the investigators that the company’s position in denying Horizon faults was both “dangerous” and "stupid", according to the recording.

In response to the recording, Lord James Arbuthnot said: “A question that has always remained unanswered has been whether the more junior people in the Post Office management had actually told Paula Vennells of the possibility of remote access of the sub-postmasters accounts without the knowledge of the sub-postmasters."

“This is the final proof that establishes the answer to that question."

He added: “This recording answers that question because Paula Vennells was in on the warnings given by Ron Warmington and Ian Henderson, that remote access was possible and that it would be very dangerous for her to continue to assert as she did continue to assert that remote access was not possible.

“So it answers a key question.”

Former minister Sir David Davis, who helped campaign on behalf of sub-postmasters, tells ITV News that the recordings show ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells was 'not telling the truth' in 2015

As the head of the Post Office between 2012 and 2019, Ms Vennells was in charge when Sub-postmasters were wrongly pursued and prosecuted for theft and fraud.

In the taped meeting, Ms Vennells and several other Post Office executives can be heard being briefed by forensic accountants Mr Warmington and Mr Henderson, who were investigating possible issues with then Horizon IT system run by Fujistu from Bracknell.

The pair said: "When you say they didn't have access to the Horizon system, but actually they were passing entries to live data...that is really dangerous ground.

"The last thing you want is a spot review response that says, categorically there was no access to live data from Bracknell.

"If in a week's time some bloody whistleblower pipes up to say, well, actually I was working on the second floor and we routinely did ‘X’."

At the meeting, Mr Warmington and Mr Henderson expressed their concerns that the Post Office was not being transparent about the possibility of branch accounts being accessed by Fujitsu workers remotely.

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They said: "That sort of what might be interpreted in the press as weasel wording, um, is extremely dangerous.

"We're not just asking whether people in that basement had access to live systems, even if your answer is, they did have access to what they called the live system, but it wasn't live, which itself, you know, we're having to kind of word carefully to make it sound other than stupid.

"When you say they didn't have access to the Horizon system, but actually they were passing entries to live data. But you didn't ask that, that is really dangerous ground."

The Post Office would continue to deny remote access to Horizon was possible until 2019, six years after this meeting.

In total, more than 900 sub-postmasters were convicted of fraud and theft. Credit: PA

In the same meeting in 2013, investigators informed Ms Vennells and the other Post Office officials that Lord Arbuthnot, then a Member of Parliament had concerns about the Post Office's conduct. At the time, he was a leading figure in the campaign for justice for Sub-postmasters and was holding meetings with both the Post Office and Second Sight.

Speaking about bugs with Horizon, Mr Warmington told the meeting: “I think you would be ill-advised to do anything other than to paint that as black a picture as you can… and not in any way try and minimise the apparent impact… of the disclosure that's got to be made... Because he's questioning, if you knew about it all that time ago, why didn't you tell me about it? That's what he's saying.”

A senior Post Office official then replies: “I guess a better answer is, why would we?”

Later in the meeting, Ms Vennells asks Mr Warmington and Mr Henderson why Lord Arbuthnot was asking such questions when he wasn’t previously .

Ms Vennells said: “Ron, Ian, it's Paula. I think the only question in my mind at the moment is to try to understand what might have changed his position. Do you have any thoughts on that?”

David Enright, a lawyer representing 200 Sub-postmasters, told ITV News that as 'captain of the ship' Ms Vennells 'knew that the Post Office could interfere with postmasters' accounts'

Mr Warmington then replies: “He remarked on the fact that prosecutions were still continuing. I think he expected the whole process to be kind of frozen while the investigation was going on, even though it's taken a year.”

Speaking on Tuesday, Lord Arbuthnot told ITV News Ms Vennells needs to face justice.

“Very, very serious retribution needs to be visited on these people who visited such terrible things on the sub-postmasters.

“The consequences should be very serious indeed. They are not for me as a politician to establish, those seem to me to be things which should be dealt with by prosecuting authorities and by a judge and jury.

“It is not just Paula Vennells who is in the frame here. There are a lot of senior Post Office managers, potentially a lot of civil servants and potentially a lot of lawyers, who are going have to face justice in this really terrible case.”

'These are serious lies, and people who've misled Parliament, misled the courts need to be held to account,' Sir Ed Davey, who was Post Office minister between 2010 and 2012, told ITV News

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reiterated his determination to ITV News on Tuesday on "getting the sub-postmasters" justice, answers and compensation they deserve".

"This is the most awful miscarriage of justice, which is why we are doing everything we can to put it right. We're passing urgent legislation to exonerate postmaster, we're paying out compensation and increasing compensation levels as well. It's important we right the wrongs of the past."

In a statement to ITV News, Ms Vennells said: "I continue to support and focus on co-operating with the inquiry and expect to be giving evidence in the coming months.

"I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the sub-postmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system.

"I now intend to continue to focus on assisting the inquiry and will not make any further public comment until it has concluded."

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