Senior MP says Post Office 'has a case to answer for corporate manslaughter'

After hearing new extracts of secret recordings obtained by ITV News, Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi has called for a corporate manslaughter investigation over the Post Office Horizon scandal, Investigations Editor Daniel Hewitt reports

A senior Conservative MP who questioned Paula Vennells and the Post Office in 2015 on the Horizon IT Scandal says the organisation has a "case to answer for corporate manslaughter" and "criminal wrongdoing".

Nadhim Zahawi has told ITV News the former Post Office boss and her team “were not telling the truth” when they gave evidence to the House of Commons Business and Skills Committee nine years ago.

“I think she lied to the select committee because clearly they were not forthcoming”, Mr Zahawi told ITV News.

“And now with this explosive recording ITV News has obtained, I think there’s enough circumstantial evidence certainly, for a thorough police investigation.

“I don’t think it’s good enough that we keep falling back on ‘well let the [Post Office] Inquiry do its work’, this is much more serious.

“There needs to be an investigation into corporate manslaughter and individuals at the Post Office.”

At least four sub-postmasters are known to have taken their own lives after being wrongly accused in the Post Office scandal.

Mr Zahawi's comments come as a new secret recording of a meeting between senior Post Office staff and Second Sight forensic accountants in August 2014 reveals frustrated investigators pleading with the Post Office to provide emails and information they were promised relating to remote access to Horizon at Fujitsu's Bracknell HQ.

The meeting on August 11, 2014 was between Belinda Cortes-Martin - Programme Director for the Post Office’s ‘Project Sparrow' - along with Andy Parsons - an external lawyer from Womble Bond Dickinson who was hired in to work for the Post Office at the time, and independent investigators Ron Warmington and Ian Henderson.

This is the latest ITV News exclusive in a series unveiling secret tapes surrounding the Post Office and Horizon IT Scandal:

‘Project Sparrow’ was the internal codename the Post Office gave to its work with Second Sight investigators, the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance, and MPs between 2013 and 2015.

In the fiery exchanges obtained by ITV News, Ms Cortes-Martin accuses independent investigators of going on “a fishing expedition” and using “emotional language” when talking about sub-postmasters being sent to prison.

The meeting is largely dominated by the subject of why the Post Office was not handing over all of the information Second Sight were requesting to conduct its independent investigation.

Both Mr Warmington and Mr Henderson continuously ask for emails relating to specific allegations about remote access to branch accounts and procedures at Fujitsu’s HQ in Bracknell - information they say they had been requesting for over a year.

Ian Henderson: “What had been agreed was that we would be provided with the entire email mail records for the post office team that potentially would've had some contact with whatever was going on in the basement in 2008…but for some reason we've never progressed much beyond that point.”

Belinda Cortes-Martin: “So Ian, there is an answer to that question, and that is you have been provided with a significant amount of email traffic. However, there is…”

Ron Warmington: “Of the wrong date”

Belinda Cortes-Martin: “…an issue about the extent to which it is appropriate for us to send people's inbox…which potentially contains all sorts of information that Second Sight have no right to have access to…what we can't do is to enable you to draw through massive, massive extraneous emails. That's a fishing expedition.”

Ian Henderson: "Your Chief Executive assured us that anything that we asked for would be provided, and we've specifically discussed emails with Paula (Vennells).”

In another exchange, both Ms Cortes-Martin and Post Office lawyer Andy Parsons question what Second Sight are looking to find.

Belinda Cortes-Martin: “And what are you looking for, Ian, in those emails?”

Andy Parsons: “If you are aiming for a particular target, whether there's a way we can help to get to that particular target?”

Ian Henderson: “Well, yeah, the way you can help Andy is giving us the emails.”

Andy Parsons: "But again, what is it? I don't know what you're looking for.”

Ian Henderson: “We are looking for evidence of really sort of two or three things. Firstly, was there this alleged secret unit operating in the basement of Fujitsu office in Bracknell? And secondly, did they in some way have the ability to alter transaction records at branch level or stock levels directly without the knowledge or authorisation of the sub-postmasters?”

Andy Parsons: “Okay, that's useful. Let us take that away and we'll respond you in writing on it. Okay.”

Ian Henderson: “But none of that is new. I mean, we've been asking that question for well over a year now.”

The meeting took place in August 2014, two years after Second Sight were commissioned by the Post Office to carry out an independent investigation into issues with its IT system, and one year before MPs questioned both parties about Horizon in Parliament.

In 2015, Mr Henderson appeared before the House of Commons Business Innovation and Skills Committee, alongside then-Post Office Chief Executive Ms Vennells and Angela Van Den Bogerd, then-Head of Partnerships at the Post Office.

In an infamous exchange, Mr Henderson told the committee Second Sight had not been given documents they had asked for, something Ms Vennells said she was not aware of, and which Ms Van Den Bogerd denied.

During the hearing, Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi asked: “Mr Henderson did you ask for the files from 2008?”

Ian Henderson: “Yes we did”

Nadhim Zahawi: “And you were provided with 2009 instead?”

Ian Henderson: “We were provided with 2009 as we were told at the time the first batch, we were told there was some technology issues relating to the provision of the 2008 emails, but two years down the line we still don’t have those.”

Nadhim Zahawi: “You actually asked for the correct ones?”

Ian Henderson: “Yes”

Nadhim Zahawi: “Paula [Vennells], why don’t you give those files over? What’s the problem?”

Paula Vennells: “We have, as far as I’m aware, Mr Zahawi, we have shared whatever information was appropriate on every single – “

Nadhim Zahawi: “That’s not what Ian Henderson was saying.”

Paula Vennells: "It is the first time personally I have heard that. I am very happy to go away and have a look…”

Nadhim Zahawi: “He has evidence saying that under no circumstances he’d be given those files. That’s what you just told me, is that right?”

Ian Henderson: “We have not been given those files.”

Nadhim Zahawi then says to Paula Vennells: “You’ve been obstructive, what we’re hearing from Ian is that your organisation has been obstructive to his independent work. Is that right or wrong?"

Paula Vennells: “It’s wrong. We have provided for every single case, detailed thorough and independent investigation. They run to pages and pages of reports, there are on average 80 pieces of evidence provided…”

Nadhim Zahawi then asks Angela Van Den Bogerd:“Will you go forward providing them?”

Angela Van Den Bogerd: "…We have been working with Second Sight over the last few weeks to get to an understanding of what we need to provide. We are working through those, and information has been flowing..."

Nadhim Zahawi: So, you don’t understand what you need to provide?

“Angela Van Den Bogerd: “So what we agreed at the outset we would provide; we have been providing…”

Nadhim Zahawi: "Is that right Mr Henderson?"

Ian Henderson: “No it’s not I’m sorry to say.”

Responding to a series of tapes revealed by ITV News, Nadhim Zahawi said 'there needs to be an investigation into corporate manslaughter' at the Post Office

ITV News played Mr Zahawi the secret tape. He said: "With this explosive recording ITV News has obtained, I think there's enough circumstantial evidence, certainly, for a thorough police investigation. I don't think we can keep falling back on 'well, let the Post Office Inquiry do its work. This is much more serious in my view."

Labour MP and chair of Parliament's Business and Trade Committee Liam Bryne suggested police would have to look at the details revealed in the recording.

"These are appalling new revelations by ITV and what we are watching in real time is almost like a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and crucially a conspiracy to mislead Parliament," he said.

"You've got people asking for evidence that they have been commissioned to gather and Post Office executives figuring out how to refuse to give it to them.

"So what then happens in 2015 is Parliament is told there is no evidence or problems with Horizon system and that is repeated in 2020 and now it is crystal clear that Post Office executives were trying to hide the truth.

"Given the amount of evidence that is on the table the police will have to look at this and decide if they will act.

"In Parliament though we have got to make the decision when we resume if there is enough evidence on the table already thanks to these recordings to bring contempt proceedings against the leadership of the Post Office for frankly misleading parliament and covering up the truth."

The secret recording of the August 2014 meeting shows first-hand, for the first time, Second Sight asking for information but being told they would not be provided with everything they are requesting.

Leaked documents show that in April 2014, four months prior to the meeting, the Post Office sub-committee of executives codenamed ‘Project Sparrow’ secretly decided to sack Second Sight from investigating issues with Horizon and bring it in-house.

In the recording of the August meeting ITV News has obtained, Mr Henderson and Mr Warmington have not been formally told that they have effectively been sidelined by the Post Office.

Their tone is markedly more pointed and exasperated than in previous recordings revealed by ITV News from 2013.

In another conversation, Ron Warmington says: “We as investigators are driven by one objective above all else, in fact overrides everything, and that is to get to the truth, and we report the truth.

Belinda Cortes-Martin responds by saying: “I think getting to the truth, I think, is an interesting, an interesting point.”

At one point in the conversation, the subject of sub-postmasters prosecutions is raised by Second Sight.

Ron Warmington: “If you want to help the applicants, what the applicants need is an answer to the fundamental question: why was I accused of theft, dragged away… literally in handcuffs, my life was trashed.”

Belinda Cortes-Martin replies: “Ron, can we just keep the language not emotional?”

Ron Warmington: "No, I'm saying this is what they are asking. They're saying, you know, my life was then trashed. I've gone bust and I've lost, you know, my livelihood."

Mr Henderson and Mr Warmington told ITV News they could not comment on the recording as they have been designated Core Participants to the ongoing Post Office Inquiry and have undertaken confidentiality agreements.

In a statement to ITV News, Ms Cortes-Martin said: “I will be giving evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry on 7 May and will answer any questions put to me then. It would be inappropriate for me to answer any questions prior to the hearing.”

On behalf of Mr Parsons, a Womble Bond Dickinson spokesperson said: "We have great sympathy for all those affected by the failings of the Horizon IT system but are unable to comment further with a public Inquiry ongoing."

Ms Vennells told ITV News: “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.”

Ms Van Den Bogerd told ITV News: “I am scheduled to give evidence to the Post Office Horizon Inquiry later this month. I am cooperating fully with the Inquiry and therefore will not be making any comment outside this process.”

A Post Office spokesperson said: "We remain fully focused on supporting the statutory Public Inquiry, which is chaired by a judge with the power to question witnesses under oath, and is therefore best placed to get to the truth of what happened.”

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