Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells accused of misleading government

It comes after recordings obtained by ITV News of a meeting attended by Vennells show she was told by investigators about potential problems with Horizon, ITV News Investigations Editor Daniel Hewitt reports

Paula Vennells has been accused of misleading the government after ITV News obtained a letter from March 2015, which shows the former Post Office boss claimed there was no evidence sub-postmasters had been wrongfully convicted.

Ms Vennells, who ran the organisation between 2012 and 2019, told the-then Post Office minister Jo Swinson the “Post Office has found no reason to conclude that any prosecution was unsafe”.

This was despite the Post Office being told, in 2014, by the law firm it had itself hired to review prosecutions that it found problems in at least 26 cases.

In the same letter, Ms Vennells also told Ms Swinson that "no evidence has been found through these investigations of any system wide issues with Horizon".

However, secret recordings obtained by ITV News of a meeting attended by Ms Vennells in July 2013, show she was told by independent investigators from Second Sight about potential problems with Horizon, as well as allegations that branch accounts could be accessed remotely by staff at Fujitsu HQ in Bracknell.

She was also warned by Second Sight's Ian Henderson and Ron Warmington that the company’s position on denying any problems was potentially “dangerous” and “stupid”.

ITV News Investigations Editor Dan Hewitt previously reported on a series of meetings held in relation to concerns over Horizon

In another recording obtained exclusively by ITV News from December 2013, Post Office General Counsel Chris Aujard - the organisation’s most senior lawyer at the time - is told by the same independent investigators of evidence suggesting “unsafe” and “wrongful” convictions of sub-postmasters, who were pressured into guilty pleas and denied potentially crucial evidence to defend themselves.

In a third recording from August 2014, senior Post Office executives are heard refusing to hand over potentially key documents to investigators relating to remote access at Fujistu.

Ms Swinson, who was a Post Office Minister between 2012 and 2015 in the coalition government, told ITV News the letter shows Ms Vennells “misled” the government when she claimed there was no evidence of unsafe prosecutions, and the secret recordings “were at odds with what I was being told” at the time.

The former Liberal Democrat leader is due to give evidence to the Post Office inquiry in July.

'Nothing surprises me anymore. And more is going to come out,' said Jo Hamilton, a former sub-postmaster whose story was portrayed by Monica Dolan in the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office

Ms Vennells was Post Office CEO between 2012 and 2019. What she knew and when, compared with what she said publicly, will be fundamental to understanding how the Horizon IT scandal unfolded.

More than 900 sub-postmasters were convicted as the Post Office maintained for years that there were no issues with its IT system, blaming individual sub-postmasters for financial losses.

By the time Ms Vennells wrote to the government on March 9, 2015, lawyers had presented the Post Office's top team with compelling evidence as to serious problems with a number of prosecutions.

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

In July 2013, Barrister Simon Clarke told the Post Office, in what become known as "the Clarke Advice", that evidence it had used to prosecute sub-postmasters based on the assertion that "there is nothing wrong with the Horizon system" was untrue. He also advised further prosecutions should be stopped.

Then in 2014, the law firm Cartwright King carried out a review of hundreds of case files of prosecuted sub-postmasters and found 26 prosecutions were potentially unsafe, as key evidence had not been disclosed to them.

Despite that, Ms Vennells wrote to the government in March 2015 to inform ministers that the Post Office was ending the mediation scheme, which allowed sub-postmasters to have their suspensions and prosecutions heard by the organisation.

In the letter, Ms Vennells says the Post Office has a duty to disclose any information that comes to light which might undermine prosecution cases or support the case for the defendant, but that: "Having now completed its reinvestigation of each of the cases, Post Office has found no reason to conclude that any original prosecution was unsafe".

Conservative Peer Lord Arbuthnot, who has been a lead campaigner for justice for wrongly convicted sub-postmasters, told ITV News “the existence of the Clarke Advice establishes any such letter would have been untrue.”

In a statement, 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."

A letter seen by ITV News shows Ms Vennells says the Post Office has a duty to disclose any information that comes to light.

In a statement to ITV News last week following our publication of this report, former Post Office General Counsel Chris Aujard told ITV News: “Chris was the interim general counsel for the Post Office on a fixed term contract for around 16 months in the period from mid-October 2013 through to late February 2015. Chris has been called as a witness to the Inquiry and fully supports its role but whilst the process is ongoing, he is unable to comment further.”

A Post Office spokesperson said: “We are deeply sorry for the hurt and suffering caused to victims and their loved ones and remain fully focused on getting to the truth of what happened and supporting the statutory Public Inquiry, which commenced Phases 5 and 6 of evidence gathering today, to achieve this.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know…