Paula Vennells' 'smoking gun' email reveals Post Office 'cover-up'

ITV News has acquired an email and recording of a phone call that suggests the former Post Office boss was aware of issues with the Horizon system in 2013, ITV News Investigations Editor Dan Hewitt reports

Paula Vennells described the cases of wrongly convicted and wrongly accused sub-postmasters as “very disturbing”, after she received and read key evidence about potentially wrongful convictions more than a decade ago, ITV News has discovered.

A bombshell email written by the former Post Office boss and seen by ITV News, as well as a secret recording of a phone call with Ms Vennells we have also obtained, confirms she was sent the detailed case files of eight sub-postmasters.

After receiving the files from Ron Warmington of Second Sight - the forensic accountants hired by the Post Office to independently investigate issues with its Horizon IT system - Ms Vennells replied to him and others: “I have just read through the attachments. Apart from finding them very disturbing [I defy anyone not to], I am now even better informed.”

She added: “I take this very seriously.”

Senior Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi said: "I think the email and the tape will come to be seen as the smoking gun that is the cover-up that has taken place at the Post Office."

Lord Arbuthnot, a prominent campaigner for sub-postmasters, says it proves Ms Vennells “knew exactly what was going on”.

Politicians say it is new evidence that reveals Ms Vennells was fully aware of potential miscarriages of justice, and across the detail of claims and complaints by sub-postmasters that they had been wrongfully accused and convicted of theft and false accounting by the Post Office.

Yet Ms Vennells went on to tell Parliament in 2015 that the Post Office had found no evidence of any miscarriages of justice, and continued to deny any wrongdoing or errors with Horizon until 2019.

ITV News has obtained a secret recording of a phone call between Paula Vennells and Ron Warmington

The latest revelations are part of the ‘Post Office Tapes’, an ongoing ITV News investigation into secret recordings involving senior Post Office executives which reveal what they knew and what they said about the Horizon IT scandal.

The email was sent by Ms Vennells on the evening of October 2, 2013.

Earlier that same day she had held a telephone call with Mr Warmington, where they discussed cases that had been submitted to the mediation scheme by sub-postmasters, set up to review evidence from sub-postmasters who insisted the Post Office’s faulty IT system was to blame for shortfalls in their branch accounts.

By the time of the call, hundreds of sub-postmasters had been prosecuted and sent to prison.

In the phone call, Mr Warmington suggests Ms Vennells should look at some of the applications which suggest the Post Office may have got it wrong.

The phone conversation between Ron Warmington and Paula Vennells

Warmington: "I personally would like to think that in due course you and others would look at some of the applications that have come in. I’d pick what I think are… the ones that tell the common story… that probably would be worth spending an hour reading."

Vennells: "Get somebody to email me, I’m more than happy to do that. Is it available?"

Warrington: "Yeah. I’ll send them directly to you. What’s the best email for you?"

Vennells: "Paula dot Vennells – V-E-N-N-E-L-L-S."

Warmington: "Okay I’ll do it right now."

Vennells: "Okay Ron. Thank you very much and as I say, any time you want to pick up the phone don’t hesitate to do so."

ITV News has now discovered an email sent by Ms Vennells later the same day, in which she says she would "defy anyone" not to be very disturbed by their contents, and that she was now "better informed".

The email reads: "I have just read through the attachments. Apart from finding them very disturbing [I defy anyone not to], I am now even better informed.

"The form you have devised is very helpful as it removes some of the emotion and highlights very clearly areas we need to address as well as investigate for the mediation process, which I hope will bring closure for some of these people.

"As I said... I take this very seriously..."

The email sent by Paula Vennells in 2013 after after she received and read key evidence about potentially wrongful convictions of sub-postmasters

Credit: ITV News

Mr Zahawi was a member of the Business Select Committee which questioned Ms Vennells in 2015, when she told him there had been no miscarriages of justice.

"I think the email and the tape will come to be seen as the smoking gun that is the cover-up that has taken place at the Post Office", said the former chancellor.

"I hope that Ms Vennells will finally admit the truth so that the public can get to the bottom of this and those who have suffered get the justice they need."

Senior Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi told ITV News the email will be seen as a 'smoking gun' in the Post Office 'cover-up'.

There is clearly a stark contrast between what Ms Vennells said privately after reading details of sub-postmasters case files - "very disturbing" - to what she and the Post Office said and did publicly in the months that followed.

In November 2013, just six weeks after writing that email, Ms Vennells rejected the recommendation by the Post Office's Executive Committee to pause prosecutions while Horizon was being investigated, according to evidence given to the Public Inquiry by former Post Office General Counsel Chris Aujard.

She wanted, he said, to continue with some prosecutions.

We also know that under her stewardship the Post Office decided to secretly shut down the mediation scheme in April 2014 and sack Second Sight investigators, six months after writing that she found sub-postmasters applications “very disturbing”.

Less than 18 months later in February 2015, she told MPs on the Business Select Committee that no evidence of miscarriages of justice had been found.

In April 2015, Ms Vennells wrote to then-Post Office minister Jo Swinson to tell her the “Post Office has found no reason to conclude that any prosecution was unsafe" and that no evidence has been found "of any system-wide issues with Horizon", as ITV News exclusively revealed last month.

Lord Arbuthnot told ITV News that Paula Vennells knew 'exactly what was going on'

Lord Arbuthnot, formerly James Arbuthnot MP, has long campaigned for justice for wrongly prosecuted sub-postmasters.

He lobbied for a mediation scheme and held meetings with Ms Vennells around the time she wrote the email.

He told ITV News the email is "very important, and very significant".

"She knew exactly what was going on, clearly, and she needs to take responsibility for it," said Lord Arbuthnot.

"At the time I believed she was operating in good faith, that she was trying to get to the bottom of things and that she was trying to help sub-postmasters. I don’t believe that now."

Lord Arbuthnot says Ms Vennells lied to him and to MPs.

"It makes it almost impossible for her to pursue the line that she pursued in front of the Select Committee that there was no evidence of miscarriages of justice because clearly that’s what was included in the email sent to Paula Vennells."

The eight cases Ms Vennells read included some of the most high profile sub-postmasters featured in the ITV Drama ‘Mr Bates v The Post Office’.

Lee Castleton suspected issues with his Horizon terminal after money started going missing at his branch in Bridlington.

He contacted the Horizon helpline 91 times but was suspended by the Post Office after losses hit £25,000 and he was ordered to pay back the money.

He refused, so the Post Office took him to the High Court, where he was ordered to pay back the money as well as the Post Office's legal costs totalling £321,000, bankrupting him.

"She [Paula Vennells] never followed things up - we need to find out why," he told ITV News.

"Why were things shut down, not investigated?

"I hope she can reconcile everything herself. We’ve lost 251 sub-postmasters, four of them suicides. If I were her, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

"I just want her to tell the truth… all those years all we wanted was justice and to be listened to and to be understood.

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"I have no personal feelings for Paula Vennells either way - I don't hate her. If I thought any of this was personal and I wasn't just a number, I would be upset. But we're all just a number."

Ms Vennells was also sent Pamela Stubbs' file.

She was wrongly accused of theft by the Post Office, after £25,000 went missing from her branch in Wokingham in 2010.

She lost her business and her health was significantly affected, but she always insisted the Horizon IT system was to blame.

"It makes me feel like Paula Vennells and the Post Office just don't care and that as a person I don't count," Ms Stubbs told ITV News.

"So many people have been sent information about me, but they did nothing."

The file of wrongly convicted sub-postmaster Noel Thomas was also sent to Ms Vennells.

He spent 13 weeks in prison in 2006 after being prosecuted by the Post Office for false accounting when £48,000 went missing from his branch in Anglesey.

Mr Thomas told ITV News: “All I can say is I hope to God that she (Paula Vennells) comes out with the truth at the inquiry.

“This has been a total cover up.”

Ms Vennells, who was Post office CEO between 2012 and 2019, is due to give evidence to the Public Inquiry on Wednesday. It is scheduled to last three days.

In a statement, Ms Vennells told ITV News: “I continue to support and focus on co-operating with the Inquiry.

“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."

Ron Warmington told ITV News he could not comment as he has been designated a Core Participant in the ongoing Post Office Inquiry.

A Post Office spokesperson said: “We apologise unreservedly to victims of the Horizon IT Scandal and our focus remains on supporting the ongoing Public Inquiry to establish the truth of what happened so those affected can receive the justice and redress they deserve.”

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