Post Office lawyer: Horizon review would 'be rag to a bull' for sub-postmistress

Paula Vennells says there were concerns at the Post Office over time and cost of a review into the convictions of sub-postmasters, ITV News' Ellie Pitt reports

A Post Office solicitor was concerned that including former sub-postmistress Seema Misra's case in an independent review into the Horizon IT system "would be a rag to a bull", the Post Office inquiry heard on Thursday.

Ms Misra, who ran a Post Office in West Byfleet, Surrey, was jailed in 2010 after being accused of stealing £74,000. She was eight weeks pregnant at the time, and later gave birth to her son while wearing an electronic tag.

Former Post Office Chief Executive Paula Vennells was answering questions as part of her second day of evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry on Thursday, after an emotional first day which saw her become visibly upset on a number of occasions and break down in tears twice.

She apologised for her actions during the scandal 23 times during her first day of evidence, according to the inquiry’s official transcript.

The inquiry saw an email sent to Ms Vennells in June 2012 expressing former Post Office general counsel Susan Crichton's concerns about including Ms Misra's case in the independent review.

WATCH: Paula Vennells give evidence at the Post Office inquiry live on ITVX.

Paula Vennells arrives to give evidence Credit: PA

The email, send by former company secretary Alwen Lyons, read: "The issue that came to light with the list of MP cases was that they included the Mishra (Misra).

"You will remember the case and the publicity, she went to prison and had her baby whilst in there. The husband got publicity through radio and press," it read.

Ms Lyons wrote that the Post Office general counsel's anxiety was "whether now contacting [Ms Misra] to tell her we review the case would be a red rag to a bull."

Asked if she shared Ms Crichton's concerns regarding contacting Ms Misra, Ms Vennells told the inquiry: "No."

Earlier on Thursday, Ms Vennells claimed she had no inkling sub-postmaster convictions were unsafe in 2013 despite a “concerning” email from lead campaigner Alan Bates.

Mr Bates emailed Ms Vennells on May 21, 2013, saying he had “little doubt that it is now feasible to show that many of the prosecutions that the Post Office have pressed home should never have taken place”.

Referring to the work of Second Sight - the independent forensic accountants brought in to investigate issues with the Post Office, including the Horizon system - Mr Bates said: “Bearing in mind what has been discovered so far, I for one am surprised that we haven’t yet met to discuss the implications.

“Whilst I appreciate that the majority of the issues began under previous regimes and you have expressed a genuine willingness to address the concerns that JFSA [Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance] has been raising, these issues are still continuing.

“I have little doubt that it is now feasible to show that many of the prosecutions that POL [Post Office Limited] have pressed home should never have taken place.”

An email sent from Alan Bates to Paula Vennells in May 2013. Credit: Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry

Counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC asked Ms Vennells: “Would you have been very concerned reading an email like this that the person representing a key stakeholder, JFSA, was saying that the prosecutions, and many of them, that the Post Office had brought ought never to have taken place?”

She replied: “I was concerned to get the email from Alan, certainly.

“The point he was making about prosecutions was the point the JFSA made for a number of years - that wasn’t new news to me at this stage.”

Mr Beer continued: “Is that how you would have thought of it, that this is just Mr Bates saying something that he’s always said?”

The former Post Office boss replied: “No, not at all.”

Mr Beer then said: “Had you been given any inkling that anything had emerged that might undermine the safety of convictions?”

Ms Vennells responded: “No.”

Communications chief told Vennells a review of all sub-postmasters would 'end up front page news'

The inquiry was shown an email exchange between Ms Vennells and then director of communications Mark Davies in July 2013 in which she said she would “take your steer” after he said looking at all past cases would be “in media terms… very high profile”.

Ms Vennells agreed that had the Post Office decided to review all prosecutions of false accounting, it “may well have” avoided the “lost decade” until miscarriages of justice involving sub-postmasters were discovered.

The public gallery at the inquiry, made up of mainly sub-postmasters, groaned loudly after Ms Vennells said she did not remember if she took the “advice of the PR guy” to review past prosecutions.

She continued: “As I tried to say before, what we were working to at this stage was numbers of cases going through a scheme, and a scheme that was going to be opened up to anybody who wanted to come forward.

“I understand how this reads, but I don’t recall making any conscious decision not to go back and put in place a review of all past criminal cases.”

Mark Davies gave evidence to the inquiry on May 14. Credit: Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry

After Ms Vennells asked him for his thoughts on whether the business should look at cases going over five to ten years, Mr Davies said: “If we say publicly that we will look at past cases – and whatever we say to JA (Lord Arbuthnot) or JFSA (Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance) will be public – whether from recent history or going further back, we will open this up very significantly, into front page news.

“In media terms it becomes mainstream, very high profile."

Ms Vennells conceded that the view of Mr Davies was a “grossly improper perspective”.

In her response to Mr Davies’ email, Ms Vennells said: “You are right to call this out. I will take your steer.”

More than 700 sub-postmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon IT system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

Hundreds of sub-postmasters are still awaiting compensation despite the government announcing that those who have had convictions quashed are eligible for £600,000 payouts.

Have you heard our new podcast Talking Politics? Every week Tom, Robert and Anushka dig into the biggest issues dominating the political agenda…