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    Post Office Inquiry: Paula Vennells blames five executives; accused of talking ‘absolute rubbish’

    Former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells arrives to testify at the Post Office inquiry on May 22, 2024 in London, England. Paula Vennells worked as the Post Office chief executive during the key Horizon operating years from 2012 - 2019. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

    Former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells has named five executives who she said were to blame for the Horizon scandal, including a missing IT expert and a former in-house lawyer who has refused to appear at the public inquiry.

    During third day of hearing today (24), Vennells has been accused of talking “absolute rubbish” after she broke down in tears once again at the Horizon inquiry to insist that she loved the company and had “worked to the best of my ability” over the scandal.

    Challenged by Barrister Sam Stein KC, who acts on behalf of subpostmasters, that the risk to the Post Office of looking “under the rock” of bugs with the Horizon software “was too great” and “you couldn’t let that happen”, Vennells insisted that “I loved the Post Office”.

    After tearing up and pausing, Vennells said she had not prioritised the Post Office’s wellbeing over that of subpostmasters and “worked as hard as I could and to the best of my ability” but had not been given the right information at the time.

    Asked by Stein to “give us the names, please” of those who had “let her down” by withholding information as the scandal developed, she listed the senior IT executives Mike Young, who the inquiry has not been able to find, and Lesley Sewell, and the general legal counsels Susan Crichton, Chris Aujard and Jane MacLeod.

    The inquiry’s chair, Sir Wyn Williams, a former high court judge, had earlier in the session said MacLeod had refused to attend the inquiry or appear remotely and that he was unable to compel her to do so as she lived in Australia.

    Vennells told the inquiry that she regretted MacLeod had refused to appear. She claimed to have twice raised her concerns with the in-house lawyer about the Post Office’s strategy of trying to force victims to abandon their campaigns for justice at a time when there was internal knowledge of problems with the IT system.

    In a strategy paper issued in 2017, seen by the inquiry, the Post Office’s legal team warned that that the costs of litigation with post office operators could be “extremely high” and said they believed “a better solution is to try to force the claimants into a collective position where they will either abandon the claims or seek a reasonable settlement”.

    Vennells said at the inquiry, “The questions I asked of Jane on those two occasions were ‘this feels completely wrong to me, what can we do?’ [and] ‘we should not be in the process where we are fighting in court with subpostmasters’.”

    Vennells claimed that the first time she asked the question, MacLeod told her the Post Office would try to settle the case, and the second time “the view the leading counsel, that we took … the only way to solve this was to take it through.”

    She added, “I regret hugely the group litigation, and I’ve seen all of the paperwork behind it, and in view of the judgments that were taken and where we are today, it is unacceptable reading.”

    Vennells also admitted what happened to bankrupted subpostmaster Lee Castleton was “unforgivable”. The East Yorkshire subpostmaster was found to have a £25,000 shortfall at his branch in 2004 and was made bankrupt after he lost his legal battle with the Post Office.

     She said, “What happened to Mr Castleton is completely unacceptable. At the time his case was not taken through the scheme, I personally wasn’t involved in the decision, but the Post Office took the decision based on legal advice. I completely agree with that, and what happened to Mr Castleton is unforgivable.”

    Vennells held the top role between 2012 and 2019. She has already given evidence for two days. The Horizon IT scandal has seen more than 900 subpostmasters wrongfully prosecuted after bugs were incorrectly recorded on their branch accounts.

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