Disgraced UK Post Office Limited (POL) CEO Paula Vennells led “with integrity and care”, a former POL executive has argued amidst revelations that POL’s purported culture of transparency actively obscured details about the Horizon system’s problems.

“Our intention throughout was to be as open as possible on these issues [and] we did our very best to be open and transparent on these issues,” Mark Davies, former group communications and corporate affairs director with POL, testified as he explained why POL remained silent even after a 2014 BBC investigation revealed the magnitude of the process that had seen hundreds of POL subpostmasters convicted for crimes they hadn’t committed.

Although the company’s communications team considered the appropriate response to the now widely publicised revelations, Davies ultimately decided not to publish an official statement to its more than 30,000 staff responding to the allegations.

That left victims like Amble subpostmaster Bryan Hewson to deal with staff who were, he wrote in an email read during Davies’ testimony, “in a state of shock and disbelief and anger about how people like them and their friends could have been accused of theft, lost their homes, or even worse, sent to prison.”

“I scoured the Post Office website for an official statement,” he wrote, “but couldn’t find it.”

Davies defended the corporate decision to run for cover, leaving its employees in the dark as the Horizon situation led to a national uproar that would ultimately see hundreds of subpostmasters prosecuted – and, more recently, pardoned – in what Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history”.

Failing to address the worst scandal in the centuries-old organisation’s history was only one of the intentional omissions undertaken as the Horizon case became exacerbated with every fresh revelation.

A secret internal executive committee codenamed ‘Project Sparrow’ sought to find ways to contain the damage from the snowballing Horizon revelations: Davies, for example, worked with colleagues to find “non emotive” euphemisms for the word ‘bugs’ when describing the problems with the Fujitsu-built Horizon system, considering ‘glitches’, ‘defects’, and even ‘conditional exception anomalies’ before settling on ‘exceptions’.

Many briefing documents prepared by POL downplayed or omitted details about problems that had been identified to date, while testimony confirmed that senior executives were up in arms over a report by consultancy Second Sight Investigations, which was called to investigate claims there were bugs with the Horizon system.

The impartiality of Second Sight – which was ultimately sacked before it could deliver a damning second report corroborating the subpostmasters’ claims – “is a fiction,” Vennells was said to have told Patrick Bourke, the company’s government affairs and policy director.

Bourke suggested that the Post Office corporate culture “very open and collaborative by nature” but added that its autonomous security team – whose investigators were assured of Horizon’s reliability and used heavy-handed tactics to bully many subpostmasters into confessing to offences including fraud, theft, and false accounting – was “much more standalone and seemed to enjoy being slightly to one side.”

“There was a sense in which being an investigator was somehow special,” he said, describing the culture amongst the investigations team as “a group of ex-policemen [and] investigators coming together… it had that particular colour to it.”

Such attitudes were “anathema to what the post office was trying to build,” he added.

A reckoning for POL executives?

Davies’ comments come in the runup to next week’s appearance by Vennells, who – based on a growing series of accounts from former lawyers and executives during the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry’s ongoing Phase 5 – has become the figurehead of a company that continues to wear the fallout of years of executive misfires.

Vennells is scheduled for three days of testimony starting on 21 May, where she will be confronted with the fruits of years’ worth of testimony from subpostmasters, politicians, victim advocates, lawyers, executives, and more.

Despite suggestions to date that Vennells oversaw the systematic coverup of consequential system errors – and vilification of subpostmasters who were victimised, financially ruined, and jailed as a result – Davies wrote in his witness statement that the executive “took its responsibilities to its people very seriously” and “were led with integrity and care” by Vennells.

“In my view, the board and executive were diligent and effective at dealing with the issues relating to Horizon,” Davies said, adding that “any concern that the system did not work properly was taken extremely seriously, for the very reason that it was so fundamental to so many people.”

Yet for all his claims of openness, Davies and Vennells made the call not to engage with POL employees about the jaw-dropping allegations that were now in the public forum.

“We hadn’t had a huge amount of questions about the issue” from staff, he testified, saying that “it was always a very fine judgement as to whether to do a piece of internal communications to the whole network, which was around 11,000 branches and 40,000 people.”

“I accept that I might have got that one wrong.”