Disgraced former UK Post Office CEO Paula Vennells broke down in tears while testifying to a Parliamentary inquiry, admitting that she was “too trusting” of reports given to her while the organisation actively discredited subpostmasters and hid details of “600 plus” system bugs.

Those bugs – which were reportedly known to Fujitsu shortly after the new Horizon point-of-sale system was rolled out in the late 1990s – were systematically obscured as the Post Office’s team of self-managed investigators pursued fraud, false accounting, and theft claims against hundreds of local subpostmasters (SPMs) across the breadth of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Vennells – whose appearances (morning and afternoon sessions are available on YouTube) in front of the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry marked the first time she has publicly spoken about the affair in nearly a decade – said she did not know the Post Office was carrying out private prosecutions, drawing disbelief from inquisitor Sir Wyn Williams after a conga line of former executives, investigators, lawyers, and SPMs have spent weeks testifying that such investigations were common knowledge.

Claiming she hadn’t learned of the investigations until 2012, Vennells said she “[didn’t] recall” the contents of a 2008 meeting, shortly after she began working with Royal Mail Group, where reference was made to a “greater focus placed on the identification and drive of proactive fraud initiatives, as opposed to simply delivering traditional investigative casework.”

Investigators systematically underplayed or ignored the presence of bugs in the system or the financial anomalies they caused, hiding the information from prosecutors who doggedly pursued hundreds of SPMs before and during Vennell’s tenure.

Those SPMs who ultimately gave in and pled guilty were widely assumed to have done so because they were guilty, with executives brushing off the convictions as the result of normal fraud compliance measures and Vennells claiming she had no understanding that bugs in the system had caused the financial anomalies for which the SPMs were blamed.

The former CEO sobbed during her testimony as prosecutors read an email written to organiser Alan Bates about Martin Griffiths, a SPM who died by suicide after being pilloried by Post Office staff – and admitted that she had misinformed the UK Parliament in making claims that “every case taken to prosecution that involves the Horizon system thus far has found in favour of the Post Office.”

Presented with details of numerous cases where juries had acquitted SPMs accused of crimes – including the 2007 acquittal of Rayleigh subpostmistress Susanne Palmer for false accounting – a tearful Vennells, who is on record telling parliamentarians that SPMs had been “led into temptation” for the alleged crimes, said she “didn’t know” about the acquittals at the time but that she “fully accept[s] now that the Post Office knew that.”

“I completely accept it,” she said, adding that “personally, I didn’t know that and I’m incredibly sorry that that happened to those people and to so many others.”

Setting the tone from the top

Vennell’s long-awaited appearance – which will continue until the weekend – caps weeks of testimony given during Phase 5 of the inquiry, which has seen former Post Office executives grilled about what they knew about the organisation’s investigations and prosecutions of the SPMs, who are set to be cleared by extraordinary legislation shepherded by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

The UK Metropolitan Police are watching the testimony closely, with the risk of potential criminal charges leading Williams – who has attended most of the hearings remotely – to not only show up for Vennells’s testimony in person, but to start the proceedings by reminding her about her right to consult lawyers in cases where the evidence tested her right to avoid self incrimination.

Observers were broadly critical of Vennells’s testimony and demeanour, with union representatives calling her remorse “crocodile tears”, even as inquisitors presented copies of messages from former Royal Mail CEO Moya Greene, who told Vennells that “you knew” the prosecutions were wrong and should have been stopped.

In a performance that wrongly jailed subpostmistress Seema Misra said “feels like a cover up again”, Vennells also said she had not seen a significant report written by Barrister Simon Clarke in 2013 – which warned that there were problems with many prosecutions of SPMs but was not made public until 2020 – nor was she aware until 2021 that the Post Office’s head of security had issued instructions for documents related to Horizon bugs to be shredded.

Asked whether she was “preoccupied” with protecting public money and the Post Office brand, Vennells said “yes, but not to the extent of putting that over and above the suffering of the postmasters” – a choice of words that caused barrister Jason Beer KC to interrupt her and ask whether she was aware that SPMs were suffering.

“Yes and no,” she said. “I wasn’t personally aware at the time, because I wasn’t involved in the prosecutions,” Vennells said.

“But I understood clearly that if people were being prosecuted, that was a very difficult thing and the reason we put into place the review with Second Sight and the complaint remediation scheme was to look into that.”

Watching the testimony, former SPM Sarah Burgess-Boyd – who lost her life savings paying back non-existent shortfalls – said that Vennells “thinks it’s the Horizon system. It’s not. It’s the way that people that she employed behaved.”

Despite her admonitions and apologies, Vennells – who served as managing director of Royal Mail Group in 2010 and Post Office CEO from 2012 to 2019, after the UK High Court officially blamed the Fujitsu-created Horizon system for the bugs for which the SPMs had been blamed – has consistently dodged responsibility for her role in the scandal, which Sunak in January called an “appalling miscarriage of justice” as Vennells handed back her Order of the British Empire CBE award.