Paula Vennells: When does she give evidence and what key questions must ex-Post Office boss answer?

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells is set to give evidence under oath this week at the inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal.

The 65-year-old – who has been accused of a cover-up by subpostmasters – will face three days of questioning from Wednesday over her time as chief executive of the company between 2012 and 2019.

Her testimony will be closely watched by subpostmasters, more than 700 of whom were wrongly prosecuted and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as a result of Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon IT system – which made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

Paula Vennells is due to give evidence at the inquiry on Wednesday (Anthony Devlin/PA)
Paula Vennells is due to give evidence at the inquiry on Wednesday (Anthony Devlin/PA)

What is Paula Vennells accused of?

Prosecutions had continued to happen under Ms Vennells’ watch despite retired judge Sir Anthony Hooper – who chaired the mediation scheme for those who believed they had been wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office – repeatedly warning her that they “didn’t make sense”.

A former top lawyer at the Post Office said Ms Vennells “interjected” when senior management suggested in 2013 that subpostmaster prosecutions should stop, preferring that the “Post Office should continue to take some prosecutions”.

And in an email from July 2013, which was shown to the inquiry, Ms Vennells said she did not want to use the word “bugs” when referencing the faulty Horizon system in an attempt to be “non-emotive”.

The inquiry was also told Ms Vennells made a “false statement” in a letter to former Tory MP Oliver Letwin by saying that courts found in favour of the Post Office “in every instance” when prosecuting subpostmasters for theft or false accounting. Counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC said this was “just not true”.

What key questions could Paula Vennells face?

Ms Vennells could be quizzed on her knowledge of the ability to remotely access the Horizon system.

In other potentially key questions, the former chief executive could also be asked about alleged false evidence given by expert witnesses during Post Office prosecutions, and the behaviour of the company’s investigators.

She may also be questioned on whether she believed there were any miscarriages of justice during her tenure – after chief financial officer Alisdair Cameron told the probe she did not and “could not have got there emotionally”, and had been “clear in her conviction from the day I joined that nothing had gone wrong”.

Ms Vennells could also face questioning over claims by the Post Office’s former head of IT, Lesley Sewell, who said she felt it necessary to block Ms Vennells’ phone number, after the former chief executive allegedly contacted her four times in 2020 and 2021 to her help to “avoid an independent inquiry”.

What has she said previously about the scandal?

Public outrage over the scandal reached new heights in February following the screening of ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, which polling seen exclusively by The Independent last week suggested had seen public trust in the company plummet as a result.

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

More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 (Aaron Chown/PA)
More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 (Aaron Chown/PA)

The former chief executive – who was made a CBE in 2019 “for services to the Post Office and to charity”, before handing the honour back this year – has not yet spoken in detail about her role in the scandal, but previously apologised for the “devastation caused to subpostmasters and their families”.

A document submitted by her lawyers ahead of a preliminary hearing in 2021 said she was “deeply disturbed” by the judgments in the cases against lead campaigner Alan Bates and Ms Hamilton in which Horizon was found to be faulty.

In a short statement previously issued by Ms Vennells, she said she would “continue to support and focus on co-operating with the inquiry”.

The probe heard last week that she was set to disclose 50 additional documents to the inquiry’s counsel on Friday.

Additional reporting by PA