Thursday, 25 June 2020

Paula Vennells breaks her silence

Rev Paula Vennells, CBE
Five long years we've waited to hear something of substance from former Post Office Chief Executive, Paula Vennells, and the good reverend has returned from silent exile shooting from the hip. If she's going down, she's going down in a Bon Jovi-style blaze of glory.

But first, the headlines:

1. Nothing was her fault.
2. A lot of it was definitely Fujitsu's fault.
3. The government were completely aware of and involved with every significant decision the Post Office made during her tenure.

Ms Vennells was CEO of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019. This covers the period from the commissioning of Second Sight to investigate the Horizon IT system right through to the class action brought by 500+ disgruntled former Subpostmasters, which has so far cost the Post Office more than £100m. Throughout this period she refused every single interview request on the issue.

But now, a year after she left the Post Office, she's back, laying down her position in writing to the BEIS Select Committee, responding to questions in a letter sent by the committee chair on 2 June.

In her letter, Ms Vennells (inadvertently?) reveals she was actively trying to avoid surfacing documents which could have revealed miscarriages of justice at the same time she was telling parliament it was really important to surface them.

Her letter also informs us that the Post Office's change in prosecution policy (ie to go from prosecuting dozens of Subpostmasters every year to er, none) was on the advice of a QC, yet she fails to say what the advice was, and (rather ludicrously) tries to claim it might have been a good idea to carry on prosecuting indiscriminately even though they did stop. A legalistic attempt to have her cake and eat it.

Ms Vennells' letter also displays a striking lack of interest in the financial controls surrounding suspense accounts.


The cover-up

Second Sight were taken on by the Post Office to find out the truth of what was going on at the Post Office. Directors Ron Warmington and Ian Henderson have said on the record (most recently on Panorama) they were, at the outset, given the Post Office's blessing to find "the truth at all costs".

In a document asking Subpostmasters with grievances to help Second Sight's investigations, dated December 2012, the Post Office states:
"In order to carry out the Inquiry, Second Sight will be entitled to request information related to a concern from Post Office Limited, and if Post Office Limited holds that information, Post Office Limited will provide it to Second Sight."
I have this document, and it is absolutely unequivocal. No ifs, no buts. If the Post Office holds the information, they will provide it. And indeed, from the way Second Sight tell it, at first, they had complete, unfettered access to pretty much anything they wanted. Then, in the autumn of 2013 the shutters came down. In today's letter to the BEIS Committee, Paula Vennells picks up the story:
"As Post Office informed the Committee in follow-up written evidence in March 2015, Second Sight had been given access to everything in terms of prosecution material that the Working Group had decided they should be given access to. This was not, itself, a reason to refuse additional documentation. The decision that was made, collectively by the Board sub-committee, was that Second Sight would not be given access to the internal files. Firstly because the documents were legally privileged and, as I understood it, it had never been agreed that Second Sight would be given access to privileged material. Secondly, it was the view of Post Office that the conduct of prosecutions was outside the scope of the Scheme. Thirdly, Second Sight, as forensic accountants, had no expertise to consider legal matters."
So documents which could have been examined and which might have revealed potential miscarriages of justice were withheld from Second Sight in contravention of the Post Office's initial parameters for the investigation. Furthermore, from the evidence above, the Post Office did so for arbitrary and spurious reasons.

Not only that, whilst the Post Office Board sub-committee was deciding to keep buried documentation which could reveal miscarriages of justice, Paula Vennells was telling a BIS select committee inquiry on 3 Feb 2015: 
"If there had been any miscarriages of justice, it would have been really important to me and the Post Office that we surfaced those."
That, right there, is your cover-up. Well, that and the public rubbishing of Second Sight and continuing dismissal of MPs and journalists' concerns for more than ten years.

Rampant prosecution was a brilliant idea and no rampant prosecution was a brilliant idea too

This load of old legalistic cobblers is perhaps the low point in the letter. We all know the Post Office stopped prosecuting people in 2014, but Ms Vennells is not going to tell us why, and once more hides behind lawyers to do so. As she says:
"Although it seemed there were good reasons in principle for Post Office to continue the practice of bringing private prosecutions, the Board adopted a new prosecutions policy in February 2014... Prosecutions effectively ceased during my tenure as CEO... in July 2014, Post Office engaged a senior criminal QC... to advise on prosecution related issues. In referring to this advice I do not and do not intend to waive any privilege of Post Office or myself, if any, over the advice the criminal QC gave."
What on earth were the "good reasons" for continuing to bring private prosecutions - to get the number up to 1000? Because it worked? Because it was fun? There might have been good reasons in principle to do it (ie to punish and deter criminal activity), but in practice all the evidence suggests that the security team and in-house prosecutors weren't capable of doing it properly. Note Ms Vennells can't bring herself to say it was a good thing they stopped prosecuting.

Incidentally, in her letter, Ms Vennells also says it wouldn't have been her job to get too involved in the prosecutions while they were happening "unless of course I became aware of a systemic problem, which I did not."

From when she joined the Post Office in 2007 to 2014, the Post Office prosecuted 335 people! What did she think was happening if it wasn't a systemic issue? A run of bad apples? Demographics? That it was perfectly normal to go about criminalising staff like this?

Even if every single one of those 335 people were guilty of criminal dishonesty, wouldn't a responsible CEO be wondering how her company had created a business model which made blameless, hard-working people with spotless reputations suddenly turn to crime.

Really - none of it was her fault

Whilst Ms Vennells is most certainly sorry for what happened to Subpostmasters, she isn't responsible for it one iota. 

According to Ms Vennells, a lot of it was Fujitsu's fault. Particularly over the issue of remote access. In her letter, Ms Vennells says:
"The issue of whether Post Office or Fujitsu had the ability to access and alter branch information remotely had been raised during my evidence to the Committee in February 2015. I wanted to give an answer that was direct and factually accurate. I raised this question repeatedly, both internally and with Fujitsu, and was always given the same answer: that it was not possible for branch records to be altered remotely without the sub-postmaster’s knowledge. Indeed, I remember being told by Fujitsu’s then CEO when I raised it with him that the system was “like Fort Knox”. He had been a trusted outsource partner and had the reputation of a highly competent technology sector CEO. His word was important to me."
So, according to Ms Vennells, the Fujitsu CEO was either lying or so incompetent, he didn't know what he was talking about. Big accusation.

The government were party to every significant Post Office decision on Horizon

I've spent years reading and listening to frankly mendacious statements from successive ministers and mandarins about their dealings with the Post Office over the Horizon scandal. Endless, endless bollocks about it being an "arm's length" organisation with complete autonomy to make its own decisions.

Funnily enough a year ago today, I felt I had enough information to call this out as bollocks, but it's nice to have it confirmed by the woman who was supposedly running the show. In her letter today Vennells makes it quite clear that (as any 100% shareholder should be) the BEIS ministry and UKGI (UK Government Investments) were all over the Post Office:
"The UKGI directors were fully engaged in the discussions and Post Office (including myself and each subsequent Chair) had conversations with their senior line director and the Chief Executive of UKGI too from time to time. The present UKGI incumbent director joined the Board in 2018 with a fresh pair of eyes. His questioning was challenging and because of that it was helpful; it did not lead to any different outcomes. He was fully engaged on the Board, sub-committee and with ministers and lawyers at BEIS."
This will add a huge amount of fuel to backbench MPs calls for a full, independent judge-led inquiry. Incidentally, the government is still sticking to its "review", which the minister confirmed today won't have statutory powers.

Where Has All The Money Gone?

This is the multimillion dollar suspense account question, apparently raised by Sir Anthony Hooper at the beginning of many working group meetings whilst the mediation scheme was still alive. It has also been repeatedly raised by Second Sight's Ron Warmington (see his first public statement since the investigation here) and many MPs, Subpostmasters and members of the public. 

In his letter to Ms Vennells of 2 June, the chair of the BEIS Select Committee states:
"Second Sight... told us they suspected that money paid in by sub-postmasters to cover shortfalls may have ended up in Post Office Ltd’s central suspense accounts and ultimately its profit and loss account. Did Post Office Ltd, as they contend, frustrate them in investigating this possibility and did you as CEO look into this. Do you think this could have been a possibility?"
Ms Vennells replies:
"I have very little recollection of this issue and I can only tell the Committee what I now recall. I believe that Second Sight raised it with me in conversation. Since it was a technical financial control issue, I asked the CFO to look into it, and I can see from the transcript of the evidence to the Committee on 2 February 2015 that Second Sight had already met with the CFO to discuss the further information they said they required. I cannot remember how this was resolved, but I do not recall any further communication from Second Sight to me on this issue."
It's all suddenly a bit vague, isn't it? Yet suspense accounts remains the scandal's biggest unanswered question. Has the Post Office erroneously taken thousands, tens of thousands, millions of pounds from its own Subpostmasters? Ms Vennells has no idea now, and from the admission above, whilst she was CEO, she never bothered to try to find out.

If this letter is the best she can do, I suspect Paula Vennells is in trouble.

If you would like to see what Paula Vennells' successor at the Post Office thinks about the Horizon scandal, click here.
If you would like to read a similar fisking of Fujitsu's letter to the select committee inquiry, please click here.

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