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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Paula Vennells leaves Ethical Investment Advisory Group

Paula Vennells, CBE
Paula Vennells has temporarily stepped down from her role on the Church of England's Ethical Investment Advisory Group. 

An email dated 23 June from Anna McDonald, Secretary to the EIAG states Ms Vennells: "has taken a leave of absence as she engages with the BEIS Select Committee Review."

The two line email was a response to Tom Hedges, a church warden and former postmaster who queried Paula Vennells' fitness to advise on ethical matters, given her stewardship of the Post Office during what one MP has described as "one of the worst disasters in public life since the infected blood scandal". Ms McDonald told Mr Hedges: "The EIAG is not conducting an investigation into this matter."

It is curious that Paula Vennells' reason for taking a leave of absence from her position as an EIAG group member is engaging with a BEIS Select Committee "Review". 

Ms Vennells was due to give oral evidence to the BEIS Select Committee Inquiry on 24 March. Covid-19 did for that. The new chair of the select committee wrote to Ms Vennells on 2 June asking her some excitingly direct questions. He requested her answers by 16 June. 

Maybe the EIAG lady got confused between the Select Committee Inquiry and the government's promised upcoming Independent Review - and it is that which Ms Vennells is preparing for.

Either way, Paula Vennells, who has only spoken once in public about the Horizon scandal during her seven year tenure as Post Office CEO, is a woman under pressure.

She left the Post Office in 2019 ("And with that... she was gone"), slap bang in the middle of a litigation which was to take her organisation for more than a hundred million pounds in (ongoing) costs, fees and compensation. She had been at best misinformed or misadvised. At worst, she was complicit in a corporate cover-up which prolonged the agony for hundreds of people.

Ms Vennells' reward for running the Post Office was a CBE, millions of pounds in salary, and two cushy numbers - a non-executive position on the Cabinet Office board and the chairmanship of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. 

The new government has taken some steps to address this. Shortly after Martin Callanan was appointed as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the Lords, Ms Vennells was stood down from the Cabinet Office.

On 18 June, Lord Callanan also told his fellow peers:
"it would be very helpful if she would account much more fully in public for what she knew and for the actions that she took at the time. I have written to the Department of Health to make clear our position on her future. The Care Quality Commission is, I believe, looking at whether she is a fit and proper person for the role that she holds. I hope that it will conduct that review swiftly. Obviously, I cannot predict that, and it is not a matter directly for me, but I have written to the Department of Health to make my views clear."
I suspect, in that letter, he isn't giving her a massive thumbs up. 

As the noble lord mentioned, further scrutiny of a sort is also being brought to bear via a Care Quality Commission investigation into whether Ms Vennells is a Fit and Proper Person (FPPR) to chair a large NHS Trust.


Six months after asking for the investigation to take place, and the same day Lord Callanan mentioned them in parliament, the CQC sent an email to Dr Alexander stating: “We are making some further enquiries with the trust and we will be discussing the referral at the next FPPR meeting on the 8 July 2020.”

Perhaps Lord Callanan's desire to move "swiftly" led to someone at the CQC pulling their finger out.

Bishop Alan washes his hands

As well as ministering to the sick in her NHS role, the Reverend Vennells is a non-stipendiary vicar in the Bromham Benefice in Bedfordshire. Alan Smith, the Bishop of St Albans, has recently been asked to explain why someone who is partially responsible for what has been described by a Labour shadow minister as possibly "the largest miscarriage of justice in our history", still gets to be held up as a paragon of moral virtue.

As well as complaining about Paula Vennells to the EIAG, Tom Hedges made a formal complaint directly to the Bishop. He spoke on 14 June about it on Radio 4's Sunday Programme. The Bishop of St Albans refused to be interviewed, but he did offer a statement, which was précised by the programme as follows:
"It is not my purpose in making this statement to defend or excuse the way that Post Office Limited was run. It is clear to me that these events, which have been reviewed by the High Court, were a terrible tragedy which have had an appalling effect on the lives of a large number of people, some of whom are still suffering.
The law - which I must apply when dealing with complaints against priests - only allows me to act on the basis of allegations, supported with evidence, of wrongdoing by the priest. My view, taken following legal advice, is that I cannot simply impute to Ms Vennells all of the failures found to have been committed by Post Office Limited.   
The Church of England has a formal system by which complaints may be made against clergy.  Complainants are required to furnish me with evidence of misconduct and to demonstrate a proper interest in bringing the complaint.  If any formal complaints are made within those parameters, which are legally defined, I will consider them upon the evidence and make a decision."
The statement looks like it was drafted in close consultation with some half-decent lawyers and now it appears to be being sent to anyone who contacts Bishop Alan. I have the full text, which was sent to one complainant on 12 June. The complainant had originally been told by the Bishop to direct her complaint to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who passed the buck straight back to Bedforshire.

The full statement reads like a masterful exercise in simultaneous hand-washing and hand-wringing. Put on your best internal bishop's voice as you read:
"I am aware of the recent court action, with regard to Post Office Limited and the Horizon software system, which was brought by a number of individuals who are or were at one time employees of the company. 
It is not my purpose in making this statement to defend or excuse the way that Post Office Limited was run. It is clear to me that these events, which have been reviewed by the High Court, were a terrible tragedy which have had an appalling effect on the lives of a large number of people, some of whom are still suffering.   
I am the son of a former sub post-mistress, so I have a pretty shrewd idea of what it is to run a post office as it was a significant part of my childhood.  I can only begin to imagine the extent to which the actions of the Post Office have affected and still affect the lives of many people.  All those affected continue to be in my prayers. 
I have maintained a close watch on developments and I note that Post Office Limited reached a settlement agreement with some of the plaintiffs.  It is my understanding that the action taken was against Post Office Limited as a corporation and that no culpability was attributed to any specific individuals.  Ms Vennells has made a personal apology.  I am also aware that there are many legal processes still underway which I, and anyone else, would hesitate to pre-empt. 
Ms Vennells is a Clerk in Holy Orders and is authorised to minister in the Diocese of St Albans.  She is a self-supporting minister, meaning that she does not receive a stipend for carrying out her duties as a priest. 
I have received correspondence from a number of people detailing what went wrong. Some of these describe events which took place before Ms Vennells worked for Post Office Ltd and for which she cannot be held responsible. 
One of the significant factors in this case is that there is a difference between allegations made against Post Office Limited and allegations of personal wrongdoing by Ms Vennells. I entirely appreciate that the Chief Executive Officer is the lead officer in an organisation.  However, the law - which I must apply when dealing with complaints against priests - only allows me to act on the basis of allegations, supported with evidence, of wrongdoing by the priest.   
My view, taken following legal advice, is that I cannot simply impute to Ms Vennells all of the failures found to have been committed by Post Office Limited.  If I were to do so, I would be making assumptions about the management practices at Post Office Limited, and of Ms Vennells’ state of knowledge throughout the period of this dispute.   
I have to be conscious that, in an organisation of the size and complexity as the Post Office, the company is not simply a manifestation of the Chief Executive Officer’s personal will and diktat. Leaders, including the Chief Executive Officer, will be responsible to the Board, and knowledge and decision-making will be dispersed over a wide range of executives, department heads, professional advisers and contractors. 
It is possible for complaints about clergy to be brought in relation to their secular or business lives. In such cases I must make decisions based on evidence of personal misconduct, and I cannot assume that evidence to exist, based solely on findings against a company. 
The Church of England has a formal system by which complaints may be made against clergy.  Complainants are required to furnish me with evidence of misconduct and to demonstrate a proper interest in bringing the complaint. 
If any formal complaints are made within those parameters, which are legally defined, I will consider them upon the evidence and make a decision. To find the formal process please see:  
+Alan St Albans
June 2020"
The Bishop is essentially saying he realises the Post Office has done some horrible things and that Paula Vennells was in charge whilst it was doing some of those horrible things, but he doesn't know what personal culpability she has for those horrible things, so he has to shrug his shoulders and let her get on with it. Of course, he could always ask her what she did. Perhaps he'd prefer not to know. 

Whatever, Ms Vennells is turning into a useful human shield. I suspect there are plenty of senior people within the Post Office, Fujitsu, and government who are as culpable as she is. They will point campaigners in her direction simply because it takes the heat off them. 

That said, it would be a relatively simple thing for Paula Vennells to come out from behind the lawyers and explain herself. 

I wonder why she doesn't?

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This blog is entirely funded by donation. You can donate any amount through the secure payment portal I have set up for this purpose (click here for more info or to donate).

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