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Post Office executive Paula Vennells could be stripped of her CBE

Post Office executive Paula Vennells who oversaw Horizon IT scandal which saw hundreds of subpostmasters wrongly convicted could be stripped of her CBE when inquiry ends

  • Paula Vennells ran the Post Office as its chief executive between 2012 and 2019
  • In 2019 she received a CBE for ‘services to the Post Office and to charity’
  • A year later subpostmasters were awarded compensation for false convictions
  • A long-awaited public inquiry was launched in February to look into the scandal
  • Sir Tom Scholar, the chairman of the Honours Forfeiture Committee said he would wait for inquiry to end before making a decision on Ms Vennells’ CBE 

The Post Office executive who oversaw the Horizon IT scandal which resulted in hundreds of subpostmasters being wrongly convicted could be stripped of her CBE when a government inquiry ends. 

Paula Vennells, 62, who ran the Post Office between 2012 and 2019, was awarded a CBE at the end of her tenure for ‘services to the Post Office and to charity’, a year before the first group of subpostmasters were awarded compensation for their false prosecution.

However, Sir Tom Scholar, the chairman of the Honours Forfeiture Committee, said his team would reconsider her award once a government inquiry into the Post Office IT scandal has concluded later this year.

Close to 700 subpostmasters and postal workers across the country were incorrectly convicted of crimes such as fraud, false accounting and theft between 2000 and 2015 when glitches in the computer system, called Horizon, were to blame. 

A total of 104 have had their convictions overturned or begun the process to quash them, in what has previously been described as the ‘biggest miscarriage of justice in modern English legal history’.

A long-awaited public inquiry into the scandal has been hearing from victims since it opened in February and is expected to continue until later this year. 

Paula Vennells, 62, who ran the Post Office between 2012 and 2019, was awarded a CBE at the end of her tenure for ‘services to the Post Office and to charity’, a year before the first group of subpostmasters were awarded compensation for their false prosecution

Former post office workers celebrating outside the Royal Courts of Justice, in London, after their convictions were overturned by the Court of Appeal in April 2021

Labour MP Kevan Jones has repeatedly written to the Honours Forfeiture Committee over the past three years asking if Ms Vennells’ honour will be reviewed.

In a response to Mr Jones on April 20, Sir Tom said: ‘As you know there is currently an official government inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT issue and the inquiry is planning to submit its findings in autumn 2022.

‘In your letter of July 9 2020 to the previous chair of the Forfeiture Committee, you asked the committee to reconsider the honour awarded to Ms Vennells once there had been an investigation into the issue.

The former chief of the Post Office during the subpostmasters scandal previously confirmed she is willing to appear as a witness in the inquiry into the UK’s biggest miscarriage of justice.

Paula Vennells, who ran the Post Office between 2012 and 2019, said she welcomed the move to give the inquiry statutory powers to compel witnesses to appear or risk jail for non-attendance.

She said in a statement: ‘It is beyond doubt there are serious and unanswered questions as to the manner in which subpostmasters were wrongly prosecuted.

‘All those involved in any way have a duty to those subpostmasters and their families, who were innocent victims, to ensure that this can never happen again.’ 

Mrs Vennells, an ordained priest, joined the Post Office in 2007 and was promoted to CEO in 2012. She is said to have known that money could appear to be missing from the accounts.  

Over two decades, hundreds of postmasters were bankrupted, sacked or jailed. 

After leaving the Post Office, she landed roles as an adviser to the Cabinet Office and chairman of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London. She was given a CBE in 2019 for services to the Post Office and to charity.

The married mother-of-two kept the £4.5million she earnt during her Post Office tenure, and received £140,000 a year advising supermarket chain Morrisons and homeware retailer Dunelm before her resignation from both in April.

In June last year, she was forced to step back from the Church of England’s ethical investment advisory group due to the furore over the scandal.

In evidence to the Commons business committee she sought to shift the blame for the IT scandal, insisting she did not approve prosecutions of her staff and was misled by computer experts. 

She was accused of treating postmasters ‘with contempt and derision’.

Ms Vennells oversaw the organisation whilst it routinely denied that there were problems with its Horizon IT system, instead accusing subpostmasters of stealing money.  

Ms Vennells, who was an associate minister in the Diocese of St Albans, announced at the time that she would also be stepping back from her regular church duties in the wake of the Horizon scandal.

She also quit non-executive board roles at high street retailers Morrisons and Dunelm.

‘The committee will have more information on which to make an assessment once the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry has completed its work.’

Sir Tom said the committee could consider cases if an individual is deemed to have brought the honours system into disrepute by being jailed for more than three months or having been struck off for ‘failures to act which are directly relevant to the granting of the honour’.

Mr Jones said he welcomed the response from Sir Tom.

He told the Telegraph: ‘It is good to finally receive a response from the Honours Forfeiture Committee.

‘Victims of this scandal will rightly not be able to understand why Paula Vennells still retains this honour given the evidence already in the public domain.’

A government spokesman said forfeiture action is confidential and refused to comment.

A Post Office spokesman said: ‘The Post Office has no comment to make regarding Sir Tom Scholar’s remarks and takes no view as to what the Honours Forfeiture Committee should or should not do when it comes to her honour.’

Ms Vennells was accused of covering up the IT fiasco and dragging hundreds of postmasters into the costly court battle.

She was forced to resign from a series of prestigious roles but held onto her CBE. 

An ordained priest, Ms Vennells joined the Post Office in 2007 and was promoted to CEO in 2012. 

After leaving the Post Office, she landed roles as an adviser to the Cabinet Office and chairman of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London.

The married mother-of-two kept the £4.5million she earnt during her Post Office tenure, and received £140,000 a year advising supermarket chain Morrisons and homeware retailer Dunelm before resigning her non-executive board member roles with both in April.

In June 2020, she was forced to step back from the Church of England’s ethical investment advisory group due to the furore over the scandal.

In evidence to the Commons business committee she sought to shift the blame for the IT scandal, insisting she did not approve prosecutions of her staff and was misled by computer experts. She was accused of treating postmasters ‘with contempt and derision’.

She told a committee of MPs: ‘The message that the board and I were consistently given by Fujitsu, from the highest levels of the company, was that while, like any IT system, Horizon was not perfect and had a limited lifespan, it was fundamentally sound.’

Her comments came after a High Court judge found that Fujitsu’s experts knew about the IT problems in 1999 – 15 years before the prosecutions against postmasters were halted. 

In April last year, shortly after 39 former Post Office workers had their criminal convictions overturned by the court of appeal, Ms Vennells said: ‘I am truly sorry for the suffering caused to the 39 subpostmasters as a result of their convictions which were overturned last week.’

People who have previously had their honours removed by the committee include Rolf Harris, who was stripped of his CBE after being found guilty of sex attacks on young girls, and Stuart Hall, whose OBE was removed due to his conviction for sex offences against children. 

What was the Horizon computer system and how did it go wrong?

Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of postmasters were sacked or prosecuted after money appeared to go missing from their branch accounts (file image) 

Horizon, an IT system developed by the Japanese company Fujitsu, was rolled out by the Post Office from 1999.

The system was used for tasks such as transactions, accounting and stocktaking. However, subpostmasters complained about defects after it reported shortfalls – some of which amounted to thousands of pounds.  

Some subpostmasters attempted to plug the gap with their own money, even remortgaging their homes, in an attempt to correct an error.

Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of subpostmasters were sacked or prosecuted due to the glitches. The ex-workers blamed flaws in the IT system, Horizon, but the Post Office denied there was a problem.

In case after case the Post Office bullied postmasters into pleading guilty to crimes they knew they had not committed.

Many others who were not convicted were hounded out of their jobs or forced to pay back thousands of pounds of ‘missing’ money.

The Post Office spent £32million to deny any fault in their IT system, before capitulating. 

However, the postmasters and postmistresses said the scandal ruined their lives as they had to cope with the impact of a conviction and imprisonment, some while they had been pregnant or had young children.

Marriages broke down, and courts have heard how some families believe the stress led to health conditions, addiction and premature deaths.

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