‘I was too trusting’: Ex-Post Office boss apologizes after widespread miscarriage of justice in UK

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‘I was too trusting’: Ex-Post Office boss apologizes after widespread miscarriage of justice in UK

Former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Post Office Limited Paula Vennells (C) arrives to give evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, in central London, on May 22, 2024. More than 700 people running small local post offices received criminal convictions between 1999 and 2005 after faulty accounting software made it appear that money had gone missing from their branches. The scandal has been described at an ongoing public inquiry as “the worst miscarriage of justice in recent British legal history”. 

Henry Nicholls | Afp | Getty Images

LONDON — The former chief executive of Britain’s Post Office, Paula Vennells, on Wednesday apologized for the scandal that led to the wrongful prosecution of hundreds of sub-postmasters who ran the institution’s local branches.

The Post Office took 700 people to court between 1999 and 2015 based on faulty evidence resulting from central I.T. system failures. Another 283 people were prosecuted by other bodies, based on the errors of the same system. More than 200 of the total were sent to prison and in some cases, victims died before they were exonerated.

“I would just like to say… how sorry I am for all that sub-postmasters and their families and others have suffered, as a result of all of the matters that the inquiry has been looking into for so long,” Vennells said on Wednesday during a government inquiry hearing.

Her first public comments in nearly a decade came at the start of a three-day testimony, in which Vennells is being questioned by lawyers as part of a wider government inquiry. Questions remain over what Vennells and other executives knew, all while the Post Office continued to push for sub-postmaster prosecutions. Focus is also on the myriad of issues with accounting software that were made by Japanese firm Fujitsu.

At one point, Vennells broke down in tears while discussing the case of Martin Griffiths, who took his own life while being pursued by the Post Office for an alleged shortfall of £60,000 ($76,314).

As the Post Office is a state-owned company, questions have also been raised about the government’s role in the scandal, which has been described as one of the most widespread miscarriages of justice in British history.

Vennells joined at a time when the Post Office was losing significant amounts of money and was under pressure to improve its financial performance.

Former subpostmasters celebrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, on April 23, 2021, following a court ruling clearing subpostmasters of convictions for theft and false accounting.

Tolga Akmen | Afp | Getty Images

In an opening question, inquiry lawyer Jason Beer asked Vennells if the large volume of information that she claimed she had not seen or been told of meant that she was the “unluckiest CEO in the United Kingdom.”

“I was given much information, and, as the inquiry has heard, there was information that I wasn’t given and [that] others didn’t receive as well,” she replied.

“One of my reflections on all of this is that I was too trusting. I did probe and I did ask questions, and I’m disappointed where information wasn’t shared, and it has been a very important time for me, as I have gone through all of the documentation that I have seen since to plug some of those gaps,” she said.

Sub-postmasters are self-employed but approved by the Post Office to run its branded outlets around the country. The businesses provide postal and other services, such as currency exchange. The firm is separate from the privately-owned Royal Mail, which sorts and delivers the post.

As early as 2009, trade publication Computer Weekly published an investigation detailing serious issues with Fujitsu’s “Horizon” software. For more than a decade, hundreds of sub-postmasters had complained to the Post Office that the software was generating unexplained shortfalls in their accounts. Most were told they were the only ones experiencing issues.

A customer exits a branch of Post Office in Swindon, western England on January 22, 2024.

Adrian Dennis | Afp | Getty Images

While some sub-postmasters were sent to prison, others spent tens of thousands of pounds covering shortfalls with their own money, or had their contracts terminated.

Vennells on Wednesday specifically apologized to Alan Bates, who led a years-long public and legal effort for justice for 555 Post Office victims, and to Lord James Arbuthnot, a member of the U.K.’s upper legislative chamber who was also involved in the campaign.

“I and those I worked with made their work so much harder,” Vennells said.

During her morning testimony, Vennells also apologized for comments she made in 2012, when she told British politicians that the Post Office had been successful in every case it had taken in relation to the Horizon software. That was not true, but she did not know that at the time, she said.

Bates was himself a sub-postmaster whose contract was wrongly terminated by the Post Office. His story was dramatized last year in a television program that fueled public anger over the events.

In March 2024, the government introduced legislation to automatically quash convictions relating to the scandal. Concerns have been expressed that the compensation schemes for those affected have not been fast or far-reaching enough.

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