Paula Vennells’ email fuelled Post Office Horizon cult, inquiry told

Faced with serious questions about the robustness of its core computer system, the Post Office doubled down on reliability myth, public inquiry told

Disgraced former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells sent out a company-wide email to counteract a Computer Weekly investigation that revealed the problems subpostmasters were experiencing with the Horizon computer system, according to a former executive.

Giving evidence in the latest hearing at the public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal, David Pardoe, a former security executive at the Post Office who authorised prosecutions of subpostmasters based on evidence from the Horizon system, revealed a “Horizon defence piece” within the Post Office, with “repeated assertions” that Horizon was robust.

Asked by barrister Christopher Jacobs, representing former subpostmasters, whether the knowledge of bugs, errors and defects was kept from him, Pardoe said: “I can only assume that, yes.”

Pardoe approved the prosecutions of former subpostmasters Jo Hamilton, Susan Rudkin and Seema Misra, who have all since had wrongful convictions overturned. He said he would not have approved them if he had had knowledge of bugs, errors and defects within the Horizon software.

More than 900 subpostmasters were prosecuted for crimes including theft and false accounting, based on evidence from the flawed Horizon system. So far, 96 former subpostmasters have had wrongful convictions overturned, with more expected. Many more subpostmasters had their lives ruined due to bankruptcy, and losing their business and property. The scandal is costing UK taxpayers well over £1bn to compensate subpostmasters and fund the ongoing statutory public inquiry into what happened.

In his witness statement, Pardoe said he remembers “with some clarity” former head of Post Office security John Scott assuring the security team that Horizon is reliable.

Although he could not remember the details of what Scott wrote he told the public inquiry there was a “persistent sentiment” that Horizon was “fit for purpose” and that he was never in discussions about halting prosecutions because “it was clear there was a fear that doing that would immediately cast doubt” on previous prosecutions.

“The one I remember with greater clarity is a Paula Vennells email that I am sure proceeded known media interest, which was about to go public,” said Pardoe.

In 2008, following being contacted by former subpostmasters, Computer Weekly was investigating allegations that faults in the Horizon system were causing losses. This culminated into a first report on the matter in 2009.

“I am sure there was some form of written communication saying, ‘Look folks, this is likely to be out in the public domain’ and, to paraphrase, ‘the approach we are taking is this, this and this’.”

Asked if this could have been sent at the time of the first Computer Weekly article, Pardoe said: “It could have been around the same time.”

He said he thinks the email, which was a “written rebuttal and position the organisation was adopting” regarding the article about Horizon problems, “went to everybody” at the Post Office

“It was a consistent organisational theme that there was nothing wrong with Horizon, but it was a [actually] a hook that [subpostmasters] were attaching themselves to try and blame unexplained losses in branches.”

Pardoe agreed that the messages from Vennells and Scott “built up to this sentiment”. Vennells became CEO at the Post Office in 2012, but had previously held senior roles at the organisation.

The Post Office did not stop there, using its public relations team to continue to promote the myth that Horizon could not be to blame for unexplained accounting shortfalls.

In 2015, following the release of a major independent investigation report into Horizon and subsequent news reports, the Post Office’s then head of communications, Mark Davies, wrote in the Post Office’s Subspace online magazine defending the system.

He wrote that media reporting of the alleged problems with its Horizon accounting system had been “blown up” to present an alarming picture that did not reflect reality.

Davies wrote: “Much of the reporting is designed, as reporting often is, to present a picture which appears alarming: it does not however reflect the reality of the situation, which is some way from that you may read about or see on the TV.”

He also said the report on an investigation from forensic accountants Second Sight did not support its claims with facts. Unfortunately, the forensic accountants have also repeated allegations which are not supported by the facts. We cannot, of course, support their findings on these points – and you would not expect us to do otherwise,” he wrote in 2015. Davies’ full letter can be viewed in this linked article.

In 2009, Computer Weekly told the stories of seven subpostmasters affected by the losses, which led to many more who had suffered losses coming forward (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles below).

Read all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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