Post Office clique deepened Horizon scandal

A general counsel annoyed by independent investigators and comms director that bragged about his contacts were part of a Post Office clique with former CEO Paula Vennells

A Post Office clique wanted to sack forensic accountants to stop the independent investigation into the Horizon system when things weren’t going their way, the public inquiry has been told.

The appearance of former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells at the Post Office Horizon scandal public inquiry this week will dominate the headlines, but last week’s evidence from the Post Office’s current chief financial officer (CFO) was one of the most revelatory hearings to date.

Alisdair Cameron shed light on a Post Office inner circle that combined the business, legal and communications leadership, and wanted to prematurely end the role of independent forensic accountants Second Sight investigating the Horizon system.

Cameron, who has also had spells as chief operating officer and interim CEO in his years at the Post Office, said when he joined in 2015, there was a view among directors that Second Sight was the wrong choice for the investigation. He said directors were saying, “‘We should have got a proper accounting or law firm to do a professional piece of work and move on.’”

There was unease with Second Sight after it revealed problems with the Horizon system in its interim report in 2013. “This was the narrative as I recalled it when the decisions were being made, in the first half of 2015, to deal with the Mediation Scheme [investigation] differently, shut it down, move on from Second Sight,” he said.

Asked which executives were pushing the narrative at the time, Cameron said: “I think probably sort of [general counsel] Chris Aujard, [communications head] Mark Davies and Paula [Vennells] were agreeing with it.”

During the hearing, Cameron recalled a meeting with Second Sight, after which he challenged Aujard on his behaviour towards the independent investigators, which he described as “chippy”.

“I never found Second Sight at all adversarial,” he said. “The meetings were all extremely sensible and open. I do remember asking Chris [Aujard] in the corridor after one of those meetings why he had been sort of chippy with Second Sight, and he said, ‘Oh, they just annoy me’.”

Final report

Second Sight were sacked in 2015, as reported by Computer Weekly at the time. Later, In April 2015, Second Sight completed its damning final report, revealing that the Post Office had prosecuted subpostmasters for theft and false accounting without investigating claims the Horizon system was to blame for accounting shortfalls. This raised the prospect of hundreds of miscarriages of justice.

Aujard’s name is not new to the inquiry. He appeared before the inquiry earlier this month, where it was revealed he failed to give the Criminal Cases Review Commission evidence that would have identified the biggest miscarriage of justice years earlier.

Former communications chief Davies also appeared before the inquiry this month. During an inquiry hearing, it was revealed that following news that former subpostmaster Martin Griffith, who had suffered huge unexplained losses, was critically ill in hospital after attempting to take his own life, Davies’ first action was to tell the Post Office’s general counsel of the need to find a specialist media lawyer.

It also emerged that Davies bragged about his political connections, and how he hoped this might help the Post Office steer MPs away from looking closely at the issues with Horizon being made public at the time. An email was referred to where Davies suggested a past acquaintance with the MP chairing the Business, Innovation and Skills committee could give the Post Office some leverage. Davies wrote to Vennells: “Some good news. The new chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills committee is Iain Wright, a very good Labour MP who both Jane [Hill] and I know. Can’t promise he won’t look at Horizon, but much better chance of avoiding it. I have dropped him a line. You will remember he was mentioned by the minister last week.”

Asked by public inquiry barrister Jason Beer whether there was an effort made by the Post Office to steer Parliament away from looking too closely at Horizon, he said he didn’t remember there being a considered effort. He said: “Were those arguments made in individual conversations? Well, reading this, yeah, it looks like it, but I don’t know. I think probably [that] I just thought it was, ‘Look, aren’t I doing a good job, don’t I know everyone,’ sort of comms bullshit.

“I didn’t take it terribly seriously and I didn’t think a Select Committee chair would have been put off an important subject by an old mate.”

The Post Office Horizon scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to accounting software (see timeline of all Computer weekly articles about the Horizon scandal, since 2009).

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story

Timeline: Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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