Paula Vennells fails to practice what she preaches in Post Office scandal

Reverend Richard Coles tells Computer Weekly how a recent ITV drama ‘moved and enraged’ a public that had missed the unfolding of the biggest miscarriage of justice in modern history, in front of their noses

I met Toby Jones at the BBC in the week before Christmas. He was in for Radio 4 to discuss Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Having supported the subpostmasters’ campaign since 2015, I was interested to hear how they had adapted such a long-running, complex and exhausting story for prime-time television. “Very well,” he said.

I told him how much I was looking forward to it, and he said it would be starting on New Year’s Day. I thought, “Good luck with that.” I knew the BBC had scheduled The Traitors and the excellent Jamie Dornan drama The Tourist for that slot. Tough competition, and I supposed it would struggle to get an audience.

I was away for New Year, but kept sneaking a look at social media to see what was happening at home, hoping not to irritate my partner too much. I was unsuccessful. What began to appear in my feeds was so compelling I could barely put my phone down. Mr Bates had not only reached a much wider audience than I thought, but moved people deeply, and then enraged them.

Of course it did, who wouldn’t be moved by the suffering of so many innocent people, and enraged by the failure of anyone to be held accountable for the most widespread miscarriage of justice in our legal history? Within a few hours, he was threatening to throw my phone into the sea.

Why did a television drama achieve what years and years of campaigning and exemplary journalism could not? I think because it personalised the story, presented it not in terms of IT, court proceedings, procurement, or questions in Parliament, but in terms of what it is like to have your blameless life destroyed by officialdom which seems to care as much for you as it does for a fly; by people with a duty of care who cover up wrongdoing and leave you lying awake in your prison cell while they go skiing; by soul-crushing inertia when redress and recompense is sought. I knew the story well, but when I got home and binge-watched it, I was in tears before the first ad break.

Mr Bates “cut through”, as television commissioning editors call it. Within days, a million people signed a petition calling for the former CEO, Paula Vennells, to hand back a CBE awarded for services to the Post Office. She obliged. Front pages splashed, ministers rushed to the despatch box, executives from the Post Office and Fujitsu lawyered up.

“I knew the BBC had scheduled The Traitors and the excellent Jamie Dornan drama The Tourist for the New Year slot. Tough competition, and I supposed Mr Bates vs The Post Office would struggle to get an audience
Reverend Richard Coles

Of course, it was not just a TV drama. Mr Bates cut through because of the extraordinary effort of activists and commentators and lawyers and parliamentarians over many years. They built the case behind those personal stories and turned them into an irresistible call for action. If Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in Britain, journalists at this magazine and Private Eye would be shoo-ins.

The Conservative parliamentarian James Arbuthnot, in both Houses, has presented those of us with tribal tendencies to the left with an inconvenient truth: party affiliation has been no indicator of meritorious service in this saga. And – most impressive of all – are the subpostmasters and their families, who refused to give up the fight for truth and justice and stirred the nation.

So where are we now? The big news is that the prime minister has announced a law that will quash the affected subpostmasters’ convictions en bloc. Some have said that justice should be not only expeditious and robust, righting long-outstanding wrongs, but do so without risking damage to legal principles, or be launched with insufficient scrutiny. After all, at the heart of this scandal are failures of due process, and it began with a system being prematurely signed off.

That concern takes me to the matter of Paula Vennells, one of the former CEOs of the Post Office with questions to answer. After turning the balance sheet from red to black, she left in 2019 with seven-figure benefits and a CBE.

• Also read: More from Reverend Coles on the scandal that keeps him awake at night.

• Also watch: ITV’s Post Office scandal documentary: The real story.

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

The gap between the Paula Vennells so handsomely rewarded and honoured and the Paula Vennells in such public disgrace today seems almost unimaginably wide. How could the person running the Post Office when it was pursuing its campaign against subpostmasters just float into non-executive directorships, the chair of an NHS Trust, and – hardest to take perhaps – the parish church where she served as a priest from 2006 to 2021?

I wonder if there she preached on the sixth chapter of the book of the prophet Micah, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This is basic stuff, and I want to know if Paula Vennells had her ear tuned to that prophetic voice when the board decided to cancel Second Sight’s report into the failings of Horizon and the Mediation Scheme in 2015.

If the board knew Horizon was unreliable, and convictions based on it therefore unsafe, why was that buried (rather than “surfaced”)? If that is what happened, then why was it more important to pretend Horizon was doing its job than to press the red button so that the liberty, livelihoods and good standing of the wrongly convicted could be restored as soon as possible?

I think it may be something to do with blind faith in managerialism, the dazzling success of turning loss to profit, so dazzling that senior figures in the CofE hierarchy were asking Paula Vennells to restructure our own failing organisation long after we knew how badly things had gone wrong on her watch.

I don’t want to go on and on about Paula Vennells. She certainly has questions to answer, and we look forward to her appearance in front of the inquiry in the spring. But I also want to know if other senior managers at the Post Office were trying to act justly and with mercy, along with executives at Fujitsu, and ministers and officials at the Department of Business and UKIG. So many red buttons not pressed.

“I hope with convictions quashed and compensation delivering large positive balances in subpostmasters’ personal accounts, the inquiry will ... have powerful things to say not only to the Post Office and its associates, but to our wider society”

Reverend Richard Coles

After this moment of intensity has passed, I hope with convictions quashed and compensation delivering large positive balances in subpostmasters’ personal accounts, the inquiry will report. I expect it will have powerful things to say not only to the Post Office and its associates, but to our wider society; about putting too much trust in large new IT systems, about trying to run essential services on shoestrings, about dodging proper regulatory oversight, and – most of all – about leaving people to languish in bureaucratic inertia, like Wards of Chancery in Dickensian London.

It’s not just the subpostmasters ruined by Horizon. There have been a number of other cases, less well-known but no less scandalous, in which people innocent of offence have been hounded and sometimes ruined by government agencies with dodgy IT and poor oversight. What these all have in common is a lack of concern for the human damage done by systems that have sucked up too much investment, financial and managerial, to fail.

You do not need to be ordained, or tuned into the prophetic voice of Micah, to know that persecuting the innocent and leaving them to suffer is never justified, no matter how great the risk to reputation, or the balance sheet, or the misplaced confidence we put in technologies that are inadequate to the tasks demanded of them.

I know next to nothing about IT, how you put together a big system like Horizon, but I would not expect it to run perfectly from the off, or ever, entirely. I don’t understand why the system cannot have a built-in red button that self-activates when things go wrong, I don’t understand why there is not someone somewhere with responsibility to investigate alerts independently before innocent people are sacrificed to the myth of the system’s reliability.

I do know something about the ethics of running organisations, both profit-making and values-based, and would chisel into the lintel over the boardroom door the following quote by tax collector turned disciple, St Matthew, taken from the 25th chapter of his Gospel…

And the king will answer them, Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me’.

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