Fallout continues after Horizon IT scandal, with the former Post Office chief executive stepping down from other executive roles
The actions of the Post Office’s management team in the past decade is in the spotlight following the notable conclusion last week of the Horizon IT scandal, that ruined many people’s lives.
Last week thirty nine sub-postmasters who were wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office had their criminal convictions overturned.
The Prime Minister Boris Johnston even waded into the “appalling injustice” of the case.
This gross miscarriage of justice was pursued for over a decade by the Post Office’s management team, and now Paula Vennells, the former chief executive of the Post Office between 2012 and 2019 has stepped down from her outside executive roles.
The case centred over the use of the Horizon accounting system from Fujitsu, which has been in place since 1999 and records transactions across Post Office branches.
Alleged mistakes with Horizon caused sub-postmasters to be wrongly accused of fraud, and many were told to pay back supposedly missing funds or face prosecution.
The problem became a political issue in 2009, when reports surfaced of sub-postmasters who had received heavy fines or jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they said resulted from problems with Horizon.
Thousands of sub-postmasters independently operate smaller post offices, and are obliged to make up shortfalls out of their own pockets.
In 2011, 85 sub-postmasters sought legal support in claims against the Post Office after being wrongly accused of taking money.
In later years this figure rose to 550 sub-postmasters suing the Post Office.
Unfortunately, the Post Office management team always argued that there is no evidence of systemic problems with Horizon, but set up the mediation scheme in 2013 after independent investigators found defects in the software.
In 2014 more than 140 MPs said they could no longer support the Post Office’s mediation scheme after numerous complaints about Horizon.
Miscarriage of justice
A total of 960 convictions linked to the scandal were reviewed, in what was dubbed the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history.
Some of those convictions resulted in postmasters being jailed.
Then in December 2019 the Post Office agreed to pay almost £58 million as part of a settlement after legal action by sub-postmasters after they were wrongly accused of taking money.
But most of that money went on legal costs.
And to make matters worse, in June 2020 it was revealed that bosses at the Post Office had been told as far back as 2011 that Horizon could be to blame for missing money.
Despite that, it still pursued prosecutions against staff anyway, with hundreds of postmasters sacked, going bankrupt or wrongfully
In December 2020, more than 500 sub-postmasters won a civil court case against the Post Office, and the judge at the time said that under the leadership the actions of the Post Office had been “both cruel and incompetent”.
It is expected that other legal appeals will follow soon, and the government has launched an inquiry into the prosecution of the former Post Office workers.
Paula Vennells was in charge of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, and the BBC has reported that following the court’s ruling, she has resigned her roles on the boards of the supermarket Morrisons and home furnishing store Dunelm.
Vennells is also reportedly stopping her duties as an ordained Church of England minister.
“It is obvious that my involvement with the Post Office has become a distraction from the good work undertaken by the boards I serve,” Vennells was quoted by the BBC as saying. “I have therefore stepped down with immediate effect from all of my board positions.”
“I am truly sorry for the suffering caused to the 39 sub-postmasters as a result of their convictions which were overturned last week,” she reportedly added.
Vennells said she now intended “to focus fully on working with the ongoing government inquiry to ensure the affected sub-postmasters and wider public get the answers they deserve.”
Vennell is facing calls to have her bonuses recovered and be stripped of her CBE title, which had been given for “services to the Post Office and to charity”.
It should be remembered that the problems with the Horizon system began before Vennell’s tenure as chief executive, but whilst she was in charge she insisted the system was “robust”, and defended the technology and her organisation’s actions to a committee of MPs.
As chief executive, Vennell also chose to fight lengthy and expensive legal battles against sub-postmasters seeking redress.