The First Class hypocrite and her £5m wages of sin: While Paula Vennells was Post Office boss, she was also a reverend preaching from a pulpit… so imagine her flock’s horror when they found out how many subpostmasters’ lives had been destroyed
To the congregation of St Owen’s in the village of Bromham, she was known as Reverend Paula and her dedication and kindness down the years endeared her to parishioners.
The 62-year-old softly spoken mother of two worked for good causes (the plight of Latin American street children was particularly close to her heart) and was a trustee of Hymns Ancient & Modern, a charity devoted to ‘the advancement and promotion of religion’.
She also gave talks on the importance of her own Christian beliefs.
She took services most Sundays, either at St Owen’s or at one of two neighbouring churches that make up the small Bedfordshire parish.
But outside the village, people saw a different side of Rev Paula.
Rev Paula — Paula Vennells — combined her part-time role as an associate minister in the diocese of St Albans with her full-time job as head of the Post Office, where she presided over the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history
Only now has it become apparent that many, even in her own flock, were unaware of the double life she led after being ordained as a deacon of the Anglican Church in 2005 and becoming a priest the following year.
Rev Paula — Paula Vennells — combined her part-time role as an associate minister in the diocese of St Albans (taking biblical inspiration, she said, from the young King Solomon, famed for his humility and wisdom) with her full-time job as head of the Post Office, where she presided over the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.
And all the time she was preaching from the pulpit. Unbelievable irony or simple hypocrisy? It may have been both.
The scandal, which led to hundreds of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses being wrongly accused and prosecuted for theft, fraud and false accounting between 2000 and 2014 because of the Post Office’s defective computer system, did not begin on her watch.
But during her tenure at the top, as chief executive for most of the past decade, she did nothing to stop the hounding and fought tooth and nail to prevent the scandal’s innocent victims from receiving compensation.
The softly spoken 62-year-old took services most Sundays, either at St Owen’s or at one of two neighbouring churches that make up the small Bedfordshire parish. And all the time she was preaching from the pulpit. Unbelievable irony or simple hypocrisy? It may have been both
She resigned in March 2019, before the High Court awarded £58 million in damages to more than 550 brave men and women who had banded together to form a class action to clear their names.
The presiding judge criticised the Post Office’s ‘institutional obstinacy’ under Mrs Vennells’s leadership and for behaving with no more moral scruples than ‘a mid-Victorian factory owner’.
For a chief executive who spent her career speaking about fairness in business and how her faith guided her decisions in the boardroom, it was a damning indictment.
The witch-hunt that destroyed so many lives reached a denouement last week when 39 of those convicted were cleared of all charges in the Court of Appeal, a victory that could pave the way for more similar verdicts.
A three-strong judicial panel ruled that the Post Office had ‘steamrollered’ sub-postmasters and ‘effectively sought to reverse the burden of proof: it treated what was no more than a shortfall shown by an unreliable accounting system as an incontrovertible loss, and proceeded as if it were for the accused to prove that no such loss had occurred’.
The victims paid a dreadful price.
Many lost their homes and reputations. Marriages were destroyed. Some suffered physical and mental collapse. One sub-postmaster took his own life by stepping in front of a bus in 2013, a year after Paula Vennells was made CEO and six years after she first joined the Post Office as a senior executive.
Many of those whose reputations were traduced had striven to put the Post Office first. Tom Hedges, who ran the post office in Hogsthorpe, Lincolnshire, even risked his life trying to foil a robbery in 2007.
During her tenure at the top, as chief executive for most of the past decade, she did nothing to stop the hounding and fought tooth and nail to prevent the scandal’s innocent victims from receiving compensation. Pictured: Subpostmaster Noel Thomas (centre) with his family
He chased one robber out of the premises, flung himself on the bonnet of the gang’s getaway car and was badly injured as it sped away.
Three years later, in 2010, he found himself in the dock accused of stealing £20,000 and received a suspended sentence, which has now been quashed.
Mrs Vennells was the Post Office’s chief operating officer at the time, in charge of branches across the UK.
‘I’m not vindictive but I want to see her at a public inquiry, holding a Bible in her hand and swearing to the judge on oath that she will tell the truth about her role in the computer system outrage that cost me my job, my livelihood and my reputation,’ Mr Hedges, a 67-year-old churchwarden, told the Mail, which has campaigned on behalf of the Post Office victims for years.
Yet in Bedfordshire, many, including the clerk to the parish council, had been ignorant of Rev Paula’s role in the controversy.
‘I hadn’t put two and two together until I saw her on the news the other day,’ said one member of the St Owen’s congregation. Another added: ‘I knew nothing about her involvement. She had a double life.’
Victims and MPs have called for the police to investigate Mrs Vennells and other Post Office bosses in the aftermath of the Court of Appeal decision. But it won’t take a police investigation to uncover the terrible injustice of it all.
All but £12 million of the £58 million the sub-postmasters received for the Kafkaesque nightmare they endured was swallowed up by legal fees. The settlement, in the end, was worth about £20,000 each.
The presiding judge criticised the Post Office’s ‘institutional obstinacy’ under Mrs Vennells’s leadership and for behaving with no more moral scruples than ‘a mid-Victorian factory owner’. Pictured: Janet Skinner (centre) celebrating outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, after having her conviction overturned by the Court of Appeal
Paula Vennells walked away with around £5 million in pay and bonuses during her seven years at the helm of the Post Office.
In the 12 months before she left, she earned £750,000, including a £388,000 performance-related bonus, plus £63,800 cash in lieu of pension, ‘leaving the business in much better shape,’ according to the chairman.
But instead of retiring to her sprawling £2 million Grade II-listed farmhouse, she then took up a portfolio of high-status, lucrative roles.
The first was a £55,000 post as chair of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, followed by non-executive directorships at retailers Morrisons (£89,000 in fees) and Dunelm (£30,000).
The biblical saying that it would be ‘easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man [or woman] to enter the Kingdom of Heaven’ seems apt in the circumstances — especially if such riches were accrued in the scandal-hit Post Office.
Paula Vennells has now surrendered all her boardroom seats and agreed to ‘step back’ from her duties as a C of E priest. MPs demanded this week that she should also be stripped of her CBE, awarded in the Queen’s 2019 New Year honours list ‘for services to the Post Office and to charity’.
Victims and MPs have called for the police to investigate Mrs Vennells and other Post Office bosses in the aftermath of the Court of Appeal decision. But it won’t take a police investigation to uncover the terrible injustice of it all. Pictured: Subpostmaster Harjinder Butoy
Mrs Vennells, who exuded an ‘aura of Radio 4 respectability’, to quote someone who met her soon after she became chief executive, is an unlikely corporate villain.
She came from what she described as ‘working-class Manchester’ and was a Girl Guide, going on from school to read Russian and French at Bradford University.
Starting as a graduate trainee at Unilever, she moved on to L’Oreal, Lunn Poly, then Dixons, Argos and finally Whitbread, where she was part of the team that opened a Costa Coffee on nearly every High Street. In 2007, she joined the Post Office, saying it appealed to her sense of public duty.
In a keynote speech for the charity Faith in Business, she said she saw ‘many parallels between the Post Office and the Church of England’, both highly valued national institutions playing a key role in local communities.
After being promoted to chief executive in 2012, a position she held until 2019, she sought to improve ‘standards of courtesy and respectful listening’ and had introduced a mission statement that she admitted was based on Jesus’s injunction to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, to improve the culture of the organisation.
Boris says sorry to Post Office scandal victims
Boris Johnson yesterday apologised to victims of the Post Office IT scandal on behalf of the Government.
He said he was ‘appalled’ after hearing four postmasters tell their devastating personal stories on a video call.
The four demanded a full public inquiry and compensation to acknowledge their financial losses as well as their ‘trauma and loss of reputation’.
The Prime Minister promised to address the pitiful sums paid to some postmasters after being accused of ‘not listening’ to their concerns.
And he hinted that the Government would look into whether criminal investigations could be launched into the culpability of Post Office executives.
Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of postmasters were prosecuted for thieving from their own tills, when computer glitches were to blame.
Last week 39 had their wrongful convictions for theft, fraud and false accounting quashed at the Court of Appeal.
Judges shamed the Post Office for hounding its workers and then mounting a cover-up. The scandal has already cost taxpayers more than £250million.
Tracy Felstead, who attended yesterday’s meeting, was just 19 when she was wrongly jailed for false accounting after £11,500 went ‘missing’ from her south London post office.
The 37-year-old mother said: ‘The Prime Minister seemed a bit shocked when I divulged everything that happened to me. He said “I’m giving you an official apology, I’m sorry for what happened to you”.’
A retired judge is conducting a review of the scandal but it lacks powers such as compelling witnesses to attend.
How laughable that ‘mission statement’ seems today, in light of the meltdown that followed the introduction of a computerised accounting system from Fujitsu, known as Horizon, to ‘bring the Post Office into the 21st century’.
After it was installed, sub-postmasters reported baffling shortfalls and discrepancies running into thousands of pounds.
Initially, he or she each assumed they were alone and didn’t know other staff were being accused; the Post Office did little to disabuse them of this presumption.
In all, 736 sub-postmasters were pursued through the courts, an average of one successful prosecution a week for 14 years, and a further 2,400 say they were dismissed or asked to make up the ‘phantom’ losses themselves.
Up and down the country, sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were being criminalised on an industrial scale. Could any organisation on earth, except perhaps the Mafia, have employed so many dishonest people?
It was the one question no one seemed to ask. Or perhaps Paula Vennells and other Post Office top brass already knew the answer.
These were people with spotless records — not even a parking ticket, in many cases — who had undergone background checks.
Nor was there a scrap of evidence of conspicuous spending on, say, flash cars or expensive holidays.
But the Post Office is similar to the RSPCA in that it has statutory power to prosecute. Neither the police nor the Crown Prosecution Service has to be involved. If they had been, this travesty of justice could never have occurred.
In 2015, as convictions rose, Paula Vennells, in grey business suit and pearls, was hauled before a parliamentary committee.
‘We are a business that genuinely cares about people who work for us,’ she insisted. ‘If there had been any miscarriages of justice, it would have been really important to me and the Post Office that we surfaced those. As the investigations have gone through, so far we have no evidence of that.’
An investigation for BBC Panorama by freelance journalist Nick Wallis, who is now writing a book about the scandal, had uncovered internal Post Office emails from as early as 2010 highlighting Horizon bugs that made money ‘simply disappear’ and ‘corrupted’ branch accounts.
It was also possible, the programme established, for these accounts to be accessed and altered remotely.
One contributor to the Panorama programme was Ian Henderson, a director of forensic accountants Second Sight, the experts hired by the Post Office to conduct an independent review of Horizon.
He also sat alongside Paula Vennells during her appearance before MPs, when he accused the Post Office of refusing to give full access to the files.
‘Who told you that, Ian?’ Mrs Vennells asked him indignantly.
‘It came up at one of the working group meetings, at which you and I were present,’ he replied.
The truth might never have emerged were it not for a small group of campaigners who raised the funds to mount a class action against the Post Office — which spent tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money fighting the disastrous case to the bitter end.
Mrs Vennells suggested she had been misled into believing Horizon was ‘fundamentally sound’ and sought to shift the blame for the prosecutions onto her in-house lawyers in a recent letter to the Commons business committee. ‘I wish to state for the record that I do not accept any personal criminal misconduct,’ she said.
Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal judges said the Post Office’s failures of investigation and disclosure made prosecution of any of the Horizon cases ‘an affront to the conscience of the court’.
But what about the Rev Paula’s own conscience?
Additional reporting: Nic North and Tim Stewart
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