Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells cried again today while giving evidence at the Horizon IT inquiry after insisting that she ‘loved’ the company.

The shamed 65-year-old also told the hearing in London that there are ‘no words’ that will make the ‘sorrow and what people have gone through any better’.

Ms Vennells – who insisted she ‘worked as hard as I possible could’ – broke down in tears today, after doing the same on the first day of her evidence on Wednesday. 

She became emotional as she told the inquiry: ‘I loved the Post Office, I gave it… I worked as hard as I possibly could to deliver the best Post Office for the UK.

‘What I failed to do was I failed to recognise … the imbalance of power between the institution and the individual. I let these people down – I am very aware of that.’

Ms Vennells was accused of being in ‘la-la land’ and responsible for her own downfall during questioning by Edward Henry KC, a lawyer representing subpostmasters.

She added that she lost all employment after the Court of Appeal passed a judgment which ultimately led to a number of subpostmaster convictions being overturned.

And members of the audience shouted out to dispute Ms Vennells’s evidence as she was talking about new contracts for workers which ‘tightened the screw’ on staff.

Ms Vennells said: ‘It was optional,’ to which people in the public gallery said: ‘It was compulsory.’ Inquiry lawyer Jason Beer then got to his feet and rebuked them.

He said: ‘No, people should not shout out from the public gallery otherwise they will be removed. The witness shall give her evidence without interruption.’

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells becomes tearful while giving evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry at Aldwych House in London this morning

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells becomes tearful while giving evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry at Aldwych House in London this morning

During an earlier combative exchange this morning, minutes into the third day of Ms Vennells’s evidence, Mr Henry said she had ‘no one to blame but yourself’.

Ms Vennells said: ‘Where I made mistakes and where I made the wrong calls … where I had information and I made the wrong calls, yes of course.’

Mr Henry said: ‘You are responsible for your own downfall aren’t you?’

Ms Vennells, who was chief executive of the organisation from 2012 to 2019, said there were ‘no words I can find today that will make the sorrow and what people have gone through any better.’

Her explanation was dismissed as ‘humbug’ by Mr Henry.

He launched into Ms Vennells at the inquiry today, asking her: ‘There were so many forks in the road, but you always took the wrong path didn’t you?’

Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells arrives at the Horizon IT inquiry at Aldwych House today

Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells arrives at the Horizon IT inquiry at Aldwych House today

Ms Vennells replied: ‘It was an extraordinarily complex undertaking and the Post Office and I didn’t always take the right path.’

Mr Henry replied: ‘You exercised power with no thought of the consequences of your actions, despite those consequences staring you in the face.’

Ms Vennells replied: ‘I believed that we were doing the right things, clearly that was not always the case.’

The inquiry previously heard how Ms Vennells fought to protect the reputation of the Post Office as it came under mounting pressure to investigate allegations of unsafe convictions by workers, MPs and the press.

In an email she said that she would take the advice of spin doctor Mark Davies, the organisation’s director of communications in 2013, after he warned that the Post Office risked negative coverage if it began looking into historical cases.

Reflecting on her time in charge, she told the inquiry she should have asked software giant Fujitsu for reassurances that problems with its Horizon software had been dealt with when given the ‘world-changing information’ there were bugs in the system.

Members of the Justice For Subpostmaster Alliance protest outside Aldwych House today

Members of the Justice For Subpostmaster Alliance protest outside Aldwych House today

She also conceded miscarriages of justice could have been discovered sooner if the initial plan for forensic accountants Second Sight to properly scrutinise several convictions had been carried out, rather than just two or three.

Ms Vennells wept when questioned about subpostmasters being wrongly convicted, including Martin Griffiths who killed himself after being hounded by the organisation’s investigation unit. She became emotional again as she apologised for misleading MPs who were looking into constituents’ complaints about the faulty software.

And she fought back tears when recalling reading ‘disturbing’ evidence of the impact of the scandal on Post Office workers.

She said her mistakes would ‘live with me for ever.’ But she insisted she did not think there had been any miscarriages of justice until long after she left the organisation in 2019 – having previously told MPs the Post Office had ‘never lost a case’.

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells becomes tearful while giving evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry at Aldwych House in London this morning

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells becomes tearful while giving evidence to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry at Aldwych House in London this morning

Mr Henry, appearing to allude to Ms Vennells’ role as an ordained Anglican priest, said: ‘You preach compassion but you don’t practise it.’

During a combative exchange, minutes into the third day of Ms Vennells’ evidence, Mr Henry said the 65-year-old had ‘no one to blame but yourself’.

Ms Vennells said: ‘Where I made mistakes and where I made the wrong calls … where I had information and I made the wrong calls, yes of course.’

Mr Henry said: ‘You are responsible for your own downfall aren’t you?’

Ms Vennells replied: ‘From when the Court of Appeal passed its judgement, I lost all the employment that I have had, and since that time I have only worked on this inquiry.’

She also said she had refused to engage with the Press, perhaps to her detriment.

Mr Henry said: ‘I suggest to you that you continue to live in a cloud of denial, and it persists even today, because you have given, in 750-odd pages (of her witness statement), a craven and self-serving account haven’t you?

Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells arrives at the Horizon IT inquiry at Aldwych House today

Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells arrives at the Horizon IT inquiry at Aldwych House today

‘I didn’t know, nobody told me, I can’t remember, I wasn’t shown this, I relied on my lawyers’.’

Ms Vennells replied: ‘I have tried to do this to the very best of my ability.’

Mr Henry said: ‘Whatever you did was deliberate, considered and calculated. No one deceived you, no one misled you. You set the agenda and tone for the business didn’t you?’

Ms Vennells, who remained calm throughout, replied: ‘I was the chief executive, I didn’t set the agenda for the work of the scheme and the way the legal and IT parts of it worked.’

Mr Henry told the inquiry there was a ‘disconnect between corporate communications, the outward face of the business, and the grubby internal reality’.

But Ms Vennells repeatedly asked Mr Henry if he had asked her a question while addressing her.

It was left to inquiry chairman Sir Wyn Williams to intervene, and asked about whether remote access to the Horizon software was possible – something Ms Vennells insisted at the time was not, the inquiry heard previously, pinning the blame for shortfalls in the tills on branch workers.

Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells arrives at the Horizon IT inquiry at Aldwych House today

Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells arrives at the Horizon IT inquiry at Aldwych House today

The chairman said: ‘Throughout the period that you were chief executive, the true extent of remote access was never satisfactorily resolved by senior people at the Post Office.’

Ms Vennells replied: ‘Sir Wyn, that is correct. It appears there were interventions on a fairly frequent basis … which was not known to me … clearly it was happening.’

Mr Henry said: ‘It is extraordinary, isn’t it? Cartwright King, your external lawyers knew all about it. And yet you didn’t, the board didn’t. This is ‘la la land’, isn’t it?’

Mr Vennells stood her ground, and replied: ‘I had no knowledge that Cartwright King knew that at the time I was chief executive.’

Ms Vennells denied the allegation that she sought to ‘hide’ issues with Horizon and ‘contain’ negative articles in the Press, as concerns about the integrity and reliability of the software were being picked up by MPs and journalists.

Mr Henry said Ms Vennells ‘knew of the existence of bugs, errors and defects … knew there was a risk of civil claims for wrongful prosecutions and civil actions based on such bugs’ due to hearing about it in a board meeting.

Ms Vennells agreed.

Paula Vennells is pictured in 2013. More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015

Paula Vennells is pictured in 2013. More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015

Mr Henry added: ‘You really had earned your keep – you kept the lid on it.’

Ms Vennells replied: ‘That was not at all what I was doing.’

Mr Henry said: ‘Contain negative press, protect the business, hide Horizon issues. That’s the truth, isn’t it?’

Ms Vennells replied: ‘No Mr Henry, that isn’t the truth.

‘If there were difficult issues that needed to be addressed, that was what I tried to do.’

The inquiry heard yesterday how Ms Vennells said it was ‘a goal’ of hers that ‘all Press, even local Press’, were ‘scoured for negative comment and refuted’.

Ms Vennells confirmed a catalogue of ‘Horizon belief-shattering facts’, put to her by Mr Stein, including that she knew about bugs in the system in 2013, and that the expert who previously supported prosecutions could no longer be relied upon.

Mr Stein said: ‘By the end of 2013 you could have been in no doubt, Ms Vennells, that the Horizon system needed investigation and review. Do you agree?’

Ms Vennells replied: ‘I wish we had done that.’

But she continued to say she trusted the information she was given.

She said: ‘At no point did I have any information that would have pointed me to something I knew nothing about.’

The hearing continues.

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