Sub-postmasters beam as former top boss Paula Vennells finally faces their questions in Post Office inquiry

In a significant development in the long-standing Post Office scandal, the voices of hundreds of sub-postmasters who have endured a grave miscarriage of justice have finally been heard. On the same day that the Post Office Offences Act was being expedited through parliament, a milestone was reached when the law received Royal Assent, leading to the quashing of approximately 700 wrongful convictions. This event marks a turning point for those affected by the scandal.

Meanwhile, at Aldwych House, former chief executive Paula Vennells faced a barrage of questions from sub-postmasters’ barristers on the third and final day of her testimony at the Post Office inquiry. The frustration, anger, and injustice that have built up over the past decade were channeled through the sharp and direct questioning of barristers Jason Beer QC, Ed Henry, and Sam Stein KC. With forceful deliveries that could be likened to incoming fire, the barristers left no stone unturned as they sought answers from Ms. Vennells.

Referring to the numerous wrong turns taken by Ms. Vennells during her tenure, Mr. Henry began his questioning with a scathing remark, “There were so many forks in the road but you always took the wrong one.” He accused her of exercising power without considering the consequences, even when they were evident. When Ms. Vennells attempted to justify her actions by claiming compassion, Mr. Henry dismissed it as “humbug” and accused her of not practicing what she preached.

In the public seating area, around 150 sub-postmasters looked on with satisfaction, having waited a long time to hear Ms. Vennells being held accountable for her actions. Despite her claims of preparing for the inquiry for three years, Mr. Henry was not impressed, calling her witness statement “craven” and “self-serving.”

The focus of the barristers’ questioning was on the period around 2013 when Ms. Vennells became aware of the flaws in the Horizon IT system that could potentially jeopardize previous convictions. However, instead of addressing these issues, the Post Office chose to cover them up. Ms. Vennells’ defense has been that she was not informed of crucial information or any inappropriate actions taken by her team.

However, as the inquiry progressed, it became evident that Ms. Vennells was evasive in her responses, often claiming ignorance or saying, “I can’t recall.” When presented with concrete evidence, she would deny its meaning or try to shift the blame onto others. Despite occasionally breaking down in tears, Ms. Vennells’ detached demeanor and lack of remorse did not earn her any sympathy from the sub-postmasters.

The final blow came when Tim Moloney KC, representing a group of sub-postmasters, including Jo Hamilton, questioned Ms. Vennells. Ms. Hamilton was one of the first to raise her case with James Arbuthnot, now a Lord, and was featured prominently in an ITV drama that brought the scandal to public attention. Describing Ms. Hamilton as a gentle and honest soul, Mr. Moloney read out an email written by Ms. Vennells in which she claimed that Ms. Hamilton “lacked passion.” The room erupted in boos, and Ms. Vennells’ subsequent apology was met with little sympathy.

As the inquiry continues, it is becoming increasingly clear that Ms. Vennells’ leadership was marked by a lack of accountability and a tendency to distance herself from any wrongdoing. The barristers’ questioning has exposed her actions and decisions, which have had severe consequences for innocent sub-postmasters. The repercussions of this scandal will continue to be felt for years to come, and it is essential that those responsible are held accountable.

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