She also embodies the unedifying ethics of an ‘establishment elite’ which rewarded her actions with a top honour – and a seat at the heart of government.
And ascertaining the reasons behind this preferment matters as much as all inquiries into how up to 900 subpostmasters were wrongly given criminal convictions in an accounting scandal caused by flawed technology.
Each one a story of persecution, fear, despair, reputations ruined, lives lost, and innocent people bankrupted and imprisoned because of a flawed £1bn accounting system, called Horizon, that was launched in 1999 and ultimately led to a culture that assumed technology was infallible and workers dishonest.
More than 550 longstanding civil claims were settled by the Post Office in 2019 – a precursor to last Friday’s ruling by the Royal Courts of Justice that saw 39 fraud convictions quashed and Lord Justice Holroyde describe the organisation’s “egregious” failings as “an affront to the conscience of the court”.
Condemnatory words, they’re even more damning when set in the context of the Government’s relationship with Vennells who resigned this week as a director of retail giants Morrisons and Dunelms while also stepping aside from her church duties as an ordained Church of England priest.
Appointed the Post Office’s group network director in 2007, the University of Bradford graduate became chief executive in 2012 and allowed postmasters to continue to be prosecuted despite widespread misgivings about the Horizon system’s ability to process the payments of benefits correctly.
Yet, astonishingly, she was made a CBE in the 2019 New Year Honours List for “services to the Post Office and charity” as she stepped down. What happened to ‘due diligence’ when Vennells was recommended to the Cabinet Office for such a prestigious honour?
But what is equally perturbing is that Vennells was named on February 7, 2019, as a non-executive board member of the Cabinet Office. She was one of three such appointments lauded, at the time, by David Lidington, the then Cabinet Office Minister, for their “wealth of business expertise” and “unique perspectives, ensuring that the Civil Service is well placed to deliver the Government’s ambitious agenda”.
It’s unclear how Vennells influenced policy – Theresa May’s government was imploding at the time over Brexit. What is known, however, is that she quit in March last year just a day before a highly critical House of Commons debate into the Post Office scandal.
Yet she remained the chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London until announcing, on December 3 last year, that she would be stepping down this April. “It is a personal decision at the right time,” she said. Really?
Again, it beggars belief that such a discredited figure was picked to oversee a major NHS trust when the plight of postmasters had been in the public domain for more than a decade. This, like the Cabinet Office position, was a senior public role – unlike Morrisons and Dunelms who have to justify their recruitment decisions to shareholders.
As Labour MP John Spellar told MPs in the March 2020 debate: “Does this not also speak to a deeper problem in our society, where relentlessly, time after time, the great and the good look after each other and hand out these positions to each other, irrespective of whether they have been successful or a massive failure?”
It does. Vennells isn’t just guilty of “institutional obstinacy” – the High Court verdict when 557 subpostmasters were awarded £58m in 2019.
She’s also put the reputation of every post office at risk. News of the fraud convictions being overturned last Friday coincidentally arrived while I was in my local post office waiting to buy some stamps. The postmistress behind the counter wept tears of relief. “We all knew the system was wrong,” she said. “But will she (Paula Vennells) keep her CBE?”
All the evidence, thus far, suggests that she will because it is incredibly rare for recipients to be stripped of awards unless found guilty of a criminal offence. “Personal disputes”, it says, are “not likely to be a reason to forfeit an honour” but the public can email submissions to the Cabinet Office. That’s right – the very office where Paula Vennells served as a non-executive director.
And as the Government obfuscates over its response, a judge-led inquiry is needed to investigate this scandal’s questions of competence and conscience for a belatedly apologetic Paula Vennells; questions of cronyism on the Government’s part; questions of trust over appointments and honours – and questions of humanity over the betrayal of our subpostmasters.
Tom Richmond is Comment Editor of The Yorkshire Post. He tweets via OpinionYP.