Paula Vennells' CBE controversy puts whole Honours system in spotlight: Jayne Dowle

Thanks to a public petition calling for Paula Vennells to be stripped of her CBE reaching more than one million signatures, plus pressure from Downing Street, the former chief executive of the Post Office has done the decent thing and handed back her gong.

The part-time Anglican priest and ex-school governor was made a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), the highest public honour after a knighthood or damehood, in the 2019 New Year Honours List for “services to the Post Office and to charity”.

But she’s only done so after a new ITV docu-drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, highlighted the Horizon IT scandal which led to the wrongful prosecution of hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters and mistresses.

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Ms Vennells ran the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, a period when the organisation routinely denied there was a problem with Horizon. The resulting miscarriage of justice – thought to be the biggest UK case of its kind, ever - involved more than 700 sub-postmasters accused of financial wrongdoing.

Paula Vennells, pictured in 2012, has opted to hand back her CBE. Picture: Anthony Devlin/PA WirePaula Vennells, pictured in 2012, has opted to hand back her CBE. Picture: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire
Paula Vennells, pictured in 2012, has opted to hand back her CBE. Picture: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

Some went to prison, many were financially ruined and others even took their own lives during erroneous criminal proceedings. These tragic deaths included Martin Griffiths, 59, from Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, who committed suicide in 2013, while being wrongly hounded for £100,000 of “missing” money.

The widow of Mr Griffiths was pressured into signing a gagging clause to receive a £120,000 payout; a paltry sum considering she had lost her husband under such questionable circumstances. This restriction meant the heart-breaking story, one of several shocking accounts portrayed in the ITV docu-drama, did not emerge until 2022.

As Sir David Davis, Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden, who has long campaigned on behalf of wrongly-accused Post Office staff, says, thanks to the power of television, “there are now tens of millions of people who care about this - care a lot. They're furious in many cases. It did take a docudrama in this case I’m afraid, and many of us have been struggling for a long while to try and elevate it.”

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That’s true. It took a dose of fictional representation – there is a disclaimer at the start of the drama explaining that some facts and names have been changed – to bring to widespread public attention a campaign that’s been rumbling along for almost two decades.

Media outlets including the BBC, Private Eye and Computer Weekly have attempted to highlight the situation, and reporter Nick Wallis wrote a book, The Great Post Office Scandal, serialised in the Daily Mail three years ago.There’s also a cross-party parliamentary campaign, a public inquiry, and an ongoing four-year-long Metropolitan police investigation. And still, until this week, no heads – or honours – have rolled?

However, now we all know that although the Post Office routinely denied there was any problem with Horizon, the fault lay with defective Fujitsu accounting software that made it look like money was missing from online book-keeping records – when it wasn’t.

No-one was prepared to admit this, and instead, the blame was put on innocent people who watched in horror as hundreds and thousands of pounds routinely disappeared from the businesses they were running on behalf of a public service.

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Although there were other Post Office bosses in charge of rolling out Horizon during the scandal, with discrepancies and denials taking place between 1999 and 2015, the row over Ms Vennells and her CBE reminds us that with great power comes also great responsibility.

If that responsibility is found lacking, it cannot go unchecked.

When the Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Rev Alan Smith, weighed in to argue that Ms Vennells, an associate minister in his diocese at the same time as running the Post Office, should not be judged on a drama that is a “bit like The Crown”, we saw a huge can of self-serving worms opening up.

Not only does the Vennells case call into question the operations of the Post Office, and how accountability was meted out, it also puts the whole Honours system under the spotlight.

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The furore over this CBE should send a forceful and well overdue signal regarding the standards expected of anyone in public life.

If Paula Vennells couldn’t do the right thing when she was in charge, she has at least gone some way towards showing she is sorry.

However, the Prime Minister should not dodge responsibility either. He was quick to speak up earlier this week when he asked a Downing Street spokesperson to make clear he would support the withdrawal of Ms Vennells’ CBE if the Cabinet’s Forfeiture Committee so decided.

If he chooses, he can also summon up the highest power to exonerate all the victims of the (not so) great Post Office scandal en masse, instead of forcing each one to apply individually to have their convictions quashed. Doing so would mean affected individuals and their families would avoid yet more tortuous bureaucracy and anxiety.

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Such a resolution wouldn’t bring back the Post Office staff who have died, or rebuild the worlds of those who were sent to prison or ended up bankrupt, but it might prove that Mr Sunak does understand ordinary people after all.

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