Paula Vennells

Paula Anne Vennells, CBE (born 1959), is a British businesswoman and Anglican priest. She was chief executive officer (CEO) of the Post Office Limited from 2012 to 2019. Under her leadership, the Post Office prosecuted hundreds of subpostmasters for fraud, despite knowing that the financial discrepancies were actually arising from computer errors for which her own company was responsible.

The Reverend

Paula Vennells

Paula Vennells gov uk.jpg
Vennells in 2016
Born1959 (age 61–62)
NationalityBritish
OccupationBusinesswoman

In 2019 she became chair of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London. In December 2020 it was announced that she would be leaving this role early, for personal reasons. In April 2021,[1] following the quashing of 39 of the subpostmasters’ convictions, she stepped back from her duties as a minister.

Early life and educationEdit

Vennells was born in 1959, and grew up in Denton, Lancashire.[2] Having won a funded place, she was educated at the Manchester High School for Girls, an all-girls independent school in Manchester.[2] She then studied Russian and French at the University of Bradford, graduating in 1981 with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree.[3][4]

CareerEdit

Vennells began her career as a graduate trainee at Unilever in 1981.[2][4] She went on to work for L'Oreal, Dixons Retail, Argos, and Whitbread.[4]

From 2002 to 2005, Vennells trained for Holy Orders on the St Albans and Oxford Ministry Course.[3] She was ordained in the Church of England as a deacon in 2005 and as a priest in 2006.[3] She has served as a non-stipendiary minister at Church of St Owen, Bromham in the Diocese of St Albans.[3][5]

In 2007, she joined the Post Office as group network director.[6] On 1 April 2012, she became its chief executive officer (CEO).[7] During her time as CEO, the Post Office went from losing £120 million a year to making a profit.[8]

In February 2019, it was announced that she would step down from her Post Office role and in April that year took over as chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust,[9] which runs St Mary's, Hammersmith, Queen Charlotte's, Charing Cross and the Western Eye Hospital in north-west London. She also became a non-executive board member of the Cabinet Office.[10]

Post Office scandalEdit

In December 2019, the Post Office paid out £58 million to sub-postmasters who were awarded compensation for past false prosecutions of monetary theft[11] that had been based on faulty evidence from the Horizon IT system. The judge presiding on the case, Mr Justice Fraser, described the Post Office's approach to the case as "institutional obstinacy" that:

...amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon Issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.

Vennells subsequently apologised to workers affected by the scandal, saying:[10]

I am truly sorry we were unable to find both a solution and a resolution outside of litigation and for the distress this caused

In January 2020, as the High Court case against the Post Office ended, Vennells’s tenure as CEO was strongly criticised by Conservative peer Lord Arbuthnot, who said: "The hallmark of Paula Vennells’ time as CEO was that she was willing to accept appalling advice from people in her management and legal teams. The consequences of this were far-reaching for the Post Office and devastating for the subpostmasters. However, there seem to have been no consequences for her".[12] He described the behaviour of the Post Office under her leadership as "both cruel and incompetent", and said that "she was faced with a moral choice and she took the wrong one, the one which allowed hundreds of subpostmasters to be falsely accused, humiliated and ruined by the organisation she ran".[13]

In early March 2020, she resigned from her Cabinet Office position.[14][15]

On 19 March 2020, Vennells was harshly criticised in the House of Commons, particularly by Kevan Jones, MP for North Durham, who said:[16]

Obviously, as a board member she knew what was going on, including the strategy in the court case and the bugs in the system. What happened? She got a CBE in the new year’s honours list for services to the Post Office. That is just rubbing salt into the wounds of these innocent people. There is a case for her having that honour removed, and I would like to know how she got it in the first place when the court case is ongoing. Added to that, she is now chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. Again, I would like to know why and what due diligence was done on her as an individual...

In a BBC Panorama programme screened on 8 June 2020, reporter Nick Wallis is seen phoning Vennells, who terminates the call rather than answer his questions. Wallis says "this is one of the biggest frustrations of covering this story...the consistent refusal of the Chief Executive and the people at the top to answer serious questions about what has been happening".[17] Vennells had been due to appear before a parliamentary select committee to answer questions about the scandal on 24 March 2020, but this was cancelled due to the Coronavirus crisis and MPs' questions were dealt with in writing.[18]

In June 2020 the Criminal Cases Review Commission sent 47 cases in which subpostmasters had been prosecuted to the Court of Appeal as potential miscarriages of justice. The Post Office announced that it was not contesting 44 of them. The cases have been described as the "biggest miscarriage of justice in modern English legal history".[19] On 22 March 2021 a further 42 former subpostmasters had their cases of wrongful prosecution heard in the Court of Appeal, and are also seeking information about the UK government's involvement through the Parliamentary Ombudsman. They are also calling for the government to pay for their £46 million legal bill for their earlier successful court case.[20] During the case, the Post Office's behaviour under Vennells's leadership was described as an instance of "appalling and shameful behaviour".[21]

On 14 June 2020 Vennells's handling of the Post Office scandal and the relationship with her role as a priest were highlighted by the BBC's Sunday morning religious radio programme. A convicted former postmaster called for the Bishop of St Albans to strip Vennells of office, Labour MP Chi Onwurah said she must be held accountable, and journalist Nick Wallis reported "real anger" that Vennells appeared to have been protected by "the establishment" including the Church of England, which many see as immoral. The church refused to take part but a statement from the Bishop said that he would consider acting if he received conclusive evidence of her wrongdoing.[22] As of 28 April 2021 Vennells is no longer listed as a member of the Church of England's Ethical Investment Advisory Group on which she had previously served.[23]

The Care Quality Commission discussed concerns about her continuing role in the NHS on 8 July 2020.[13] In October, the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust announced that it would seek external legal advice in reviewing the process that led to her appointment.[19] On 3 December 2020 it was announced that Vennells will step down as chair in April 2021, for personal reasons.[24] On the same day, the Daily Telegraph reported that judges had refused to release a "smoking gun" document, being legal advice given to the Post Office in 2013, that could establish whether it had known for years that its prosecutions of the postmasters had been based upon false evidence.[25] The former NHS consultant psychiatrist Minh Alexander, who made the original referral to the CQC, said that "the trust reluctantly agreed to commission an external report on her fitness only at a late stage", and speculated that Vennells had subsequently been pressured to resign.[19] Arbuthnot said that emergence of this new evidence suggests that Vennells may be in contempt of Parliament for her responses given at the 2015 inquiry, commenting after her resignation: "Can it be a coincidence that shortly after it became clear that the Post Office lied to Parliament, Paula Vennells announced she was stepping down from the NHS job?"[19]

In April 2021, thirty nine of the convicted former postmasters had their convictions quashed, with a further twenty two cases still being investigated by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Earlier in December 2020, the convictions of six other former postmasters were overturned due to wrongful conviction.[26] The executive chairman of the legal firm representing many of the postmasters, Dr Neil Hudgell, said "now Post Office officials must face criminal investigation for maliciously ruining lives by prosecuting innocent people in pursuit of profits", and called for the Prime Minister to convene a judge-led inquiry.[27]

A few days after the subpostmasters’ convictions were quashed, Vennells finally agreed to step back from her duties as a minister. The Bishop of St Albans said that it was "right" that Vennells did so.[28] She also apologised, saying "I am truly sorry for the suffering caused to the 39 subpostmasters as a result of their convictions which were overturned last week". On the same day, she resigned her non-executive directorships at UK supermarket chain Morrisons and furnishings group Dunelm.[29] Sky News quoted a boardroom colleague as saying "there was no way for her to stay on after the ruling - and it's hard to see how she will ever be able to work again". She also resigned as a governor of Bedford School.[30] The UK government is expected to make compensation payments likely to total millions of pounds, and Vennells faces calls for her to repay bonuses she received during her time at the Post Office.

On 18 May 2021, the government announced that it would put the inquiry into the Post Office scandal onto a statutory footing, enabling it to compel witnesses such as Ms Vennells to testify, and to demand access to all relevant documents.[31]

HonoursEdit

In the 2019 New Year Honours, she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) "for services to the Post Office and to charity".[32] In the aftermath of the Post Office scandal, the Communication Workers' Union has called for Vennells to be stripped of her CBE.[33]

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ "Trust chair to step down next April". www.imperial.nhs.uk. Archived from the original on 6 December 2020.
  2. ^ a b c Shah, Oliver (17 August 2014). "Part time curate ordained to deliver salvation for Post Office". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d "Paula Anne Vennells". Crockford's Clerical Directory (online ed.). Church House Publishing. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  4. ^ a b c Armitstead, Louise (8 December 2013). "Monday interview: Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  5. ^ "The Benefice Ministerial Team". Bromham Benefice. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  6. ^ Higginson, Richard. "Paula Vennells: a profile". Faith in Business. Archived from the original on 11 October 2017. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  7. ^ "Our leadership". Post Office. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  8. ^ "Post Office Group Chief Executive, Paula Vennells, Awarded Cbe in New Year's Honours List". Mynewsdesk. 28 December 2018. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  9. ^ Cotton, Barney (19 February 2019). "Post Office CEO leaves role". Business Leader. Retrieved 9 February 2020.
  10. ^ a b Glass, Katie. "Victims of the Post Office's sub-postmaster scandal on their decade of hell". Archived from the original on 9 February 2020. Retrieved 9 February 2020.
  11. ^ "I dreamt of victory against the Post Office". 11 December 2019 – via www.bbc.co.uk.
  12. ^ Flinders, Karl (4 June 2020). "MPs' investigation into Post Office Horizon IT scandal bares teeth". www.computerweekly.com. Retrieved 13 June 2020.
  13. ^ a b Flinders, Karl (22 June 2020). "Care Quality Commission to discuss concerns over Paula Vennells' NHS role". www.computerweekly.com. Retrieved 5 July 2020.
  14. ^ "Horizon Settlement: Future Governance of Post Office Ltd – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 19th March 2020"
  15. ^ "Cabinet Office Annual Report 2019-20" (PDF). Cabinet Office. Retrieved 24 April 2021.
  16. ^ "Horizon Settlement: Future Governance of Post Office Ltd - Hansard". hansard.parliament.uk. Retrieved 8 April 2020.
  17. ^ Presenter: Nick Wallis (8 June 2020). "Scandal at the Post Office". Panorama. 26:00 minutes in. BBC. BBC One.
  18. ^ "Post Office & Horizon inquiry launched by BEIS Committee". www.parliament.uk. 4 March 2020. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
  19. ^ a b c d "Post Office IT scandal CEO Paula Vennells jumps NHS ship as pressure mounts". computerweekly.com. 7 December 2020. Retrieved 12 December 2020.
  20. ^ Flinders, Karl. "Post Office IT scandal executive forced out of job at Football Association of Wales". www.computerweekly.com. Computer Weekly. Retrieved 22 March 2021.
  21. ^ Lea, Robert. "Post Office falls to loss after Horizon IT scandal". www.thetimes.co.uk. The Times. Retrieved 25 March 2021.
  22. ^ Presenter: William Crawley (14 June 2020). "Post Office IT dispute, Carers week; Places of worship reopening". Sunday. 27:00 minutes in. BBC. BBC Radio 4.
  23. ^ "Membership". The Church of England. Retrieved 28 April 2021.
  24. ^ "Trust chair to step down next April". Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. Retrieved 7 December 2020.
  25. ^ "Court blocks release of 'smoking gun' document in Post Office scandal appeal". telegraph.co.uk. 3 December 2020. Retrieved 12 December 2020.
  26. ^ Peachey, Kevin (23 April 2021). "Convicted Post Office workers have names cleared". BBC News.
  27. ^ "Subpostmasters cleared of convictions". www.hudgellsolicitors.co.uk. Hudgells Solicitors. Retrieved 24 April 2021.
  28. ^ "Ex-Post Office head apologises to workers after convictions quashed". www.the guardian.com. 26 April 2021. Retrieved 26 April 2021.
  29. ^ "Ex-Post Office chief Vennells quits Morrisons and Dunelm boards". www.news.sky.com. Sky News. 26 April 2021. Retrieved 26 April 2021.
  30. ^ "Ex-Post Office chief stands down as Bromham church minister and Bedford School governor". www.bedfordindependent.co.uk. 26 April 2021. Retrieved 28 April 2021.
  31. ^ "Post Office scandal inquiry to be bolstered". www.bbc.co.uk. 18 May 2021. Retrieved 19 May 2021.
  32. ^ "No. 62507". The London Gazette (Supplement). 29 December 2018. p. N9.
  33. ^ "Ex-Post Office chief should be stripped of CBE over Horizon scandal, union says". www.jerseyeveningpost.com. Jersey Evening Post. Retrieved 24 April 2021.