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Ex-Post Office CEO Paula Vennells knew of hack two years before denial to parliament, tapes reveal

Paula Vennells, the former Post Office chief executive, may have been told about a “covert operations team” that could remotely access the Horizon system and adjust branches’ accounts two years before she appeared in parliament.

In newly surfaced allegations Ms Vennells was briefed by the Post Office’s general counsel that a unit in Bracknell’s Fujitsu headquarters could access subpostmaster’s accounts remotely.

Tapes obtained by Channel 4 show the Post Office’s chief lawyer Susan Crichton confirming twice that Ms Vennells was aware of the allegations.

In the audio recording – dating from 2013 – Ms Crichton can be heard saying:

“[Paula] knows about the allegation. She knows we are working on it.”

She added: “She’s got everything. The way that I’ve tried to brief Paula is, as soon as I have evidence that, you know, that there is a problem, she knows about it the next minute”.

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells has forfeited her CBE after public dissatisfaction with her role in the Horizon scandal (PA)
Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells has forfeited her CBE after public dissatisfaction with her role in the Horizon scandal (PA)

The recording is from two years prior to the Post Office halting prosecutions against its own sub-postmasters, and two years before the former chief executive told MPs in 2015 that it was not possible for subpostmasters’ accounts to be accessed remotely.

In written evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Inquiry, the Post Office said: “There is no functionality in Horizon for either a branch, Post Office or Fujitsu to edit, manipulate or remove transaction data once it has been recorded in a branch’s accounts.”

More than 700 branch managers around the UK were prosecuted by the Post Office between 1999 and 2015 when the faulty Horizon accounting software made it look as though money was missing from their shops.

Evidence of possible remote access to the Horizon system by Fujitsu operatives has been central to the ongoing Post Office scandal.

The newly uncovered tapes come from a call on which investigators from forensic accountancy firm Second Sight, along with several Post Office executives, were present.

Michael Rudkin, a former Post Office union official, who was central to the discovery of Fujitsu’s covert operations unit was also referenced on the call.

In the tape Ron Warmington, a representative from Second Sight, warns that Ms Vennells could be questioned by Lord Arbuthnot – who campaigned on behalf of sub-postmasters – on the Bracknell operation.

“If James says something like, ‘And where are you on this assertion about the Bracknell covert operations team, as it was referred to by Rudkin?’,” Warmington asks.

“Well look, that’s a specific case. We’ll come back to it when we finish the investigation,” Ms Crichton responds.

“Yeah, well, as long as she doesn’t come back and say, ‘Look, so what’s this Bracknell issue, what is he talking about?’; ‘Oh, we’ve known about that for two months’,” Mr Warmington probes.

“She knows about the allegation. She knows we are working on it,” Ms Crichton responds.

Hundreds of subpostmasters were wrongly convicted of stealing after the Post Office’s Horizon accounting system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Wire)
Hundreds of subpostmasters were wrongly convicted of stealing after the Post Office’s Horizon accounting system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Wire)

The tapes also reveal that lawyers were eager to shut down interest from MPs into the unfolding scandal.

In the audio, the Post Office lawyer is heard saying: “The need to somehow have a plan to close down this process. I mean, even to the extent of stopping MPs sending cases in now. So how do we close down the MP side of the process. And what would work for MPs? And what can we sell to MPs? And how quickly can we do that?”

She continues: “So is there any way, and I’m thinking out loud here, is there any way of shutting down the MP cases, and making James and his friends happy, so they’ll just go away basically?”

Former union employee Mr Rudkin told Channel 4 that the tapes went some way to confirming what he had always known: “The minute I first heard it, it was one of elation saying ‘Rudkin you were right!’. The second one is one of sadness thinking ‘Why did my wife and kids have to be put through this”

He continued: “It’s not just us that’s affected. It’s the whole family. The way that you are shunned within the local community – whispers, ‘No smoke without fire’. Susan’s reputation and mine for that matter, just dragged through the mire.

“And I can’t understand for the life of me why it’s taking so long for the Metropolitan Police to get on top of this. Somebody’s got to be held to account”.

Susan Crichton and Paula Vennells did not respond to Channel 4 News’ requests for comment.

A Post Office spokesperson said: “We remain fully focused on getting to the truth of what happened and supporting the statutory Public Inquiry, which is chaired by a judge with the power to question witnesses under oath, and is therefore best placed to help achieve this.”

Fujitsu has been contacted for comment.