The taxi for Paula Vennells which never quite came

Marching orders? (Image © Eleanor Shaikh)

A powerpoint slide deck was the most newsworthy element to leap out of former Post Office chair Alice Perkins’ second day of evidence at the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry today.

Thanks to an anonymous nine-page presentation, we know that in February 2014 the government was tempted to sack Post Office CEO Paula Vennells because people were saying she wasn’t very good at her job.

To give some context, by 2014, Paula Vennells was coming up to two years in post. The Post Office’s complaint and mediation scheme for Subpostmasters was underway. Independent investigators Second Sight were digging into the Post Office’s dysfunction, a £640m government subsidy had been handed over and a massive change to Subpostmaster working practices and remuneration called Network Transformation was getting underway.

The first slide of the powerpoint deck carries the logo of the Business Department (now DBT) and the Shareholder Executive (now UKGI) logos. It has the title Post Office Ltd Senior Management Risk and Assurance Committee and is marked “Restricted – People and Management” on the front slide, and then “Restricted – Policy and Commercial” on the rest. Make up yer mind, lads.

Front page of the slide deck

The summary on the second slide states: “There is a general consensus that Paula is no longer the right person to lead POL [Post Office Ltd], but justification is anecdotal.”

Under the heading “Why is Paula’s position under review?” the summary continues:

“The 2010 plan, which admittedly was not hers, failed to deliver the expected revenue growth, and the Network Transformation has required political awkward revisions to remain deliverable. Paula has not shown an understanding of political considerations (ie. presentation of plan to Ministers) or of the detail of the plan, and she has been unable to work with personalities that provide robust challenge to her.”

On the option slide titled “Remove” the assessment reads:

“There is a general feeling that Paula is not the optimal person to lead POL to deliver its commercial strategy. Paula has not been able to establish good working relationships with Jo Swinson [then Postal Affairs Minister]. She has been unable to retain key staff.”

It goes on to say that under Vennells, the Post Office “refused to keep Govt properly appraised of developments in the NT [Network Transformation] programme, requiring difficult revisions in 2013. She has shown a worrying lack of knowledge about the detail of the new plan.”

Furthermore: “Paula’s people management has caused concern as she appears unable to work with personalities and approaches that differ from hers, and has failed to build relationships with key Directors.”

On the same slide, the anonymous author notes: “Paula’s performance as CEO has been questioned by the POL Chair, and by members of the Board”.

Everybody Knew

Alice Perkins: Day 2. Not remotely bored by the questioning

Whilst giving evidence this morning, former Post Office chair Alice Perkins was at pains to point out that not only had she not seen this document, she found it “a surprise” that “these sorts of detailed conversations were going on and that nobody told me that they were going on at the time… I knew that the minister had some reservations but I had absolutely no idea that there was this machinery inside the Department that was having these conversations.”

But Vennells’ uselessness was an open secret, even at the Post Office. Perkins told the Inquiry: “In 2014, I did start, and I wasn’t alone in this, to have reservations about Paula’s ability to lead the Post Office in the circumstances which it found itself in.”

Jason Beer KC, who questioned Perkins today on behalf of the Inquiry, asked: “Is it right to those concerns included a doubt as to her personal grip specifically on Horizon issues?”
“Yes”, replied Perkins “and it went beyond that.”
Beer wanted to know how and where ShEx and the Business department had got the idea that Vennells wasn’t up to snuff.
“I think they would have got it from a number of sources”, replied Perkins, fingering Richard Callard, the ShEx rep who sat on the Post Office board. According to Perkins he “would have seen Paula operating in the context of the board, would have heard conversations, would have been party to conversations that I and the other non-executive directors were having”.
Then there would have been “feedback, I’m sure from the minister and the minister’s office” and there would have been “interactions with officials at different levels in the department”.
Was Perkins herself party to all of this, wondered Beer? Oh yes, she confirmed: “I would have had conversations from time to time with various people in the Department… this would have been a topic of conversation on a pretty regular basis.”
“To your knowledge”, asked Beer “which other members of the board had questioned her performance?”
“I think everybody had by this stage”, replied Perkins.

So Vennells was universally recognised as a bit of a duffer by everyone around her.

Of course, their instincts were right. Paula Vennells went on to preside over the corporate cover-up of a catastrophic miscarriage of justice which:

– ruined the Post Office’s reputation
– destroyed the financial worth of the Post Office network (UKGI currently rate the value of the network at £0)
– ruined the morale of serving Subpostmasters who saw their remuneration and value of their branches collapse
– cost more than a billion pounds to put right

But this only happened after the government gave Vennells a CBE, a seat on the Cabinet Office board and a plum job running an NHS Trust. Never in the history of corporate leadership has such mediocrity failed upwards so spectacularly.

Why wasn’t Vennells shown the door in 2014, then? In the powerpoint slide giving the “Retain” rationale, we read Vennells “has performed adequately, meets most of the desired skills, is relatively inexpensive, and has a knowledge and understanding of the business.” It concluded:

“The reasons for retaining Paula are largely negatively framed, posited in avoiding the risk of disruption… but this reflects the reality of the situation.”

It seems that doing nothing and hoping for the best won the day. Download the full document here.

A lengthy write-up of Day 1 of Alice Perkins evidence can be found here with a preview here. Read the live tweets from today here.

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34 responses to “The taxi for Paula Vennells which never quite came”

  1. With all the dirt under the Post Office carpet by 2010, doesn’t it seem curious that the new coalition government was content to appoint someone so intimately close to the previous Labour administration, to be Chair of the Post Office and then agree to the recruitment of Jack Straw’s spad as a PR guru?

    And what about Ms Perkins self-proclaimed efforts to ‘fact find’ when she joined POL? She didn’t seem too interested in the fact that the Head of the external audit team thought Horizon was a big problem, did she?

    Isn’t it pretty obvious that, before you try to keep the lid on something, its a big help to know exactly what is under the lid? Is that what these early meetings were all about before POL set about trying to fob off the SPMs with peanuts.

    ‘Follow the money’ is usually a good place to start.

  2. Ah! Jack Straw, I don’t think we’ll ever get to the truth about his role in extraordinay rendition. It’s been buried deep enough to give him chance to die a comfortable old age first. He does not have clean hands.

  3. Alice in Wonderland day two, and I do like your ‘taxi for Paula’ line.

    But finding a taxi driver within POL or the civil service to rid them of the useless one given the skill shortage may have been problematical. What if POL had to drive her?

    I doubt that any of the POL board, executives, management or their legal experts could pass the memory test required to qualify as London cabby.

    The knowledge is clearly beyond their mental capacity to retain information, although making a living by driving their customers away would have helped.

    Post Office in fact did after all employ a set of clowns who couldn’t have held down a job elsewhere.

    Even the legal eagles failed to soar and Lord Neuberger was found to lack the knowledge required to operate as a fully functioning human being. Poor decision making skills. I doubt if he could negotiate the roads between Aldwych House and Wormwood Scrubs or Bronzefield. Not very bright compared to your average taxi driver. But none of them were or are.

    In fact listening to so many involved in the scandal pleading computer illiteracy, it does bring our education system into question. How can anyone without even a basic background knowledge of information technology be allowed anywhere near a Board room ?

    As the Covid crisis proved beyond reasonable doubt, the country could get rid of useless corporate people like Paula Vennells, Mark Davies, Alice Perkins, Chris Aujard, Angela Van Den Bogard, Susan Crichton, Hugh Flemington, Belinda Cortes-Martin, Rod Ismay, Lesley Sewell, Allen Lyons, Chris Day and all the other wasters stealing a living in similar positions.

    Surely to get rid, we could make up stories about the imminent doom of Earth, say it crashing into the Sun next week or being eaten by a mutant star goat to remove these basically useless citizens from our planet by ‘sending’ them on a B Ark spacecraft to populate another planet.

    You could just imagine their new home as they tried to survive and create basic technology.

    Endless meetings arguing that the Horizon square wheel has no design faults and that it not being circular was never pointed out to them. No proof as they thought stone tablets as a permanent recording device was a bad idea and all their papyrus records had been shredded shortly after a botched crash landing. The PR guy would bring in a specialist lawyer to deal with the aftermaths of the crash. Square wheels transformation project the future.

    Email would be a pipe dream, or nightmare to the B Ark Board depending on what it said about the crash.

    Of course the intelligent, honest, hard working sub postmasters would remain and thrive on Earth.



  4. The difficulty with the evidence of Perkins, Vennells, Crichton and Van den Bogard is that, if you accept what they say (ie. they “didn’t know”), they were all grossly incompetent, lazy and stupid. Nailing postmasters and postmistresses to the floor because they couldn’t be bothered to use their brains.

  5. Goodness, Alice defended her behaviour at the critical board meeting using words like : sometimes you can’t just ram through an agenda, sometimes you lose control and have to abandon the agenda because its a group of human beings in the room and then no reason given to go back to this key topic. But the enforcement wing of the Post Office had no such respect for the sub postmasters, ramming through audits, demands to repay money, prosecutions…… regardless of their health and family circumstances honestly, double standards?

  6. Roger Whitewick avatar
    Roger Whitewick

    The level of arrogance on display is concerning. Alice Perkins looks on those questioning her as somehow impertinent. We are expected to believe that she was a leader that would accept ‘bad news’. Her condescending attitude has been matched so far by Mark Davies (now, disappointingly at Refugee Council) and Patrick Bourke; self-important people rarely appreciate having to account for themselves.

  7. There are still strong forces in the Labour Party which back taking the utilities into public ownership. Rail renationalisation is still promised. Surely the Post Office story shows the patterns of
    – weak politicised leadership
    – poor ministerial or defensive civil service oversight
    – muddled objectives
    – misuse of power
    – poor treatment of work force or other stakeholders
    – expense to the public purse
    – going for cheap, poor IT options.
    – slow, diffuse decision making

    Watching the Inquiry is a salutary reminder of why public ownership solves creates far more
    problems than it solves.

    The private sector has its major defects but nothing on this level. And can be regulated.

    1. Stephen Wilson avatar
      Stephen Wilson

      The majority of Italian railways are still nationalised with private companies competing on high speed routes,a 3 hour journey from Pescara to Rome can be less than €20 off peak thus proving that private and state owned businesses can work in conjunction with each other.

    2. Gerald Nykerk avatar

      Consider this:
      The senior management at POL had seen (perhaps with envious eyes) the successful privatisation of RMG and the resultant riches “earned” by many of its executives, as a consequence.
      I suspect that a similar future was in the offing for POL. Horizon was (and, somehow, still is) the backbone and engine of the entire business, so Horizon’s reputation had to be protected at any cost if POL (“the brand”) was to maintain its potential sale value. This might explain the multitude and magnitude of despicable actions and inactions leading to the present sorry state of affairs.
      Just sayin’.

  8. Jonathan Mare avatar

    Crucially, the question is whether Paula Vennells was aware of the government’s consideration to fire her? If yes, then surely this would have played on her mind when being made aware of the Horizon failures. In other words, had the Horizon problems been properly addressed, then she would have lost her job as her position would have been untenable.

  9. Excellent analysis, which shows why this whole scandal was, without doubt, a deliberate and determined cover-up by those at the top.

  10. Donald Alexander MacKillop avatar
    Donald Alexander MacKillop

    The amnesiac clones keep coming. One thing they don’t forget is their coaching or any catastrophic additions. So Susan Crichton is sacrificed, again, far too much of a liability to be trusted to face the INED and might blow the Horizon saga/scandal out of the water. Vennells now too is dispensable, needs must, Perkins’ stroppy lap dog was ‘slack’ and troublesome but not enough to be got rid of, still biddable and met the P.O. criteria of useful incompetence. An executive of nearly intelligent and over-promoted dunces who typically prevaricate or fib when the truth doesn’t fit the scripted (yarns) reports. Well dodgy Mark ‘greaser’Davies the cosy, reliable manipulator of communications on Jack Straws team as a quasi-legal advisor, soon became the go-to guy when they felt in a tight spot, perhaps aping A. Campbell’s role of ‘the leader of the pack’ Davies conceited and overconfident when questioned so in love with his mendacious persona he spent much of the time flirting with himself, nobody needs his collar felt more than that dishonest scoundrel. His being hand-picked due to his cosiness to Straw was swiftly brushed aside as nothing to see here (over supper) the really important part of any Perkins ‘working’ day, when crucial decisions were made. They had the best fib polisher around. A founder member of the “I Knew, Brigade of Mendacious Rogues’ (BMR). Perhaps notable how many emails were written late evening/night, some looked as if they were three sheets to the wind . Accustomed as they are to a lifetime of fibs, half-truths and flannel sleep like the dead at night.

  11. Kirstie Jenkins avatar
    Kirstie Jenkins

    This is all very eye opening.

    How did PV survive for another 5 years if they didn’t think she could do the job?

    Also what was going on with Alice Perkins, Mark Davies and tbe BBC? Apparently her attempts to ‘assert influence’ on broadcasting of your Panorama failed, but she was a non executive director at the BBC at the time – doesn’t that call into question her understanding of conflicts of interest?

    (Are the Conservatives aiming too low with their idea that 18 year olds could just deliver medicine as part of National Service? Idea: save money by making them board members – apparently no relevant experience required.)

  12. Worth looking at AP’s witness statement, (26 March 2024) Para 16.. AP working as an ‘executive coach’ (Is that one with smart seats and air conditioning?) for JCA group…. ‘ I was asked to meet with Dave Smith and Paula Vennels give them some input how to effectively manage relationships with government’

    Wonder if that included handy tit bits on how to ask a question , by giving the answer first? Quite sure recollections will fail AP, or perhaps she might find such a question ‘offensive?’

  13. It’s quite clear that getting rid of Vennells would not have improved matters because, as Nick has said previously, the POL was stuffed to the gills with incompetent, over promoted lackeys. Perkins herself comes across as someone who thinks more of herself than her intelligence and competence warrants. It is also clear that no-one in executive positions or at Board level, at any time acted with any sense of compassion for the plight of the sub-postmasters, their sole objective being to cover their own arses and that of the POL. Perkins made constant reference to the qualities of the Civil Service yet if she is an example that organisation then any expertise is sadly lacking. She also appeared to lack any concern for the subpm’s and her historical papers show no understanding of their problems at the hands of POL and Horizon. She was “offended” by certain lines of questioning from the subpm’s barristers but obviously not distressed by the suffering of the subpm’s themselves. On a final note what is it about the sleazy Mark Davies (the PR guy) that everyone seemed to be in thrall too? Perkins followed Vennells in singing his praises to the hilt and lauding his qualities in some weird corporate menage a trois.

    1. I was a SubPostmaster from 1991 to 2008 when my office was closed as part of one of the network rationalisation schemes. Somehow I did not get caught up in the problems.
      In that time I had contact with quite a few Post Office employees and my initial impression of them was confirmed (and strengthened) over the years. I do not consider your description of many PO employees as “incompetent, over promoted lackeys” to be very accurate – in my view they were nowhere as good as you describe them.
      I’m waiting for Sir Wyn to ask all future testifiers from the PO to NOT apologise for what they did to Spmrs – it’s pretty obvious that none of them mean a word of it, and they’re all still running round like headless chickens trying to find somebody within the organisation (other than themselves) to blame.
      It would be interesting to know whether anybody in government has given any serious thought to Alan Bates’ suggestion of selling the PO to Amazon; I got the impression that his remark was only slightly meant as lighthearted & throwaway.

    2. My thoughts have always been that they knew they were going to need a fall guy,even before she was appointed. Maybe they deliberately head hunted a known duffer on purpose.

  14. Sytske Casimir avatar
    Sytske Casimir

    Oops a mistake in my first comment – that can be deleted this is what I meant to write:

    I am astounded that nowhere in this presentation (which is of such a poor quality that I find it hard to find words for it), there is a suggestion of working with Paula to improve her performance or to support her to make the change happen.

    When you know an employee isn’t performing and you have it in your power to help them or replace them and then you let them just go on failing, you are as much responsible for their failings as that person themselves. It seems to me that while Paula deserves all the criticism she receives, the board, the ministers and anyone who kept her there and disabled her by not being frank with her deserves as much criticism. Seriously the fact that someone is relatively inexpensive is part of your decision making when so many lives and so much money is at stake?

  15. It’s staggering how so much collective incompetence was not recognised, mainly due to individual incompetence. The deeper they got the worse it got. I live in hope that individuals will be punished, based on evidence so I actually think it won’t happen. I’ll be put down to collective rather than individual failing.

    1. Dunning-Kruger could have confirmed their theory (over-estimation of ability) with this squad of POL muppets.

  16. The shareholder doubts the competence of the CEO. So what do they do? They get together in a committee and make presentstions to each other. AP apparently shared their doubts. It wasn’t just Horizon, PV wasn’t wresting the business round. So why did they keep her on? The NEDs allegedly shared these doubts. So what did THEY do? Answer, they all bumbled on. What did any of them do that was right, commercially or morally?

    1. Kirstie Jenkins avatar
      Kirstie Jenkins

      ‘Shareholder’. Not actually their money.

      The only commercial risk was born by the SPMs.

  17. I cannot remember these events which happened over 10 minites ago.

    You might interpret it that way, but that is not what was in my mind. What was in my mind? I simply can’t remember.

    I am a very honest person with a huge Civil Service pension and I present courses on corporate governance and integrity.

    I’m still laughing after all this time!
    I’m still laughing …

    1. I must confess that I formed the very same opinion of Ms. Perkins/Mrs. Straw. ‘How dare you ask me questions, little man? If this goes on I’ll tell Jack to have you dealt with’ Who am I, again?’

    2. Very apt summary. Beer KC has her on the ropes more than once when her explanations seemed patently untrue and simply mumbo jumbo couched in corporate-speak.

  18. Of all the testimony I have seen, only paula vennels has shown any emotion. The others including in my view todays alice perkins condersending answers – with the standard “apology” at the start – have all been grey and souless. I think now Paula Vennels has been a patsy for those below her

    1. Surely you weren’t fooled by Vennells’ crocodile tears? The only person she was weeping for was herself. If you want to see some genuine emotion, watch Warwick Tatford’s oral evidence (he was the barrister who prosecuted Seema Misra’s case). His attitude to his prosecutorial duties (including his apparent disregard for the importance of disclosure) was appalling, but under Jason Beer KC’s expert questioning, his ever-increasing realisation of what he had done – how he had spectacularly failed in his duties as a “Minister for Justice” – was quite something to watch. I think he’s the only person involved in this scandal who is genuinely troubled by his conscience.

    2. ‘[…]Paula Vennels has been a patsy for those below her’

      And, by the sound of it, those above her too.
      That’s not to give any kind succour to Rev. Vennells, not at all.

      Mrs Straw might have wanted us to believe that the Rev was a bumbling incompetent, but nobody rises to be CEO of a National institution like the Post Office without some of the necessary attributes/qualities (E.g. expert in spinning, expert in buck passing, expert in calculating the annual bonus, lack of empathy, full blown narcissistic tendencies, an ability to lie pathologically and at will….). That goes for the Chair of the Board as well.

  19. This is a good summary. And there was the late intervention by Vennells’ lawyer who, in her line of questions, reduced an already tired and peevish Perkins to a fully deflated barrage balloon by using email evidence to point out to her that she was wrong to claim that Vennells had not given her an important piece of information.
    Of course, because everything Vennells’ touches turns to dust, it followed that at in ‘added time’ Beer had to set the record straight about one of the incriminating emails not only having Alwen Lyons as sender but also as sole recipient. Apparently no one else received it. That one error in the paperwork didn’t let Perkins off the hook, but after a terrible day for her as a credible witness, it allowed her a very small consolation ‘win’.

    1. If you are sending something contentious, put all teh recipients in the Bcc box and they don’t appear anywhere…

    2. Not really as it was followed by a note that shows Alwen did send on the note to Vennrells so she Could brief Perkins later that day …

  20. A very well-rehearsed performance by Ms Perkins over two days but with some phrases that were rather too well-honed to be spontaneous. And she started fluffing her lines at the end of day one and asked to be let off, pleading tiredness.

    Her main problem was in trying to explain the events surrounding the crucial Board Meeting on 16 July 2013. The importance of this meeting has only become evident during the public hearings of recent weeks and would not have been evident to Ms Perkins when she submitted her written witness statement on 26 March 2024. Curiously, as Mr Beer pointed out, there was nothing in Ms Perkins’ 232-page written witness statement that dealt with Susan Crichton’s sudden exclusion from the meeting.

    Ms Perkins’ explanation was that at the pre-Board Meeting of Non-Executive Directors on 16 July at a local bistro there had been a good deal of concern expressed about the events leading up to the launch of the Second Sight Interim Report on 8 July. But how credible is that? The launch had actually gone pretty well. James Arbuthnot issued a warm press release afterwards praising the Post Office for its ‘forthrightness and transparency…it clearly wants to get to the bottom of what went wrong’. And the next day the Post Office Minister, Jo Swinson, was able to make a statement in the House of Commons saying that so far Second Sight had found no evidence of system-wide problems with the Horizon software.

    Furthermore, Board Meeting agendas are generally issued at least a week in advance and Susan Crichton had been listed on the agenda to provide a ‘Horizon update’ on 16 July. Presumably Ms Perkins as Chairman approved the agenda before it was sent out and was comfortable at that stage with Susan Crichton’s participation. So, what changed in the week that followed? Did some new information come to Ms Perkins that persuaded her to exclude Susan Crichton on the day?

    Ms Perkins in her evidence suggested that she was essentially protecting Susan Crichton from potential hostile questioning from the NEDs. But might it not be more likely that, by this stage, Mr Perkins had decided that Susan Crichton was a liability and that, by excluding her from the Board Meeting, she could set her up as a scapegoat? The minutes were by implication highly critical of Susan Crichton. As the person who ultimately signed off the minutes, Ms Perkins had control of the narrative. The last thing that Ms Perkins wanted at this stage was a free and frank discussion between the NEDs and a General Counsel who might reveal who knows what? The stakes were incredibly high. The Post Office at this time was negotiating its next five years’ money from the Government. And the flotation of Royal Mail shares was in the offing: the first day of full trading for the shares was 15 October 2013. Many cases in the review dated from before the separation of Royal Mail and Post Office Limited and any suggestion of liabilities arising from a significant number of unsafe prosecutions prior to separation would have been highly damaging to the Royal Mail flotation.

    Ms Perkins actions were deeply cynical. Had she not made the decision to exclude Susan Crichton from the Board Meeting on 16 July 2013, events might have played out very differently.

    Her husband, Jack Straw, was of course Tony Blair’s biddable Foreign Secretary during the Iraq War.

    The Post Office Scandal and the Iraq War. How do the pair of them sleep at night?

    1. Excellent analysis James, which shows why this whole scandal was, without doubt, a deliberate and determined cover-up by those at the top.

    2. Didn’t Jack Straw also become the Secretary of State for Justice when all these injustices were proceeding apace?

      He was preceded in that role by Tony Blair’s former flat mate, Charlie Falconer, wasn’t he?

      Are we going to get to know who recommended Mrs Straw for Chair of the Post Office or have I missed that?

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