Vennells Day 2: Dispatches from the Bunker

Mr and Mrs Vennells arrive with the heavy mob this morning. Photo copyright Eleanor Shaikh

In February 2019, the Post Office was in the middle of its disastrous Bates v Post Office group litigation. The Common Issues trial had finished and the Horizon Issues trial was due to begin on 11 March. The Common Issues judgment had yet to land. The Post Office was jumpy.

Towards the end of former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells’ second day of evidence at the Inquiry, we got a weird insight into the delusional mentality running rampant at the very top of the organisation during this period.

On 21 February 2019 the government representative on the Post Office board, Tom Cooper, pushed an email into the Post Office’s litigation bunker. It was addressed to the Post Office General Counsel Jane MacLeod, with a circulation list including Vennells, the Post Office chairman Tim Parker and Andy Parsons from the Post Office lawyers Womble Bond Dickinson. This was a message from the Shareholder Representative to the Post Office’s top execs and legal advisors.

What weighty matter needed the attention of this powerful group of people?

The Cooper email

Journalists. Specifically, ones who overstate things.

Cooper, apparently in ignorance of both the right to free expression and defamation law, asked:

“To what extent can the court protect the Post Office against journalists overstating the evidence re Horizon? If a journalist writes that there is evidence of systematic problems with Horizon when in fact no such evidence exists, will the court help us?”


“Seems to me”, he continued “it’s extremely important to have a press strategy that seeks to stop misrepresentation by journalists and seeks to protect the Post Office’s business today against the implication that the current system doesn’t work properly. Grateful if you could come back to us on that.”


Was a member of the government seeking legal advice from the Post Office’s top lawyer on whether or not the High (?) Court could “protect” the Post Office from journalists “overstating” evidence?

What was he hoping might happen? And how? It really does beggar belief.

Robust! Robust!! Robust!!!

The Vennells email

Today Vennells repeatedly told Jason Beer KC that she was not a legal specialist and left legal matters to her legal team. On 21 February 2019, however, she threw caution to the wind and came back to Cooper with a reply of her own, possibly because McLeod had developed a 1000-yard stare and was shaking uncontrollably.

“Yes we defend robustly but we avoid adding extra coverage” wrote Vennells, in a strangely robotic metre. Then came the Hollywood line, best read with a gravel-voiced American accent:

“As before we hold the ground: the system is robust.”

Double-robusting in two sentences is a potential sign the word was beginning to haunt Vennells’ dreams as well as her waking life. But wait, there’s more. And it’s gibberish:

“And not comment any further during the trial. So ‘aggressive’ no, robust – absolutely no question.”

Was she rocking back and forward as she dictated this?

“We are trading well. We will continue to trade well”, she reported, definitely muttering to herself by this stage. “The system (enhanced since 2010) works and the trial doesn’t change that. A very firm line.”

A very firm line. The defences will hold. We are trading well. All is robust.

Then there’s some stream-of-consciousness stuff: “we don’t engage in any public debates, we have strong lines but we add no oxygen by commenting or engaging. This is not new news despite how the claimants will present it as that; our approach is to curtail interest as much as possible. And of course, we will respond differently if circumstances dictate. We will be all over it.”

Vennells then turns her attention to Cooper’s question “re how far we can go ‘legally’” (that’s ‘legally’, not legally).

This question, she tells Cooper, is “important”. The answer is:

“We have used injunctions” [reader, they hadn’t] “and demanded apologies in the past”. This does sound like a reasonable press strategy and not remotely an unhinged method of dealing with the media. Vennells counsels Cooper: “They are both to be used but with caution.”

At the Inquiry today, barrister Jason Beer KC did not ask Vennells (as must have been the temptation) if she was okay when she wrote this. Instead he said:

“When had you used injunctions in the past?”

“I’m not sure actually” replied Vennells, with the air of someone who was now regretting climbing to the top of Mount Pleasant sorting office and screaming “ROBUST!!!” repeatedly for several hours a day during the late twenty-teens. “I may have got that wrong.”


For my other piece on Day 2 of Vennells’ evidence, which is a bit more serious, please see Vennells Day 2: Cover-up Finally Acknowledged

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33 responses to “Vennells Day 2: Dispatches from the Bunker”

  1. Having listened to most of the POL witnesses at the hearing I am surprised that not one of them shows any anger/disgust etc that they were fooled/hoodwinked/blinkered by their colleagues. Not one shred of anger at POL for what it did to the SPMR’s from any of them – just hand wring apologies at best.
    I think this is further proof that they all ( and POL) still believe the SPMR’s were guilty.

    Unfortunately because this a public enquiry no-one can admit this attitude so the truth must remain buried,
    Its a missed opportunity that this inquiry has not been run along the lines of an Air Crash investigation. It would at least have had a chance to uncover the root causes rather than looking for culprits to bame and shame.

    1. They’re getting the root causes. Air crashes don’t have millions of incriminating documents. These hearings are the last and least later for WW

      1. Layer not later!

  2. “By their deeds shall ye know them”
    (Matthew 7:20)

  3. During my career, I was a mere accountant, however I did work on a couple of finance system implementations. Whilst my experience was limited, it does lead me to question POL’s on-going defence of the Horizon system as ‘without fault’ when to admit to faults does not necessarily mean that Horizon was not generally robust.
    For example, if Horizon were processing £20m of transactions per day and £100k of transactions had errors, when also considering the massive volumes of transactions, arguably Horizon WAS robust.
    The serious problem with the POL people involved, and so obvious that I can’t get my head around why they didn’t know and do something about it, is that if this £100k error affected post office branches, then TO EACH BRANCH, THE AMOUNT IS SIGNIFICANT AND SHOULD BE TREATED AS SUCH. Given POL were expecting the postmaster/mistress to make up any shortfalls, ANY ERROR EXCEEDING ALL BUT A MINIMAL DAILY VALUE IS UNACCEPTABLE. In other words, no way should postmasters/mistresses be held responsible for apparent shortfalls/excesses until the system bugs are fixed.
    I also repeat, any system which cannot produce a daily transaction list with opening and closing cash balances, for its users, is significantly flawed and not to be trusted. How can any court in the land have found postmasters and mistresses guilty of theft without this BASIC evidence?

  4. I am very surprised that Susan Crichton got off as lightly as she did during her appearance. I wonder if she will be recalled and given a proper grilling.

    As for Paula Vennells, I feel she, like previous executives, was living in a bubble and at worse she is guilty of incompetence. Ideally she should be forced to pay back her earnings.

    If there was a criminal conspiracy and cover-up then it would have to have begun in 1999 onwards and involved large numbers of people in both Post Office and ICL / Fajitsu which I am beginning to doubt.

    1. Fujitsu obviously knew. Why did no one volunteer the information? Many Directors and staff were clearly obstructing justice.

  5. Richard Lilley avatar
    Richard Lilley

    Your coverage is the best Nick. I am one of no doubt very many retired Lawyers watching this with grim fascination. I have seen a lot of Witnesses give evidence often under great pressure when for them everything was at stake. In comparison to the suffering of the SPM’s so devastatingly and untheatrically evoked by Moloney (a very great lawyer imho) it is hard to find sympathy for this chilly multi-millionaire who seems to have had How To Fake Empathy Training; but equally I hate those journalists knitting at the Guillotine encouraging hatred for clicks. She is a pitiful figure who will spend the rest of her life expensively explaining herself or hiding in shame. I think we are at present still a long way off imprisonment and possibly even prosecution. It is nevertheless a richly merited and equally terrible destiny.

    Everything of course is in Sir Wyn’s hands. Apart from his obvious dislike of Mr Henry and slightly queasy admiration for Moloney (which I’m sure Tim hates) he is quite properly inscrutable and I assume like the very smooth and I thought intriguing Alisdair Cameron (Accountants are never boring really) he hasnt made up his mind yet and Ms Vennell’s polished if bizarre performance will not have assisted him.

    I dont understand why the senior management dont just say that like the General Public who remained largely indifferent to this story (until you and Mr Bates came along) they just assumed and were assured by “experts” that the system could not be intermittently fallible in the ways it was; and SPM’s were well known for fiddling a system full of cash transactions so this self satisfied managerial elite were blinded by a species of class prejudice; and didnt even notice how many witches were being burned protesting their innocence.

    By the time it was staring them in the face they were involved in a massively complex politically driven reorganisation and revelation would have destroyed POL and anyway they couldnt really be be sure enough to say this in public so panicked in a very corporate and political and ultimately incoherent manner. The problem is that no one in the senior management team is now prepared to admit this so they are caught in a wierd psychodrama of denial even when it requires admitting and defending the implausible (a very common courtroom performance) and somehow justifying not actually doing the jobs for which they were lavishly remunerated because they thought other people were actually responsible.

    In my experience people who do very bad things unless they are psychopaths or the like can only do so because they have convinced themselves they are doing the opposite. A common justification of thievery being that the victim tacitly consented by not better protecting their assets “I assumed they knew and approved”. People who get others to do their dirty work (and its the only way up the Corporate ladder) carefully ring-fence their conscience (and consciousness) from any wrongdoing they have encouraged. The legal test/s for when this becomes criminally culpable are very complex around constructive knowledge and when carelessness/recklessness becomes the equivalent of intention and it is evident that she and her lawyers have attempted to craft a narrative that “word weaves” in Beer’s memorable usage a path through her many future legal difficulties. She was briefed to the point of talking literal nonsense because her explanations made no sense.

    The question Sir Wyn is obviously trying to answer is whether there was an actual conspiracy (or cover-up) or if a degraded Corporate Culture facillitated this disaster. The problem with Conspiracy is that in one requiring the complicity of so many senior managers usually somebody either fesses up or accidentally exposes the scheme. This hasnt happened yet although Ms Vennell’s usually burst into tears when finally confronted with irrefutable evidence that she must have known (or when she was mocked).

    I think Rod Williams needs to be recalled and put to the sword as was the truly wicked Jarnail Singh on his second appearance. Alice Perkins will be fascinating as will the (one hopes) re-examination of those others Vennell’s has blamed like Crichton, Aujard and the “independent” lawyers.

    Sorry for the length but at least Im paying you.

  6. Alan Cornforth avatar
    Alan Cornforth

    Just when I despaired that none of the core participant lawyers were going to land some “blows” on Vennells, up steps Tim Maloney to cut through the baloney and unmask her with some carefully selected email snippets. Gone was the facade and Vennells was shown in her true light. Bravo Mr Maloney for doing your homework.

    1. Possibly the PO got away with it for so long because of: ‘no systemic issues’. And they wheeled those words out at every opportunity.
      The phrase certainly didn’t seem to fit the pattern of inexplicable shortfalls affecting random Post Offices.
      When ‘systemic’ failures occur across a network then there’s inevitably a temporary suspension to the particular service affected; all users notified and an instruction to revert to manual recording, until a fix has been implemented.
      Did anyone challenge the use of ‘systemic’ and demand it not be used in relation to the investigation of individual cases. If I’m correct, Second Sight used it in their interim report? But surely that was not the issue and once that word had been used it suited the PO perfectly.

  7. Philip Stevens avatar
    Philip Stevens

    She’s throwing everyone under the bus she was driving!

  8. Trying to find “who was the guilty one” reminds me of the book Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy – where spymaster Smiley seeks to find the double agent “mole” Smiley observes that part of being the mole is that he is part of a “crowd” – no one really can say where did the information come from…sometimes this source or that source. That is part of the trick,

    Bit like the post office – no one seems to know who knew what and when (like watergate) did they stop knowing it

  9. Graham Dobson avatar

    Very interesting. Especially the cry from the top of Mount Pleasant…
    And today PV continues in that “I didn’t know” line. It beggars belief that any head of any organisation can truthfully claim complete ignorance of what they were told repeatedly, in writing, by such a wide spread of reliable and expert informants. And that overlooks the fact that it’s their job to find out and to know.

  10. PCOJ Investigator avatar
    PCOJ Investigator

    What an extraordinary number of barristers and solicitors, internal and external, and other high-ups of every flvour, and at what an extraordinary financial cost to the taxpayer, was involved in ENSURING PAULA VENNELLS REMAINED BLISSFULLY UNAWARE AND IGNORANT of pretty much everything that mattered!

  11. I hope that Tom Cooper’s role as the representative of the Government through UKGI will be thoroughly investigated by the authorities also.

  12. Having watched Paula Vennells at the Inquiry over the past couple of days, it is apparent she is quite the most stupid person that I have ever encountered. I don’t quite know how Jason Beer doesn’t just – literally – throw his book in her direction with shouts of ‘oh, come on, you’re taking us for fools’.
    How ever she got into the Cabinet Office afterwards, let alone the Imperial College Health Care Trust, I shall never know, other than the usual public service merry-go-round fostered by her friends. Anyway, she didn’t last at Imperial College, having been found to be useless and no due diligence as to ‘fit & proper’ being undertaken. Even former colleagues at Morrisons plc described her as dim. And I write this as a fellow cleric within the Anglican Church, wherein she clearly held thrall over some very senior figures at General Synod and Church Commissioner levels.
    Literally beyond belief…….

    1. She has spent a year preparing and rehearsing with her lawyers for this.
      It has come to the point where she is pathologically incapable of admitting fault/blame. As Nick has said before – better to be incompetent than criminal

  13. Colin Russell avatar

    Dear Nick,
    I bought the book as a possible holiday read but after a quick dip in, I just cannot put it down and I am up to page 200. Thoroughly researched, tremendous detail and a real page turner. I watch some of the hearings, but need your post match comments to really see through Vennells.
    Well done and good luck with the speech!

  14. Kirstie Jenkins avatar
    Kirstie Jenkins

    I think her internal monologue is currently ‘dont show mens rea, don’t show mens rea’.

  15. * Horizon, sorry

  16. Great work, thank you. A question:

    People have asked why noone (the board especially) queried the high rate of prosecutions (55 a year?). Does anyone know what the historic prosecution rate was pre-Horison?

    1. It’s complicated. Records chaos. Pre computer and separation

      Have a look at the hearing (evidence) of Simon Recaldin in phase 4

      and then there’s the cultural bias point…

    2. Caterina Williams avatar
      Caterina Williams

      I think it was one/two max per year.

      1. Definitely more than that.

  17. Great work as ever Nick. I think Mr Beer let PV off the hook regarding her “integrity as a lawyer above the interests of the business” comment. She claims it referred to Crichton’s work within the organisation being split between certain projects some of which requiring less legal oversight. The comment in question made no mention of the nature of the work only the integrity being shown. PV says the wording was “clumsy” but actually was incredibly accurate as evidence of how she and others had already committed to perverting the course of justice.

  18. Brilliant Nick.

    The brief interludes of comedy within the inquiry do help to keep blood vessels from bursting, especially when those vessels are subjected to the likes of jolly hockey sticks amnesiac Vennells and now Cooperman.

    Apparently the aspiring bungling magician and Government’s stakeholder on the Board, Tommy Cooper wanted journalists views to disappear, just like that.

    Paula Vennells and Mark Davies continued to sit on the shelf while their excuses use by date had expired a decade before. Wrapped together in a denial and spin barcode. They were an item.

    I’ll leave the last line to the genius of the late great Tommy Cooper to sum up the evidence of Paula Vennells.

    Deja Moo: The feeling that you’ve heard this bullshit before.

  19. The Vennells’ method of answering inquiry questions: Long silence, followed by, “My understanding of this … with hindsight … and I wasn’t involved in the conversation … and the inquiry has documentation on this …” in the hope that, during the following word salad, we’ll fall asleep.

  20. I would have some – limited – understanding for the position they adopted here if it was out of concern for ordinary people (i.e. “it is important we reassure post office customers today that the system used in their branch to protect their savings is not malfunctioning”), but no – just a desperate last stand.

    You could make a similar point about how they desperately cling to the word “systemic”, when we now know from Vennels evidence that they didn’t know what it meant!

    The sad irony is that the only people who exposed the flaws in Horizon, really, were the Post Office execs themselves. If they had resolved Alan Bates’ complaints quietly and then said, “We know this system isn’t perfect but it works most of the time and we’ll fix it when it doesn’t”, nobody would have heard of Horizon today.

  21. If PV has lied to board member Tom Cooper about having “used injunctions… in the past”, then lied to the Inquiry about “[getting] that wrong”, what else has PV lied about?

    And by the way, an injunction and/or demand for an apology presumably under threat of litigation would be a SLAPP.

  22. Thank you for this depiction, side comments especially. I laughed until I cried.

  23. How come Vennells, as a private citizen, gets to have of squad of five police to accompany her to the Inquiry? I don’t recollect that taxpayer provision being made for other witnesses. Or is it to prevent her fleeing the country?Or to make sure she turns up to face questioning?

  24. Mr Beer’s ‘was’ interjection, and the subsequent pregnant pause, reveals that Vennells has yet to perceive that the POL brand has been fatally wounded by her stewardship, or lack there of. When Alan Bates proclaims that the POL brand is now a dead duck, the evidence wholly suggests we should bloody well listen to his prescient musings.

  25. Please – this must not end up like the Leveson Inquiry. The Police and the CPS must take up the mantle and justice must be done. This woman, Ms. Paula Vennells, and that board of Post Office management succumbed to posturing and public relations in their heinous treatment of legitimate sub post masters’s grievances. Ms. Vennells and her administration concocted a bogus mediation scheme and at every point, they CONTINUE to thwart a substantive, just redress of the financial losses and humiliation sustained by the sub post masters and their families.

    Let right be done!

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