Friday, June 21, 2024

Former Post Office executive tells Horizon inquiry she blocked Paula Vennells’ number

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A former Post Office executive has told the inquiry into the Horizon scandal that she blocked Paula Vennells’s phone number after the company’s ex-CEO contacted her asking for help to “plug memory gaps” and to “avoid an independent inquiry”.

Lesley Sewell, who was chief information officer at the Post Office until she left in 2015, said that she had subsequently been contacted by her former boss four times in 2020 and 2021.

She was giving evidence on Thursday before the inquiry into the wrongful prosecution of hundreds of Post Office operators who were hounded by the state-owned company because of financial shortfalls in their branch accounts. It has since emerged that these discrepancies were due to IT bugs in the Post Office’s Horizon computer system.

Sewell said in her witness statement that in March 2020, Vennells, who had resigned as chief executive the year before, emailed her to ask for a call after being asked to appear before a select committee of MPs.

She said Vennells told her she had “been asked at short notice to appear before a … select committee on all things Horizon … and need to plug some memory gaps! My hope is this might help avoid an independent inquiry but to do so, I need to be well prepared.”

Paula Vennells stepped down as the Post Office’s chief executive in 2019. Photograph: Jeremy Durkin/PA

Sewell said she had not spoken to Vennells since 2015 but had agreed to talk to her briefly in March 2020 and again in June and December the same year. Vennells also texted her asking for a call in April 2021.

Sewell told the inquiry she had taken notes of their subsequent conversation, which she had provided to the hearing, and which show the two women talked about an internal report on Horizon conducted by Deloitte.

“I can see from my notes that there is reference to the Project Zebra Deloitte report and a reference to a call to Gareth James of Deloitte who I recall was the lead on this project,” Sewell said in her witness statement.

“I cannot recall why he was mentioned. I do not know what is meant by ‘lawyers say we didn’t do anything about it’. Paula must have said this to me and I do not know to which lawyers she referred.”

Sewell added in her witness statement: “Paula contacted me on four occasions in total. I recall blocking her number after the last call as I did not feel comfortable with her contacting me. I had no access to POL [Post Office Ltd] papers and was relying on my memory only.”

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She became emotional in her evidence to the inquiry and wept at times. “I do feel so deeply about all this and for all the subpostmasters,” she said at one point.

Sewell said she had resigned from the Post Office in June 2015 without another job to go to as by the end of 2014 she had become “very unhappy” with internal changes at work.

She added that “towards the end of my tenure, the culture was not supportive and did not fit with my personal values. All of this made me so unhappy that it was affecting my physical and mental health.”

The inquiry continues, with Vennells due to testify for three days next week.

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