‘Overpaid and under-qualified’: Sub-postmasters’ scorn at Paul Vennell’s ‘crocodile tears’

Postmasters who were given prison sentences have reacted as ex-Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells broke down in tears during her testimony to the Horizon IT scandal inquiry.

In the first of three days of testimony, Ms Vennells insisted she did not know until 2012 that the Post Office conducted its own private criminal investigations, despite joining the organisation in 2007. Ms Vennells began her evidence to the Horizon IT Inquiry in central London on Wednesday by apologising to subpostmasters and their families.

She told the inquiry: “It was an accepted reality, it was a status quo that I joined and accepted”, adding: “I shouldn’t have done”. The former Post Office boss also claimed she was “too trusting” of the information she had been given while chief executive.

Paula Vennells cries at the Horizon inquiry (Horizon Inquiry)
Paula Vennells cries at the Horizon inquiry (Horizon Inquiry)

She broke down in tears when asked about her response to the death of former subpostmaster Martin Griffiths, who died following an attempted suicide in 2013 and there were long pauses before she answered some questions put to her.

Postal worker’s union CWU posted a video of her tearful testimony accusing her of “crocodile tears”.

“No tears when postmasters were tragically taking their own lives due to stress,” they added. “No tears when postmasters were being jailed. “No tears when postmasters had their whole communities turning against them. Tears now are too late. Paula Vennells must be held to account.”

But despite the ordeal they had been put through, there was mixed reaction from sub-postmasters to the first day of evidence.

Janet Skinner, who began working for the Post Office in Bransholme, Hull in 1994, took a plea bargain and pleaded guilty to false accounting in the hopes of avoiding jail, but was sentenced to nine months in prison.

After leaving prison, Ms Skinner lost her home and was forced to pay the Post Office compensation of £11,000.

Former subpostmistress Janet Skinner listened to Paula Vennells (PA Wire)
Former subpostmistress Janet Skinner listened to Paula Vennells (PA Wire)

The 53-year-old told The Independent as she sat in the inquiry room opposite Ms Vennell’s: “I felt her tears were quite sincere, she is currently carrying a great deal of weight on her shoulders.

“I felt very sorry for her this morning, eyes of hate pearling towards her. These three days are her opportunity to defend herself and correct the information she has been involved in.

“Everybody has chucked mud at her, it’s time for her to open up and be quite open and honest about who was at the forefront of it all.

“I’m not quite sure she was grilled enough today, hopefully tomorrow will be much more informative.

“I’m surprised she was the CEO and didn’t have any clue or understanding of what was happening within the business.

“Overpaid and under-qualified, that seems to be the position within Post Office head office.”

Ms Vennells was surrounded by press as she arrived at the inquiry (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Wire)
Ms Vennells was surrounded by press as she arrived at the inquiry (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Wire)

Speaking outside Aldwych House after Vennells gave evidence, Alan Bates said: “The whole thing is upsetting for everybody, including for so many of the victims. I’ve got no sympathy really.

Asked if he thinks she is genuinely sorry, he added: “I wonder about these apologies, these are just words.”

Seema Misra, who ran a post office in West Byfleet, Surrey, was jailed in 2010 after being accused of stealing £74,000. She was pregnant at the time. She said she believes there is still a “cover-up and denial” going on.

She said: “It’s a cover-up and denial, it’s still a cover-up, that’s what my take is. Was she emotional due to the scandal or the warnings she had been given before? They still don’t accept it, how on earth did authorities in high positions not know how the company works?”

Lee Castleton, made bankrupt after he lost his legal battle with the Post Office over an alleged £25,000 shortfall at his branch in 2004, said he did have some empathy for Vennells.

“She’ll never shed as many as I have, I’m afraid, or my family, or the rest of the victims or the wider group. Not that I have no empathy for that, because I do, I understand completely. I’d imagine a lot of it’s nerves too and doing her best. I think she’s got a need or want to do the right thing.”