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Vennells booed, grilled and pushed to tears over three days of evidence

The ordained priest entered the witness box to face what one former subpostmistress described as a room of people with ‘eyes full of hatred’.

Paula Vennells crying at the inquiry

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells was booed by subpostmasters, grilled by lawyers and pushed to tears multiple times during her three days’ evidence to the Horizon IT Inquiry.

The ordained priest entered the witness box at Aldwych House in central London to face what one former subpostmistress described as a room of people with “eyes full of hatred”.

Here, the PA news agency looks at the most dramatic moments of the 65-year-old’s evidence.

Paula Vennells arriving for first day
Paula Vennells was surrounded by press when she arrived on the first day of her evidence (Yui Mok/PA)

– Arrival for her first day of evidence

On Wednesday, Ms Vennells arrived at 7.45am in the rain at Aldwych House.

She was surrounded by press as she exited a car a short way from the venue.

The ex-chief executive was eventually escorted by a small group of police officers.

– Breaking down in tears

Ms Vennells first broke down in tears on the morning of the first day of her evidence as she apologised for telling MPs the Post Office was successful in every court case against subpostmasters.

After detailing a number of cases in which the Post Office had not been successful after subpostmasters blamed Horizon, counsel to the inquiry, Jason Beer KC, asked: “Why were you telling these parliamentarians that every prosecution involving the Horizon system had been successful and had found in favour of the Post Office?”

After a short pause in which she appeared to compose herself, Ms Vennells said: “I fully accept now that the Post Office …”

She broke off her answer to grab a tissue and held her head in her hands for a brief moment before recomposing herself.

Paula Vennells grabbing a tissue mid-evidence
Paula Vennells had to grab a tissue mid-evidence (Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry/PA)

Ms Vennells continued: “The Post Office knew that and I completely accepted.

“Personally, I didn’t know that and I’m incredibly sorry that it happened to those people and to so many others.”

She cried again on Wednesday as she discussed Martin Griffiths, who deliberately stepped in front of an oncoming bus on September 23 2013, after he had been deemed culpable for an armed robbery at his Hope Farm Post Office branch in Cheshire in May 2013.

Ms Vennells grew emotional just before the end of her second day of evidence when asked questions about “personal circumstances” that meant she had to step back from aspects of her role in 2019.

And the former chief executive became upset again when she insisted she “loved” the Post Office.

Sam Stein KC, on behalf of a number of subpostmasters, accused her of failing to ask the right questions and that she “couldn’t be bothered” to look into issues.

Ms Vennells said, “I loved the Post Office”, after which she grew emotional and paused to compose herself before continuing.

– Boos from the public gallery

Ms Vennells was booed by people sitting in the public gallery, which was mostly made up of subpostmasters, on Friday.

Jo Hamilton
Jo Hamilton said she doubted the sincerity of Paula Vennells’s apology (Yui Mok/PA)

The boos sounded after an email Ms Vennells wrote in 2014 was read out in which she told colleagues former subpostmistress Jo Hamilton “lacked passion” in a BBC programme featuring campaigners.

She apologised directly to Ms Hamilton for being “so rude” about her in the email.

The former subpostmistress said after the hearing: “I’m in two minds as to whether it was genuine or that she was so publicly ashamed.”

– Groans from the public gallery

The chairman of the inquiry had to intervene in proceedings after the public gallery groaned when Ms Vennells said she did not remember if she took the “advice of the PR guy” not to review five-10 years’ worth of past prosecutions.

Responding to an email from the former Post Office communications director, Mark Davies, in which he advised not to look at historical Horizon cases because it would end up on the front page, Ms Vennells said: “You are right to call this out. I will take your steer.”

Mr Beer asked: “You did take the advice of the PR guy, didn’t you?”

Ms Vennells began her answer by saying “I don’t remember”, before loud groans came from the public gallery, prompting chairman Sir Wyn Williams to intervene.

– Grilling from lawyers on behalf of subpostmasters

On Friday, Edward Henry KC asked Ms Vennells: “There were so many forks in the road but you always took the wrong path didn’t you?”

Mr Henry later continued: “You exercised power with no thought of the consequences of your actions despite those consequences staring you in the face?”

Ms Vennells told the barrister: “I understand your point that there are no words that I can find today that will make the sorrow and what people have gone through any better.”

Mr Henry accused her of living in a “cloud of denial” and in “la la land”, of giving a “craven, self-serving account” in her 775-page witness statement and leading the Post Office through “deception, manipulation”.

Mr Stein accused Ms Vennells of setting a “let’s eliminate them” tone for the Post Office’s attitude towards the High Court case brought by lead campaigner Alan Bates and other subpostmasters between 2017 and 2019.

The barrister said: “You set the tone, didn’t you Ms Vennells? The tone was, ‘let’s eliminate them, let’s get rid of these bugs in the system – the subpostmasters’. That’s what you set in place, wasn’t it Ms Vennells?”

Ms Vennells replied: “I did not set a culture like that. I did not lead the litigation.”

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