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MPs consider sanctions against ex-Post Office boss

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UK MPs are exploring options to sanction a former Post Office chief executive amid fresh allegations that she misled parliament over the Horizon IT scandal.

The House of Commons business and trade committee said in a statement on Wednesday that it would consider applying penalties against Paula Vennells after covert recordings came to light. These appear to show that she had in fact been briefed in 2013 about ‘remote access’ to the company’s Horizon system, a fact she later denied.

Recordings obtained by ITV and Channel 4 appeared to show that Vennells had been briefed by senior Post Office management on findings by forensic accountants that a “covert operations team” within Fujitsu UK could access sub-postmasters accounts without their knowledge.

More than 900 sub-postmasters were convicted in cases involving data from Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon IT system following its introduction in 1999, including more than 700 brought by the Post Office itself.

Vennells, who served as Post Office chief executive between 2012 and 2019, wrote to MPs in 2015 stating there was “no functionality in Horizon” for either the Post Office or Fujitsu to “edit, manipulate or remove transaction data” recorded in a branch’s accounts.

Remote access was a central part of the arguments put forward by sub-postmasters, who claimed they could not be held solely responsible for accounting losses because the records could be altered by third parties, such as Fujitsu.

Liam Byrne, Labour MP and chair of the committee, said MPs were “deeply concerned” by the fresh allegations and would not rule out any options — including finding Vennells in contempt of parliament if proven.

“I will present my committee with options upon parliament’s return later this month for careful consideration,” Byrne added.

The committee’s statement has raised the prospect of sanctions being applied against Post Office executives ahead of the public inquiry into the affair which resumes next week.

The business and trade committee has the ability to refer Vennells to the House of Commons to reprimand her if she is found to be in contempt of parliament. MPs can also fine or imprison individuals on the same basis.

Such measures are rarely used. A “rebuke” was last deployed in 1957 against a Sunday Express journalist. Individuals were last fined or imprisoned by parliament in 1666 and 1880, respectively, according to the Institute for Government, a think-tank.

Vennells is scheduled to give evidence alongside dozens of other executives and senior officials, including BT chair Adam Crozier, when the public inquiry into the matter commences its penultimate phase on April 9.

Sir Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats and former postal affairs minister, will also give testimony under oath having served as postal affairs minister between 2010 and 2012.

Vennells handed back her CBE in January after UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called for a review into whether she should be stripped of the honour.

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