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Ex-Post Office chief claimed sub-postmasters were tempted to steal, inquiry told

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Former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells previously claimed that sub-postmasters had been tempted to steal from their tills, the public inquiry into the affair has heard.

Minutes of a meeting between campaigners and Post Office executives in 2012, released on Wednesday, suggested that Vennells told MPs that branch managers may have been enticed by large sums of cash “lying about in unexpected places”.

Vennells, who is being investigated for misleading parliament over the Horizon IT scandal, has come under scrutiny for her decision to spend millions of pounds to contest sub-postmasters’ claims that they were not responsible for alleged accounting shortfalls.

The scandal resulted in more than 900 people being convicted for a range of offences including theft and false accounting in cases involving data from Fujitsu’s flawed Horizon system following its introduction in 1999, including over 700 brought by the Post Office itself.

Giving evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday, Lord James Arbuthnot, a former Tory MP and a long-serving champion for the sub-postmasters, said Vennells in early 2012 had attempted to “brush off” complaints from sub-postmasters about the Horizon system.

In correspondence with Arbuthnot, Vennells maintained there was no evidence to support the sub-postmaster’s claims that Horizon was at fault for alleged accounting shortfalls. She is scheduled to appear before the inquiry next month.

“At this stage I did not know the truth of the matter but it was clear that a detailed investigation was needed,” Arbuthnot wrote in his witness statement. “I thought it was conceivable but unlikely that all of these allegations [made by sub-postmasters] were wrong.”

Testimony from victims and campaigners in the decades-long saga have highlighted the barriers they faced in challenging the Post Office over the robustness of the Horizon system.

Separate evidence disclosed on Wednesday, showed Vennells, who led the state-owned business between 2012 and 2019, wrote to then cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin in 2012, stating the courts had always found in the Post Office’s favour and that its systems had been “rigorously tested”.

Jason Beer KC, lead counsel for the inquiry, said it amounted to a “false statement” when Vennells claimed in “every instance the courts have found in our favour”. “It’s just not true,” he added.

The former Post Office chief handed back her CBE in January after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called for a review into whether she should be stripped of the honour. MPs are also considering whether to reprimand her for contempt of parliament relating to testimony she gave in 2015.

The postal affairs minister Kevin Hollinrake said this week that once the evidence had been “established” it was right that individuals responsible for the affair “should go to jail”.

Arbuthnot also criticised ministers over their response to sub-postmasters’ calls for justice more than a decade ago.

He noted that Pat McFadden, former Post Office minister and current Labour campaign chief, wrote to him in 2009 stating that any complaint was a matter for the arm’s length Post Office.

“I was frustrated and annoyed. It was clear that the government was saying it was nothing to do with them,” he said. “I assumed that the government would be in a position to sort it out. But they were saying ‘No, not me, guv’.”

The inquiry is expected to conclude in the summer and to release its report and recommendations next year.

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