Ex-head of IT blocked Paula Vennells’ phone number after she sought her help

The Post Office’s former head of IT said she blocked Paula Vennells’ phone number after the former chief executive sought her help to “avoid an independent inquiry”.

Lesley Sewell, who struggled to contain her emotions at the beginning of Thursday’s Horizon IT inquiry proceedings, said Ms Vennells had contacted her four times in 2020 and 2021 – five years after Ms Sewell had left the company.

Ms Sewell told the probe in her witness statement that she blocked Ms Vennells’ number because she “did not feel comfortable with her contacting me”.

Post Office Horizon IT scandal
Former head of IT Lesley Sewell was tearful as she took an oath ahead of her evidence on Thursday (Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry/PA)

In shorthand notes she had written following a telephone call with the former chief executive, Ms Sewell wrote that “PV got jumpy” as they discussed a 2014 report by Deloitte, which suggested remote access to subpostmasters’ accounts was possible.

The notes also said the pair had discussed how “lawyers say we didn’t do anything” about the report, which was codenamed “Project Zebra”.

The document appeared to suggest they also spoke about how a “judicial review will have weight”, which then had an arrow pointing to the words “public inquiry”.

Those words were also linked with arrows to the phrase “evidence unsafe”, followed by “Post Office knew it was unsafe” and “public affront” – which appeared to be under the heading “23rd Court of App”, referencing the Court of Appeal case which quashed 39 wrongful convictions.

Ms Sewell’s witness statement read: “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.”

The notes, shown to the inquiry, also make reference to “3,700 (who) lost money as (a) result of shortfalls”.

Ms Sewell said: “I believe the reference to ‘in light of 3,700 lost money as result of shortfalls’ is a reference to the number of subpostmasters with shortfalls.

“I also recall Paula converting this number into a monthly average of subpostmasters with shortfalls.

“I had not heard these figures prior to this conversation.

“If I had been aware of the magnitude of the losses during my tenure, I would have been surprised and concerned about this.”

One of the emails from Ms Vennells said she needed to “plug some memory gaps” about Horizon and “Project Sparrow” – a sub-committee which sought to get rid of forensic accountants who found bugs in the faulty system.

Her statement read: “To the best of my knowledge and research, Paula Vennells contacted me four times in 2020 and 2021 via either email, telephone call or text message.

“It has taken me some time to locate all of these communications.

“On March 8, 2020, Paula Vennells emailed my personal email account from a personal email account of hers.

“In that email, she asked if I could spare her some time for a call as she had ‘been asked at short notice to appear before a… Select Committee on all things Horizon/Sparrow 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’.

“I had not spoken to Paula since I had left the Post Office in 2015.”

Ms Sewell added: “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.”

At the beginning of her evidence, the inquiry’s chairman Sir Wyn Williams said he appreciated Ms Sewell’s attendance at the probe as “upsetting”.

His words followed Ms Sewell appearing to tear up as she took an oath ahead of giving evidence.

Sir Wyn said: “Ms Sewell, I appreciate this may be upsetting for you, Ms Price will ask you a number of questions in a proper and sensible manner, but if at any time you feel you need a break, just let me know, all right?”

The Post Office has come under fire following the ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, which put the Horizon IT scandal under the spotlight.

More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

Hundreds of subpostmasters are still awaiting full compensation despite the Government announcing those who have had convictions quashed are eligible for £600,000 payouts.