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MPs to ponder ‘sanctioning’ ex-Post Office chief over statements to Parliament

MPs are set to consider “sanctioning” the former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells after a further set of leaked recordings appeared to raise questions about her statements to Parliament on the Horizon scandal.

Covert recordings obtained by ITV and Channel 4 show Ms Vennells, who led the Post Office at the height of the scandal, was told in 2013 that there had been allegations the Horizon system could be accessed remotely, something she later told a committee of MPs was not possible.

It later emerged that subpostmasters’ Horizon accounts could be accessed remotely by staff working at Fujitsu’s headquarters in Bracknell.

Responding to the recordings, Labour MP Liam Byrne, who chairs the Commons Business and Trade Committee, said he was concerned Ms Vennells may have potentially misled Parliament.

Post Office Horizon IT scandal
Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells has already forfeited her CBE as a result of her role in the Horizon scandal (Anthony Devlin/PA)

He said: “We are deeply concerned by the latest revelations regarding the Post Office and will be exploring options for penalising the leadership that presided over the scandal. All options are on the table, including the Commons exercising its powers in relation to contempt of Parliament.

“We have to make absolutely sure that we don’t jeopardise any future legal action or undermine Sir Wyn Williams’ public inquiry. I will present my committee with options upon Parliament’s return later this month for careful consideration.”

In a call on July 2 2013, an independent investigator warned Ms Vennells not to categorically deny that Horizon could be accessed by Fujitsu staff in case “some bloody whistleblower” contradicted her.

Seven years later, in a letter to a parliamentary committee, Ms Vennells said she had been told by Fujitsu that the system could not be accessed remotely.

The recordings do not appear to contain any explicit statement confirming that Horizon could be accessed remotely.

Commenting on today’s announcement, Mr Byrne told Channel 4 News, which first broadcast the tapes last week: “We’ve got to now lay out the facts to Parliament. Paula was briefed according to your tapes in 2013. She then told the House in 2013 that remote access was not possible.

“It seems very very difficult to square that answer with what you’ve heard on your tapes.

He added: “We’re testing powers that have not been used in merely 70 years. We’ve got work to do now reviewing all the options that are available to us.”

Ms Vennells has already handed back her CBE as a result of her role in the scandal.

She said: “I continue to support and focus on co-operating with the inquiry and expect to be giving evidence in the coming months.

“I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the subpostmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system.

“I now intend to continue to focus on assisting the inquiry and will not make any further public comment until it has concluded.”

Fujitsu declined to comment directly on the recordings or Mr Byrne’s statement, but a spokesperson said: “The Fujitsu Group regards this matter with the utmost seriousness and offers its deepest apologies to the subpostmasters and their families.

“The UK statutory public inquiry, to which our UK subsidiary is providing full co-operation, is examining complex events that have unfolded over many years, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to this co-operation.

“Based on the findings of the inquiry, we will also be working with the UK Government on the appropriate actions, including contribution to compensation. The Fujitsu Group hopes for a swift resolution that ensures a just outcome for the victims.”