Post Office inquiry: Sub-postmasters beam as ex-chief executive Paula Vennells finally faces their questions

In the 15-year scandal of the Post Office, this may be remembered as the day that hundreds of sub-postmasters, subject to the greatest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, were finally heard.

In Westminster, the Post Office Offences Act was being rushed through parliament, included in the 'wash-up' triggered by the general election. Come early evening, when it formally received Royal Assent, as if by legislative magic, around 700 wrongful convictions were erased.

Before that, a mile or so east at Aldwych House, Paula Vennells finally faced the sub-postmasters' questions, on her third and final day of evidence at the Post Office inquiry.

The full force of more than a decade of frustration, anger and injustice was channelled via their barristers, including a pair of baritones whose questions boomed like incoming fire at the former chief executive.

After two days of meticulous inquisition from inquiry counsel Jason Beer QC, politely laying tripwires, Ed Henry and Sam Stein KC arrived wearing metaphorical knuckle dusters.

"There were so many forks in the road… but you always took the wrong one," began Mr Henry.

"You exercised power with no thought for the consequences, even when they stared you in the face?"

When Ms Vennells tried to explain that she was motivated by "compassion", he cut her short. "That's humbug… You preach compassion but you don't practice it."

In the public seats the sub-postmasters, perhaps 150 of them, beamed. They had waited a long time to hear this.

The former chief executive told the inquiry she had spent the last three years preparing for this inquiry, but Mr Henry was unimpressed.

He said: "You continue to live in a cloud of denial and it persists to this day… you have given us a witness statement that is in 750-odd pages, a craven, self-serving account."

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The questions were direct but this was no random assault. The lawyers focused on the period around 2013 when Ms Vennells admits she was first made aware of the flaws and defects in the Horizon IT system that could render previous convictions unsafe.

What might have been the trigger to confront missteps and right past wrongs instead became a corporate cover-up.

Ms Vennells's defence has been that, when it counted, she did not know key facts or inappropriate action because she was not told. "I was too trusting," she said on day one.

When confronted with documentary evidence she must have known, she said she did not understand or "I can't recall," a line worn thin through repetition.

Occasionally when cornered by documents, such as the email to her communications director in which she agreed to abandon a full review of prosecutions because it might generate "front page news", she denied the words she had written meant what everyone else thought they did.

All of this was delivered with an air of detachment, occasionally broken by tears that may have been understandable given the strain of the experience, but gained her not an ounce of sympathy.

Read more:
Vennells removed reference to Horizon from Royal Mail prospectus
Analysis: Day one of Vennells's evidence

Analysis: Day two of Vennells's evidence

Sam Stein summed up her approach as she evaded a direct answer to one of his questions.

He said: "You're doing it again, Ms Vennells, aren't you? You're saying that other people might - it might have been quite nice if they'd explained this to me, but you do that as a way of avoiding the problem, which is that, at best, you didn't ask the question.

"At worst, you knew that the answer would not help the Post Office. It's what you do, isn't it, Ms Vennells? You distance yourself time and time again and you blame these mysterious other people for not telling you the truth."

The most damning moment of the day came at the very end, when she was questioned by Tim Moloney KC, acting for a group of sub-postmasters including Jo Hamilton.

The Wiltshire sub-postmistress was one of the first to raise her case with James, now Lord, Arbuthnot, and featured prominently in the ITV drama that supercharged public concern.

She has campaigned relentlessly, attending every day that has mattered of this inquiry, and strikes all that meet her as a gentle, honest soul. She sat alongside Mr Moloney as he read Ms Vennells an email she wrote to her team following an early local news report about her case.

"Jo Hamilton lacked passion," she wrote. There were boos in the room, and after that, Ms Vennells's apology was barely worth the breath expended.