Paula Vennells was CEO of the Post Office for seven years, from 2012-2019, when hundreds of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses had their lives ruined (really, really, ruined) as they were convicted severally of theft and fraud as a result of irregularities in the Horizon IT system, which had been introduced for transactions, accounting and stocktaking. “Really, really ruined” includes marriage breakdown, loss of family, loss of home, bankruptcy, imprisonment, mental health problems, community rejection, attempted suicide, and premature death.
Last week, in the Court of Appeal, 39 of them had their convictions quashed in what has been judged the “biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history“. In a damning ruling, three judges said the Post Office had “steamrollered” sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in its pursuit of prosecutions, despite knowing there were serious questions over the reliability of Horizon. They said: “Post Office Limited’s failures of investigation and disclosure were so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the ‘Horizon cases’ an affront to the conscience of the court.”
Paula Vennells, who was at the helm through most of this period, and who spurred the zeal to prosecute, is now the Rev’d Paula Vennells CBE (“For services to the Post Office and to charity”). She has said she will be stepping back from her duties as a minister in the Bromham Benefice in the Diocese of St Albans; and has today stood down from the boards of supermarket Morrisons and furniture retailer Dunelm.
There is a campaign for her CBE to be revoked by the Honours Forfeiture Committee (it won’t be); and no doubt, given there are those who question how she could morally preside over and defend an organisation which has destroyed so many lives and livelihoods, there will be calls for her to be unfrocked as a priest in the Church of England (she won’t be).
But the Rev’d Paula Vennells is also an Independent Member of the Church of England’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG), who “provide timely and practical advice to the three National Investing Bodies (NIBs) to enable them to invest in a way that is distinctly Christian and Anglican”. She is therefore subject to a Code of Conduct, which requires her to adhere to three organisational values in everything she does; a) Excellence: We take pride in doing a good job; b) Integrity: We are trustworthy; c) Respect: We treat everyone with dignity.
When one’s trustworthiness is called into question nationally; and when one may be shown not to have treated hundreds of people with dignity, it is questionable as to whether one may be believed to be doing a good job advising the Church of England ethically. It is interesting that Paula Vennells voluntarily stepped down from the EIAG last June, just before she was due to give oral evidence to the BEIS Select Committee Inquiry. Perhaps she might do so again, today. And if she doesn’t, perhaps the Church of England might consider removing her, and encouraging her to contribute the £5million she received in bonuses to those whose lives she has ruined. They are already in line for massive payouts of compensation (some will justifiably be in excess of £1million), but the Post Office is owned by the UK Government, so the taxpayer will have to foot the bill.
Perhaps it might help Paula Vennells (and the Nominations Committee of the EIAG) to read names instead of numbers. Those who have had their names cleared (and lives ruined [and some really, really ruined]) include: Jo Hamilton, Hughie Thomas, Allison Henderson, Alison Hall, Gail Ward, Julian Wilson (deceased), Jacqueline McDonald, Tracy Felstead, Janet Skinner, Scott Darlington, Seema Misra, Della Robinson, Khayyam Ishaq, David Hedges, Peter Holmes (deceased), Rubina Shaheen, Damien Owen, Mohammed Rasul, Wendy Buffrey, Kashmir Gill, Barry Capon, Vijay Parekh, Lynette Hutchings, Dawn O’Connell (deceased), Carl Page, Lisa Brennan, William Graham, Siobhan Sayer, Tim Burgess, Pauline Thomson, Nicholas Clark, Margery Williams, Tahir Mahmood, Ian Warren, David Yates, Harjinder Butoy, Gillian Howard, David Blakey and Pamela Lock.
It is embarrassing enough, not to say profoundly reputationally damaging, to have a Church of England pulpit occupied by someone who was largely responsible for the “biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history” (how does one sit in the pews and listen to her sermons about truth and justice?); but her position in any ecclesiastical advisory capacity on ethics is untenable. She may have apologised (and she may even have repented), but if this were a Church of England priest accused of ruining the lives of hundreds of hundreds of ethnic minorities, she would be expeditiously unfrocked. Why should a Church of England minister initiate or perpetuate a gross injustice with impunity? Isn’t the sin of bearing false witness just as serious as the sin of racism?
UPDATE, 27 April 2021, 18.40