Post Office boss used husband’s descriptions in ‘Orwellian’ ploy to downplay Horizon problems

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Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells asked her husband for advice on how to refer to Horizon bugs in an attempt to downplay the anticipated findings of an independent review of the software, the public inquiry has heard.

Vennells, Post Office CEO from 2012 to 2019, emailed colleagues suggesting, on the advice of her husband, that the word “bugs” be changed to “exceptions” or “anomalies” in reports about the Horizon system.

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At the time, the Post Office was denying the existence of software bugs that could cause unexplained accounting discrepancies, for which subpostmasters were blamed.

Documents revealed in the latest Post Office scandal public inquiry hearing revealed that the day after the advice from Vennells’ husband, the language used in reports about the Horizon system was changed.

The inquiry also heard there were discussions within the Post Office over reducing the scope of Second Sight’s investigation to minimise negative findings. The hearing also heard that closer to the interim report’s publication there was talk, at the Post Office, about the possibility of taking out an injunction to prevent its publication.

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During the hearing, inquiry barrister Julian Blake asked former Post Office general counsel Susan Crichton: “Are we to understand here that the words used that were suggested by Paula Vennells’ husband had now made their way into the terminology that is being used by the business?” Crichton responded: “It certainly looks like it.”

She said she had no recollection of the changes to the wording being made, but another document referred to Crichton, along with former chief information officer Lesley Sewell, “crafting” briefing papers.

Blake said: “It’s absolutely Orwellian, the use of ‘exception’ instead of ‘bug’, changing the language within the company, crafting a briefing.”

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Changing descriptions

The editing advice appeared during the latest Post Office scandal public inquiry, where the former Post Office general council was asked about the Post Office’s strategy to change the way Horizon errors were described.

In 2012, forensic accountants Second Sight were selected to carry out an independent investigation of the Post Office’s Horizon accounting and retail system, amid scrutiny from MPs. Second Sight was chosen over Deloitte.

As exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, the Horizon system was being blamed by subpostmasters for unexplained accounting shortfalls they were blamed for. Many subpostmasters had been prosecuted and convicted based on evidence from the system, with some sent to prison.

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In the lead up to Second Sight producing an interim report, in the summer of 2013, there were fears within the Post Office that Second Sight was to reveal errors that could cause accounting shortfalls. The Post Office had already prosecuted hundreds of people based on data from the system.

The inquiry was shown an email exchange between Second Sight director Ron Warmington and Crichton where he warns of a “shockwave” on the event of the interim report.

The report raised concerns over unreliable hardware, exceptionally complex systems and a lack of proper training, and revealed known bugs in the system that had affected subpostmasters.

Second Sight went on to produce a full report in 2015, which raised the prospect of wrongful convictions of subpostmasters, based on Horizon data. It said the Post Office had failed to find out why large cash shortfalls occurred before starting legal proceedings against subpostmasters.

In 2009, Computer Weekly told the stories of seven former subpostmasters, revealing the problems they encountered due to unexplained accounting shortfalls (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal below).

Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal 

Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story 



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