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Paula Vennells told to not allow ‘malcontents’ to pollute public service mission

Paula Vennells was sent the briefing note following a telephone call with Lord Arbuthnot in October 2014 (Jeremy Durkin/PA)
Paula Vennells was sent the briefing note following a telephone call with Lord Arbuthnot in October 2014 (Jeremy Durkin/PA)

Former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells was briefed to not allow the “self-indulgence of a number of malcontents” to “pollute our public service mission” ahead of a meeting with MPs.

The Horizon IT inquiry heard that the company’s current government affairs and policy director Patrick Bourke believed the potential unsafe convictions of subpostmasters “pales into insignificance to the bigger, social, mission of the Post Office”.

Mr Bourke, who appeared remotely at the probe on Wednesday, said he regretted using the “florid language” and that it was “born of a sense of frustration”, which he used during his time as programme manager for what was known as the mediation scheme.

The inquiry was shown the briefing note, which was prepared by Mr Bourke for Ms Vennells ahead of a meeting with a group of MPs following a telephone call with Lord Arbuthnot in October 2014.

Post Office shop front
More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 (PA)

The document, titled “steering brief, aims and approach”, read: “We urge you to stress the fact that you are in charge of an organisation that has, at its heart, the determination to improve people’s lives (often the most vulnerable in our society). Indeed you have obligations in this regard.

“While the issue being championed by MPs may seem important to them in campaign terms, this pales into insignificance to the bigger, social, mission of the Post Office and your leadership of it, not to mention the literally thousands of people who depend critically on our services.

“It would be a brave MP who sought to champion one above the other.”

Counsel to the inquiry Sam Stevens asked Mr Bourke: “One of the issues being championed by MPs was that there may have been unsafe convictions, wasn’t it?”

After Mr Bourke agreed, Mr Stevens continued: “And so the question is, did you consider that the Post Office’s public purpose was more important than that issue?”

Mr Bourke replied: “On the basis that I had seen nothing, and the Post Office had seen nothing to suggest that the question of unsafe convictions had any evidence behind them, then I suppose I did, at the time, feel that.”

Mr Stevens then asked: “Did Paula Vennells challenge it when she received this briefing?”

Mr Bourke said: “I can’t recall.”

The witness was then questioned on the language he had used in the document, which continued: “There must be limits: we cannot accommodate the self-indulgence of a number of malcontents to the continuing detriment of our customers.

“The tiny minority making allegations, while deserving of respect and due process, cannot be allowed to pollute our public service mission.

“The money we have spent seeking to disprove a negative when we need to continue to invest to further improve our customer experience, is as costly as it is absurd.”

Mr Stevens said: “So when you are referring to the malcontents, are they the people in the mediation scheme?”

Mr Bourke responded: “Well, that was the view of a number of them as it says there, and looking back on this, I clearly regret the sort of rather florid language I’ve used.”

The counsel to the inquiry continued: “Why did you use that language?”

Mr Bourke said: “Well I think it was born of a sense of frustration rather than anything else.

“I’m not seeking to excuse it, it’s a poor choice of language, but I think it is explicable in terms of the frustration I was then feeling.”

Mr Stevens went on: “What was the self-indulgence you were referring to?”

The witness replied: “I think certainly, the cases that we had in front of us in the scheme, there were in almost all cases a very rational and frankly quite mundane explanation for what had transpired in those, that didn’t rely on theoretical possibilities, which were pretty improbable.

“So I think there was a sense in which, in the absence of evidence, to continue pursuing a line which relied on a theoretical possibility rather than the facts in front of us, seemed to me to be somewhat self-indulgent.”

In his witness statement to the inquiry, Mr Bourke said he believed the Post Office did a “significant number of sensible and reasonable things” during the mediation scheme in order to resolve complaints.

He added: “That in no way diminishes or detracts from the unequivocal and genuine sense of regret I feel for the distress, loss, and suffering felt by those affected in general, and by those wrongly prosecuted in particular.

“I therefore join myself to the apology the Post Office has quite rightly made for its failings during this period.

“It is, naturally, hard to see through this darkest of chapters in the organisation’s history.”

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.