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Ex-UK Post Office boss 'sorry' over convictions scandal

By AFP

May 22, 2024 09:12 PM


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The former boss of Britain's Post Office on Wednesday apologised to the hundreds of staff who were wrongly prosecuted because of faulty computer software, in one of the country's worst miscarriages of justice.

More than 700 subpostmasters running small local post offices received criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 after the faulty Horizon accounting software made it appear that money had gone missing from their branches.

Giving evidence to a public inquiry into the scandal, ex-chief executive Paula Vennells broke down in tears when recalling the case of one subpostmaster who took his own life after being wrongly accused of a £39,000 ($49,537) shortfall at his branch.

Vennells, an ordained Anglican priest, earlier read out a statement in which she said "how sorry I am for all that subpostmasters and their families and others have suffered as a result of all of the matters that the inquiry is looking into".

Many ended up bankrupt and shunned by their communities. Some were jailed. At least four people took their own lives.

The High Court in London in 2019 ruled that it had been computer errors, not criminality, that had been behind the missing money.

Vennells, whom many of the victims blame for their ordeal, said in January that she would hand back the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) honour given to her in 2018, as the public outcry mounted.

  'Deep sorrow' 

 Being quizzed about her role in the scandal for the first time, Vennells, 65, told the inquiry on Wednesday that "there was information I wasn't given and others didn't receive as well.

"One of my reflections of all of this -- I was too trusting," she added.

"My deep sorrow in this is that I think that individuals, myself included, made mistakes, didn't see things, didn't hear things."

The inquiry's lawyer Jason Beer suggested to Vennells that she was unable to remember matters that could incriminate the Post Office, but had "no problem" recalling events that placed blame on others.

"I don't believe that's the way I approach my statement at all," she replied.

Vennells and other Post Office bosses are being accused of pursuing prosecutions against the subpostmasters despite knowing that there were issues with the IT system that introduced errors into the accounting figures of individual post office branches.

The scandal has been seen as one of several institutional failings that have hit the UK in recent years, with those affected campaigning for years to clear their names and seek redress.

But it was not until a TV drama aired earlier this year that it generated widespread public anger, and led the government to take action.

It unveiled legislation in March to exonerate those wrongly prosecuted and said it would also act to improve the compensation available to different groups of subpostmasters.

Around £179 million ($225 million) has already been spent compensating claimants through schemes and litigation, according to the government.

The public inquiry into the scandal led by retired high court judge Wyn Williams was established in September 2020, and its legal powers were beefed up in June 2021.


AFP


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