Ex-Post Office IT boss blocked Vennells' number

Lesley Sewell
[Post Office Inquiry]

The Post Office's former head of IT has told the inquiry into the Horizon scandal that she blocked Paula Vennells' phone number after the ex-chief executive sought help to avoid an independent inquiry.

Lesley Sewell revealed in a witness statement that Ms Vennells contacted her four times in 2020 and 2021 by email, phone call and text message.

After the fourth time, Ms Sewell said that she blocked her former boss because "I did not feel comfortable with her contacting me".

Ms Sewell appeared in front of the long-running inquiry which is examining Horizon - hundreds of sub-postmasters were prosecuted based on evidence from the flawed IT system.

Visibly tearful at times, Ms Sewell was told by Sir Wyn Williams, chair of the inquiry: "I appreciate this may be upsetting for you, [barrister Emma] Price will ask you a number of questions in a proper and sensible manner, but if at any time you feel you need a break, just let me know, all right?"

Ms Sewell, who worked at the Post Office between 2010 and 2015, said in her witness statement that Ms Vennells contacted her from a personal email account on 8 March 2020 - a year after she had resigned as chief executive.

Ms Sewell said that in the email, which has been passed to the inquiry, Ms Vennells said she had "been asked at short notice to appear before a BEIS Select Committee on all things Horizon/Sparrow and need to plug some memory gaps! My hope is this might help avoid an independent inquiry but to do so, I need to be well prepared".

"I had not spoken to Paula since I had left the Post Office in 2015," she added.

Project Sparrow was a sub-committee that dealt with Horizon issues and eventually got rid of forensic accountants who had found bugs in the faulty system.

Ms Sewell said that they spoke on the phone later that day and she made notes.

The witness statement also indicates that, ahead of a 2021 Court of Appeal hearing, Ms Vennells was aware of a 2014 report by Deloitte which showed remote access to sub-postmasters’ accounts was possible.

Hundreds of people who ran Post Offices were convicted for theft and false accounting after the Horizon system, developed by Fujitsu, made it appear that money was missing from their accounts.

The report, codenamed "Project Zebra", was not disclosed ahead of a group litigation in 2018 brought by campaigner Alan Bates and 554 other sub-postmasters.

Ms Sewell says Ms Vennells contacted her again on 12 April 2021 via text message, requesting a call, and that she made notes.

“I can see from my notes that there is reference to the Project Zebra Deloitte report and a reference to a call to Gareth James of Deloitte, who I recall was the lead on this project who I worked with a lot. I cannot recall why he was mentioned. I do not know what is meant by ‘lawyers say we didn't do anything about it’.”

Her witness statement also indicates that the Post Office wanted to publish Deloitte’s Project Zebra report but the audit firm was only willing to do this if it was "massively caveated".

Ms Sewell said her notes also say “PV got jumpy” but she could not recall what this was a reference to.

The witness statement said her notes from that phone call also refer to the upcoming Court of Appeal case on 23 April 2021.

She wrote: "I can also see that I have made reference to 'Deloitte report said that transactions could be amended/changed?' and have added 'not my understanding'.

"At the time of writing this note, my understanding of the Deloitte findings was that only one balancing transaction had taken place."

Ms Sewell said that "Paula contacted me on four occasions in total".

"I recall blocking her number after the last call as I did not feel comfortable with her contacting me."