Who is Paula Vennells? Ex-Post Office boss in Horizon IT inquiry

Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells is set to give evidence next week as part of the inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal.

Ms Vennells was chief executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, which included the last few years of the scandal.

Between 1999 and 2015, more than 900 sub-postmasters were wrongly prosecuted after faulty software said money was missing from Post Office branch accounts.

Despite living a relatively private life, Ms Vennells, 65, is now one of the most recognisable faces of the scandal.

Earlier this year, she was portrayed by actress Lia Williams in the ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office.

Since the programme aired, she has only been spotted once in public, refusing to answer questions from a Channel 4 reporter on whether there had been a cover-up at the Post Office, as she cycled away from a church cemetery.

The ITV drama also highlighted her position as an ordained priest - a role she pursued before she joined the Post Office - having trained as a Church of England deacon between 2002 and 2005 before eventually becoming ordained in 2006.

Ms Vennells served at several churches in Bedfordshire and was interviewed for the position of the Bishop of London in 2017.

She relinquished her clerical duties in 2021 but remains an ordained priest.

Ms Vennells grew up in the north west of England and went to the University of Bradford to study French, Russian and Economics, where she met her future husband John Vennells.

After graduating in 1981, she took the first step in her business career with a job at Unilever.

She went on to work in management positions at big brands such as Argos, Dixons, L'Oréal, Morrisons, Dunelm and Whitbread.

After leaving the Post Office in 2019, she acted as a non-executive board member at the Cabinet Office for a year, and also became chairman of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust but left this post in December 2020 citing personal reasons.

Paula Vennells: The basics

But it is her role at the Post Office that is under scrutiny.

Ms Vennells joined the Post Office in 2007 as a group network director, and was promoted to chief executive in 2012, the same year that the Post Office split from Royal Mail.

During her time at the Post Office there were periods of financial struggle, which forced thousands of post offices across the country to close.

Many that remained were modernised and the Post Office went from losing millions a year to making a profit.

Ms Vennells was photographed visiting several of the modernised branches and meeting those who ran them.

In pictures, she is nearly always seen wearing her staple pearl earrings.

During her time leading the Post Office, Ms Vennells earned a total of £5.1m, peaking in 2018 when she took home £718,300 in salary, bonuses, pensions and other benefits.

Ms Vennells faced increasing criticism and scrutiny of how she dealt with the investigation into the Horizon software while she worked at the Post Office.

She is widely quoted as calling the Horizon computer system "robust".

More on the Post Office scandal

The last time she spoke publicly about the scandal was nearly a decade ago, in 2015, when she was questioned by a committee of MPs.

Former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi was on the Commons business committee at the time, and notably played himself for free when the scene was recreated in the ITV drama.

He asked Ms Vennells why emails from 2009 were not given to private investigators and whether they would be.

Ms Vennells said: "We have shared whatever information is appropriate."

However, private investigator Ian Henderson denied that this was the case.

Ms Vennells stepped down from the Post Office in 2019.

At the start of that year she appeared on the New Years Honours List and was awarded a CBE for services to the Post Office and to charity.

But by December 2019, the High Court had concluded that the faulty Horizon software was to blame for shortfalls in branch accounts.

And as the ITV drama brought more national outrage over the Horizon scandal, this year legislation was introduced to overturn all sub-postmasters' convictions.

Ms Vennells handed back her CBE in January this year, saying she was listening to "calls from sub-postmasters and others" to return the honour.

Those same sub-postmasters and others will eagerly await her testimony before the inquiry, where she is scheduled to appear for three days starting on Wednesday 23 May.