By Dr Minh Alexander, NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist 11 January 2020
Summary: The Post Office has failed to defend major legal action by hundreds of subpostmasters who were seriously mistreated, falsely accused, unsafely prosecuted and in some cases jailed. Some of the victims have died. Paula Vennells, former Post Office chief executive for seven years, is a priest in the Church of England. She also has two central roles, assisting with talent management and advising on ethical investment. The Church’s ethical investment policy includes not doing business with companies that do not promote the well being of their staff. Should the C of E continue with the ministry of a former director of a company which was responsible for unsafe prosecutions, conviction, imprisonment and ultimately, deaths? Does the C of E need to strengthen its Safeguarding approach to proactively review the ongoing fitness of any clergy who interact with vulnerable people?
Post Office Ltd behaved very oppressively, earning it a judge’s comparison to a “Mid Victorian factory owner”.
Hundreds of its subpostmasters were unfairly blamed for apparently missing money that the Post Office knew could be due to computer glitches in its “Horizon” IT system. The subpostmasters were roughed up with threats and searches of their homes, presented under duress with ready made “confessions” to sign, unfairly prosecuted, fined, made to “repay” phantom deficits, and sent to jail. Many were made ill and ruined, some died including by suicide.
Post Office Ltd prolonged the subpostmasters’ ordeal for years through denial.
This included an attempt by Post Office Ltd to suppress a critical report detailing flaws in their Horizon computer system, Private Eye 1378:
The Managing Director of Second Sight the forensic accountants who produced this suppressed report is highly critical of Post Office Ltd:
“As a fraud investigator who has, for decades, dealt with real fraudsters and confidence tricksters, it struck me, six years ago, as I interviewed Subpostmaster after Subpostmaster, that these are good, honest, straight-talking people. It was very rapidly obvious that many have suffered life-changing damage because they received no investigative support when mysterious shortfalls appeared in their accounts.”
Instead of taking responsibility, Post Office Ltd harmed the subpostmasters even more with dishonourable and aggressive litigation tactics. It squandered public money that it had a duty to husband responsibly.
As one person put it, “…the Post Office went psycho, going to war with its subpostmasters”
Neither has Post Office Ltd yet repaid the money that it bullied out of bewildered and distraught subpostmasters, based on its unsafe accusations of theft and fraud:
All this took place in the context of a politically sensitive and controversial privatisation of the Post Office, which after criticism of “crony capitalism” the Coalition government needed to vigorously spin as a success.
The Horizon IT scandal was not helpful to Ministers, and indeed David Cameron was forced to respond to concerns in parliament.
And at the helm of Post Office Ltd as chief executive during 2012-2019 was Paula Vennells, who was also a Church of England minister ordained as a priest in 2006 and who was first appointed as a Post Office manager in 2007
Christian essays abound on the ethics and theology of money lending and wealth accumulation.
Justin Welby Archbishop of Canterbury started life in the oil industry, but as Archbishop he has cut a publicly progressive figure.
He has spoken out on Mammon’s evils of exploitation, the gig economy, modern usury such as pay day loans, excessive executive pay and inequality. For example:
His writings have included eye catching titles such as;
She partook of the modern fashion for publicity, PR and glossy events.
Vennells stepped down from her job at Post Office Ltd last year as the Horizon IT litigation gained momentum, but she continues to hold board positions at other large corporations – Morrisons and Dunelm.
Her public persona has emphasised her Christian faith and tenets of ethical business, including claims of supportive and inclusive employment practices. Her brand was one of trust.
“Paula has taken biblical inspiration from the young King Solomon, who showed humility in asking God for a wise and understanding heart, so that he could rule his people with justice (1 Kings 3:6-12). Her leadership style has consisted in confronting the problems she faced, setting a powerful shared vision, engaging with all the stakeholders, and widening and delayering leadership. She has sought to improve standards of courtesy and respectful listening in what had often been fraught and ill-tempered encounters between different groups.”
“And while she says her skills as a vicar make little difference to her day job, honesty and trust are big words in her vocabulary.
“I won’t say things I don’t mean,” she says.”
In the Church, Vennells’ business background was an oft cited speaking point, sometimes worthy of revenue generation by some parishes:
In 2018 Vennells received a CBE despite the commencement of legal action by the subpostmasters.
She even endorsed one of Justin Welby’s books, “Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope”.
Her corporate skills have been harnessed by the C of E in a central programme led by Justin Welby, of “Nurturing and Discerning Leadership”, for talent spotting and beefing up business:
- “A tension between the priestly and corporate leadership of the Dean had led to some early concerns about the programme. However, those who attended were unanimous that exposure to the content of an academic MBA (including marketing, finance, project management and team leadership) was very supportive in enabling them to discharge their considerable accountability for the good stewardship of the commercial running of the cathedrals as major places of worship, as tourist attractions, and as community venues.”
Vennells was also appointed to the C of E’s ethical investment advisory group.
This group’s job is to advise the Church on how to invest its fortune with Christian values in mind, including through the selection of businesses with enlightened employment practices:
The NIBs do not wish directly to profit from, or provide capital to, activities that are materially inconsistent with Christian values, and are also mindful of the danger of undermining the credibility, effectiveness and unity of the Church’s witness were they to do so. A range of investment exclusions is therefore maintained.”
Vennells’ social media activity shows acclamation of various Bishops, retweets of their words of wisdom, an offer to sponsor one Bishop’s half marathon and other interactions. A few examples:
In December 2017 the ecclesiastical press claimed that Vennells was tipped for promotion:
“Priests like Sarah Mullally and Paula Vennells, currently the Chief Executive Officer of the Post Office and tipped for a Diocesan post in the near future, represent a new normal for ministry and priesthood.”
She has shown interest in the appointment of female clergy and legislative changes to enable female bishops to take seats in the House of Lords.
But what now that the Post Office trial has revealed such a litany of corporate failure and disregard for the subpostmasters and their families?
There have been calls for Post Office Ltd’s board to be cleared out and for Vennells to step down from her senior roles in the public sector, which she took up last year after her departure from Post Office Ltd.
Post Office Ltd’s failures and abuses were so serious that there has also been pressure for a public inquiry.
Numerous suspected miscarriages of justice by Post Office Ltd are under investigation by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
One of the Horizon trial judges has also passed a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions because of “grave” concerns about the veracity of Post Office Ltd witnesses.
Clearly, the already very high profile scandal has the potential to further seriously embarrass the Church.
How will Justin Welby et al handle complaints about Vennells’ continuing ministry?
The early signs are that he may distance himself from complaints.
A letter officially drawing his attention to the issues around the Post Office scandal was passed to a correspondence officer, along with a resultant message that His Grace was unable to deal with all correspondence himself.
Lambeth Palace, 10th January 2020
“Thank you for your recent email. Much as he would like to, the Archbishop is unable to respond personally and in detail to all the emails and letters that he receives, so I have been asked to reply to you on his behalf.
The Reverend Paula Vennells is a priest in the Diocese of St Albans. The Archbishop cannot and does not intervene in the running of individual dioceses and parishes outside his own diocese of Canterbury, therefore you may wish to direct your concerns to the Bishop of St Albans, in whose diocese Ms Vennells is licensed.
Thank you again for taking the time to write.”
There was no comment about the hundreds of Post Office Ltd’s victims.
A general enquiry about how the C of E ensured the Safeguarding of vulnerable people and the related ordination of suitable individuals was not addressed.
When pressed, Welby’s Office responded curtly by simply pointing to a Church Safeguarding policy document.
This document has limited detail on ensuring suitable appointments:
“2. Safely recruiting and supporting all those with any responsibility related to children and vulnerable adults within the Church
The Church will select and vet all those with any responsibility related to children, young people and vulnerable adults within the Church, in accordance with the House of Bishops safeguarding policy and practice guidance.
It will train and equip Church Officers to have the confidence and skills they need to care and support children, young people and vulnerable adults and to recognise and respond to abuse. This will be done by supporting the roll-out of consistent and accessible safeguarding training in accordance with House of Bishops safeguarding policy and practice guidance.”
A related parish handbook on Safeguarding includes a foreword by the Archbishop which states:
“Safeguarding is at the heart of our Christian faith.”
The parish handbook gives more detail on safe recruiting procedure, and requires DBS checks. It advises:
“Any blemished DBS checks or information of concern on the CDF [Confidential Declaration Form] must be risk assessed by the DSA [Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser].”
This is the C of E’s Confidential Declaration Form, as of November 2019.
It includes the question:
- “To your knowledge, has there ever been an allegation made against you (whether substantiated or not) that your conduct has amounted to or resulted in ill-treatment, neglect or other harm to a child and/or vulnerable adult, or putting a child or vulnerable adult at risk of ill-treatment, neglect or other harm? YES / NO”
Completion of the form is required upon appointment and this applies to “…all roles, including clergy, employees, ordinands and volunteers who are to be in substantial contact with children and / or adults experiencing, or at risk of abuse or neglect.”
Although the Archbishop’s foreword in the parish handbook emphasises the prevention of harm:
“We will work to prevent abuse from occurring. We will seek to protect those who are at risk of being abused and respond well to those who have been abused. We will take care to identify where a person may present a risk to others, and offer support to them whils ttaking steps to mitigate such risks”,
I could not see any requirement in the handbook for ongoing, proactive monitoring of suitability after appointment.
The C of E’s business model has been questioned by some:
“Recruiting the next generation of church leaders was the topic of discussion as 600 clergy from across London came together in 2017 for Calling London. The Diocese of London invited the ordained Chief Executive of the Post Office, Revd Paula Vennells, to address those attending. Nothing remarkable in that at first sight. A female priest in a high-powered role what could be wrong with that? Except is Paula Vennells really the right advisor to call? Certainly her business like no nonsense approach would fit in well with the current Church strategy. The Revd Paula Vennells has led the Post Office as it has undertaken the largest branch modernisation programme in UK retail history. So maybe a good fit and the right one to inform Church of England planning as it undertakes the largest “branch modernisation” programme in UK church history if the Bishop of Islington gets his way.
The Revd Vennells is not unalloyed good news though if one looks at her stewardship of the Post Office. Many sub-postmasters faced criminal charges as the Post Office toughed it out and failed to admit its IT had problems (despite Parliamentary committee pressure to own up and be transparent there was no confession from Paula or firm purpose of amendment.) Paula Vennells has indeed led the Post Office to profit on the back of its ongoing “transformation” programme. Profits rose from £13m to £35m for 2017/18. However £22m of that increase in profit was in large part due to putting further squeezes on the country’s under-remunerated postmasters and sub-postmasters. The remuneration of the sub-postmasters for the services they provide was cut by £17m, and that followed a £27m cut the previous year (while her own remuneration rose 7% to £718,000.) I suppose this is Paula Vennells way of helping the rural sub postmasters to face reality in the same way Ric Thorpe wants to do to the rural church. Perhaps this is the model the Church of England thinks is appropriate.”
It remains to be seen if the Church will respond justly to the very serious questions raised by the Horizon IT trial.
If the Church’s policy is not to invest in businesses which do not promote their staff’s wellbeing, should it really hire a former director of a company that unsafely accused and prosecuted workers when it knew they could be innocent, leading to convictions, imprisonments and deaths?
UPDATE 20 JANUARY 2020
Christopher Head one of the claimants in the Post Office trial has set up an online petition for a judicial inquiry into the scandal:
- The Church of England has an £8.2 billion investment fund. This is the annual report which gives more details of the investments:
2. A key concern is the fact that Paula Vennells has been appointed as Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. A referral has been made to the Care Quality Commission under Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Persons.