Post Office boss Paula Vennells was aware there was a ‘covert operations team’ at Fujitsu that could alter subpostmasters’ accounts remotely, newly unearthed recordings have revealed. 

The former chief executive had been briefed about allegations concerning the existence of the remote unit at Fujitsu’s Bracknell headquarters in 2013, two years before she told MPs there had not been ‘any miscarriages of justice’. 

Bombshell new audio, obtained by Channel 4 News, reveals Ms Vennells was told about the claims, made by former Post Office union rep Michael Rudkin after visiting Bracknell in 2008, and that the Post Office was investigating.

More than 900 sub-postmasters were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting between 1999 and 2015 due to faults in Fujitsu’s Horizon system. For more than two decades, sub-postmasters complained the system was faulty.

The shocking injustice was thrown back into the spotlight in the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, based on campaigner Alan Bates’s bid for justice.

Bombshell new audio reveals Paula Vennells was told about the allegations concerning the existence of the remote unit at Fujitsu’s Bracknell headquarters in 2013

The audio reveals Ms Vennells was aware of the claims made by former Post Office union rep Michael Rudkin after visiting Bracknell in 2008, and that the Post Office was investigating

The audio reveals Ms Vennells was aware of the claims made by former Post Office union rep Michael Rudkin after visiting Bracknell in 2008, and that the Post Office was investigating

Post Office boss Paula Vennells who was supposedly aware there was a 'covert operations team' at Fujitsu that could alter subpostmasters' accounts remotely

Post Office boss Paula Vennells who was supposedly aware there was a ‘covert operations team’ at Fujitsu that could alter subpostmasters’ accounts remotely

In the recordings, dating back to 2013, two forensic accountants from Second Sight – the firm hired by the Post Office to conduct an independent investigation – appear on a call with Post Office general counsel Susan Crichton. 

One of the investigators, Ron Warmington, warns that Ms Vennells could be questioned by James Arbuthnot – a local MP campaigning on behalf of the subpostmasters – about the covert Bracknell operation.

He says: ‘If James says something like, “And where are you on this assertion about the Bracknell covert operations team, as it was referred to by Rudkin?”‘

Crichton can then be heard twice confirming that Ms Vennells had been briefed about the allegation. 

She says: ‘Well look, that’s a specific case. We’ll come back to it when we finish the investigation.’

Warmington adds: ‘Yeah, well, as long as she doesn’t come back and say, “Look, so what’s this Bracknell issue, what is he talking about?” Oh, we’ve known about that for two months.’

Crichton replies: ‘She knows about the allegation. She knows we are working on it.’

‘Oh, that’s alright then. Good.’ Warmington responds. ‘We mentioned it to her. We’re all going, “Well, that’s all very odd.”‘ 

Later in the same tape Crichton advises again of her role in appraising Paula Vennells of issues identified by the independent investigation. 

She says: ‘She’s got everything. The way that I’ve tried to brief Paula is, as soon as I have evidence that you know, that there is a problem, she knows about it the next minute.’

In the recordings, dating back to 2013, two forensic accountants from Second Sight - the firm hired by the Post Office to conduct an independent investigation - appear on a call with Post Office general counsel Susan Crichton

In the recordings, dating back to 2013, two forensic accountants from Second Sight – the firm hired by the Post Office to conduct an independent investigation – appear on a call with Post Office general counsel Susan Crichton

Crichton can be heard twice confirming that Ms Vennells had been briefed about the 'covert operations team' allegation

Crichton can be heard twice confirming that Ms Vennells had been briefed about the ‘covert operations team’ allegation

Lord Arbuthnot speaks to the media ahead of a meeting of the independent Horizon Compensation Advisory Board on January 10, 2024

Lord Arbuthnot speaks to the media ahead of a meeting of the independent Horizon Compensation Advisory Board on January 10, 2024

Ms Vennells ran the Post Office at the height of the scandal while it routinely denied there was a problem with its Horizon IT system. The Post Office continued to deny remote access was possible until 2019.

Claims of Fujitsu having a ‘covert operations team’ which could remotely access Postmaster’s accounts were first brought to light by former Post Office union rep Michael Rudkin after he visited Fujitsu’s Bracknell headquarters on August 19, 2008. 

After being shown the recordings by Channel 4 news, Mr Rudkin recalled how he was shown staff members remotely accessing Postmasters’ accounts despite being told categorically by the Post Office that this was impossible.

He said: ‘My chaperone introduced me to those that were left as being the covert operations team. 

‘I was astounded. He altered the figures of one of the branch accounts on a live terminal in the boiler room at Fujitsu headquarters.

‘I asked him: Have you just altered those figures and is this real time? The reply was: ‘Yes’. I said: ‘Are you absolutely sure? ‘Yes’, this is real time.’ 

‘Realising my disdain as to what I’d just witnessed, I was then more or less just ushered back upstairs and pushed out through the door like a common criminal.’

The day after Mr Rudkin expressed concern at the revelation, a Post Office auditor turned up at his shop in Ibstock, Leicestershire, to tell him £44,000 was unaccounted for. 

Mr Rudkin was forced to repay the money and his wife Susan, who did most of the day-to-day running of the branch, was prosecuted and given a suspended prison sentence. 

He believes the action was taken against him after blowing the whistle on Horizon. 

Former Post Office union rep Michael Rudkin visited Fujitsu's Bracknell headquarters on August 19, 2008 and discovered Fujitsu's alleged 'covert operations team' which could remotely access Postmaster's accounts

Former Post Office union rep Michael Rudkin visited Fujitsu’s Bracknell headquarters on August 19, 2008 and discovered Fujitsu’s alleged ‘covert operations team’ which could remotely access Postmaster’s accounts

Commenting on the tapes, Mr Rudkin continues: ‘The minute I first heard it, it was one of elation saying ‘Rudkin you were right!’. The second one is one of sadness thinking ‘Why did my wife and kids have to be put through this?”

‘For all them years. We shouldn’t have had to endure this level of oppression. And for this, I hope they get sent to hell and back.’ Susan did consider and contemplated suicide. 

‘The risk was very high that she would overdose and kill herself. She was so depressed.’ 

‘It’s not just us that’s affected. It’s the whole family. The way that you are shunned within the local community – whispers, ‘No smoke without fire’.

‘Susan’s reputation and mine for that matter, just dragged through the mire. And I can’t understand for the life of me why it’s taking so long for the Metropolitan Police to get on top of this. Somebody’s got to be held to account.’   

Also contained in the bombshell tapes, is the assertion that Ms Vennells did not believe the scope of the Second Sight investigation would extend to uncovering ‘miscarriages of Justice’. 

Crichton clarifies to the investigators: ‘Ian had a chat with Paula earlier on. And we’ve had a couple of chats this morning. 

‘So Paula agrees that the original scope of the investigation did not go as far as looking at whether it was the miscarriage of justice point, Ron and Ian. So that’s, that’s not what she’s looking for. 

‘She’s looking for the systematic – or systemic rather, not systematic – systemic weakness in the Horizon systems. But not, as I said, it doesn’t go on to that next point around whether or not it’s caused the miscarriage of justice, or suspension of a subpostmaster. 

‘Because I think that, once you found it, then it’s up to us to look for and see what impact it might be, if that happens.’ 

Two years later, Vennells would tell members of parliament at a Select Committee appearance that ‘If there had been any miscarriages of justice it would’ve been really important to me and the post office that we surfaced those.’

Former postmaster Alan Bates, who is portrayed by Toby Jones (pictured) in the drama, led and won the initial legal battle after himself falling victim to the faults

Former postmaster Alan Bates, who is portrayed by Toby Jones (pictured) in the drama, led and won the initial legal battle after himself falling victim to the faults

The scandal is seen as one of the UK's biggest miscarriages of justice and has gained recent national attention over recent days thanks to Mr Bates Vs The Post Office airing on ITV

The scandal is seen as one of the UK’s biggest miscarriages of justice and has gained recent national attention over recent days thanks to Mr Bates Vs The Post Office airing on ITV

The tapes also shockingly reveal how Crichton directly asked how the Post Office could limit interference form MPs over the growing scandal. 

She says: ‘The need to somehow have a plan to close down this process. I mean, even to the extent of stopping MPs sending cases in now. So how do we close down the MP side of the process. 

‘And what would work for MPs? And what can we sell to MPs? And how quickly can we do that?

‘So is there any way, and I’m thinking out loud here, is there any way of shutting down the MP cases, and making James and his friends happy, so they’ll just go away basically?’ 

Fujitsu and the Post Office declined to comment on the allegations raised in this report, citing the Public Inquiry now examining this scandal. 

The Post Office told Channel 4 News it is ‘fully focused on getting to the truth of what happened’. 

Paula Vennells, Susan Crichton and Alwen Lyons did not respond to Channel 4 News’ requests for comment.

Timeline of a travesty that’s still playing out 25 years on

  • 1999: The Horizon IT system from Fujitsu starts being rolled out to Post Office branches, replacing traditional paper-based accounting methods.
  • 2003: Sub-postmaster Alan Bates had his contract terminated by the Post Office after he refused to accept liability for £1,200 of losses in his branch in Llandudno, North Wales.
  • 2004: The branch in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, run by Lee Castleton, showed a shortfall of £23,000 over a 12-week period. Mr Castleton repeatedly asked the Post Office for help, but was sacked and sued for refusing to repay the cash. He was made bankrupt after a two-year legal battle, ordered to pay more than £300,000 for the company’s legal bill.
  • 2006: Jo Hamilton, sub-postmaster at South Warnborough, Hampshire, was sacked over financial discrepancies. She re-mortgaged her house twice to fill the shortfall and was charged with theft of £36,000. She later admitted a lesser charge of false accounting to avoid jail.
  • 2009: Computer Weekly magazine told the story of seven postmasters who had experienced unexplained losses. The Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA) was formed.
  • 2010: Mr Bates, from JFSA, writes to minister Sir Ed Davey about the flawed Horizon system and urges him to intervene. His warnings were dismissed.
  • 2012: With MPs raising concerns about convictions and the Horizon system, the Post Office launches an external review, with forensic accountants Second Sight appointed to investigate.
  • 2013: An interim report by Second Sight reveals serious concerns and defects in the IT system. The Daily Mail reveals dozens of postmasters may have been wrongly taken to court and jailed.
  • 2015: It is revealed the Post Office failed to properly investigate why money was missing and concluded computer failures may have been to blame. The Post Office finally stops prosecuting sub-postmasters but 700 end up being convicted.
  • 2017: A group legal action is launched against the Post Office by 555 sub-postmasters.
  • 2019: The High Court case ends in a £43million settlement but much of the cash was swallowed up in legal fees and victims received around £20,000 each. Post Office chief Paula Vennells awarded a CBE in New Year’s honours.
  • 2020: The Post Office agrees not to oppose 44 sub-postmasters’ appeals against conviction.
  • 2021: A public inquiry begins and is ongoing. The Court of Appeal quashes a further 39 convictions.
  • 2022: The Government announces a new compensation scheme.
  • 2023: Every postal worker wrongly convicted for Horizon offences will receive £600,000 compensation.
  • 2024: Mr Bates vs The Post Office first aired on ITV1 on New Year’s Day.

 

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