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Four things we learned from Post Office inquiry as former chair Tim Parker questioned

Tim Parker, the former chairman of the Post Office gave evidence during the Horizon Inquiry on Wednesday.

Mr Parker, who was Post Office chairman between October 2015 to September 2022 after resigning just a few days before the launch of the inquiry, defended his role during his time at the organisation during the session. and issued an apology to the subpostmaters impacted by the scandal.

In particular, Mr Parker said the organisation had been in “deep crisis” when he took over as chair and claimed that the Horizon IT issue was “just “one of a number of very significant”.

He was also questioned on the Post Office’s refusal to accept the overturned conviction of a former subpostmaster three years after they were cleared.

Mr Parker – who has held a swathe of business briefs including chair of the National Trust and His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service – previously said he was “extremely sorry” to those affected by the Horizon scandal and their families. He blamed “historic failures” on the scandal.

His evidence comes a week after Gareth Jenkins, a former senior engineer at Fujitsu was quizzed on the role he played in creating Horizon, the accounting system used by postmasters and postmistresses.

Post Office still rejects subpostmaster’s overturned conviction

The Post Office is refusing to accept the overturned conviction of a former subpostmaster three years after they were cleared, the Horizon Inquiry has heard.

According to Edward Henry KC, who has been representing Teju Adedayo throughout proceedings, the organisation provided a written submission to the inquiry which said it “does not accept” that the now-quashed conviction of Ms Adedayo from 2005 was “unsafe”.

Ms Adedayo had falsely confessed to being responsible for the shortfalls at her post office in Kent to avoid the risk of ending up in prison. She was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing in 2021.

A quote from Post Office’s submission was read out during the questioning of the organisation’s former chair, Tim Parker, on Wednesday.

Mr Henry asked Mr Parker his view on the Post Office “effectively branding (Ms Adedayo) a criminal despite her conviction having been quashed”.

Quoting the submission, he said: “The inquiry will be aware that this (Ms Adedayo’s case) is the sole case study where the Post Office does not accept that the conviction was unsafe”.

Mr Henry described it as a “victimisation” of his client and asked Mr Parker if he rejected it, to which he responded: “Unless I have got all the facts at my disposal … I don’t think you can expect me to deliver a black and white response on this.”

Screen grab taken from the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry of Tim Parker, former chair of Post Office Ltd, giving evidence to the inquiry at Aldwych House, central London, as part of phases five and six of the probe, which is looking at governance, redress and how the Post Office and others responded to the scandal. Picture date: Wednesday July 3, 2024. PA Photo. See PA story INQUIRY Horizon. Photo credit should read: Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
Caption: Screen grab taken from the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry of Tim Parker, former chair of Post Office Ltd, giving evidence to the inquiry at Aldwych House, central London Provider: Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry/PA Wire

He added: “I’m no longer obviously at the Post Office which precludes me a little bit from knowing what all the background is.”

Mr Parker was appointed chair of Post Office Ltd in October 2015 and held the position until he resigned on 30 September 2022.

He joined the organisation in the midst of an ongoing dispute between the company and numerous subpostmasters regarding its Horizon computer system.

More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon IT system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

Speaking at the inquiry on Wednesday, Mr Parker said: “Today I was toying with making an opening statement. Stand up, you say, ‘I’m deeply, deeply sorry’ as many people have done, and there ensued a discussion with people.

“Should I do this? Because I would like to say sorry. And the response I got was that ‘well you could do this but actually people have kind of got a bit tired of that and it all rings a bit hollow and you’re probably just going to annoy people more than give them any sense of your real desire to say sorry’.”

Ex-chair could ‘not recall’ being told of previous discussions to remove Vennells a year before he became chair

Mr Parker told the inquiry that he did “not recall” being told of discussions to remove Ms Vennells as CEO a year after he took over the chairmanship of the company.

Mr Parker was asked if any concerns were expressed to him about Ms Vennell’s performance and capabilities as CEO before he took on the role of chair in 2015 – to which he responded: “I don’t recall”.

The inquiry was shown a document from February 2014 that was presented to the Shareholder Executive – a now-defunct body previously responsible for managing the government’s financial interest in a range of state-owned businesses. It started: “Advice from the recent annual review suggested that the Post Office team give careful consideration to the continued suitability of Paula Vennells as CEO.”

It continued: “There is a general consensus that Paula is no longer the right person to lead the Post Office but justification is anecdotal” and that the Shareholder Executive “examine the options available” to them.

Mr Parker was shown more conclusions from the 2014 document which said Ms Vennells was “not the optimum person to lead the Post Office to deliver its commercial strategy” as she struggled to “maintain good working relationships” and “retain key staff”.

The document suggested Ms Vennells be replaced some five years before she eventually stood down in 2019.

“I can’t recall a conversation that I had about the capability of Paula Vennells at the time I became chair,” Mr Parker said, following the inquiry’s review of the document.

Asked again if he was aware of the concerns from shareholders and the board about Ms Vennell’s performance, and if he was told about the reservations by his successor, Mr Parker said: “The honest answer to that is I can’t remember.”

He said he met his predecessor Alice Perkins for lunch before taking over, but could “not recall” any formal handover.

Mr Parker added that when he took over: “My impression looking back was that she was quite well thought of – so much so that a few years later she was made a non-executive director of the Cabinet Office.

“My sort of feeling was that whatever my own views of her ability in terms of running a business, I didn’t get the impression that there was some enormous doubt and that the starter for ten was ‘you need to look at Paula’.”

Post Office was in ‘deep crisis’ and was ‘absorbing millions of pounds of taxpayer money’

The former Post Office chair admitted that the business was in “deep crisis” when he took over as chair and claimed that the Horizon IT issue was “just “one of a number of very significant” problems he faced.

Addressing the commercial side of the Post Office, Mr Parker noted that Post Office has a turnover of “just under a billion pounds which makes it a sort of medium-sized company” but said it was “an incredibly complex business”.

He said this complexity was due to “operating over 11,500 sites”, offering a “wide range of products”, and dealing with cash – which added a security complication. He said this was furthered due to operating in the public sector.

He noted that when he was chair, the Post Office “faced some very significant commercial challenges”.

Mr Parker told the inquiry: “This is a business that absorbed billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and was still losing money”.

The former chair said concerns raised about the Horizon IT system were just “one of a number of very significant and pressing issues” at the Post Office.

Upon arriving at the business, Mr Parker was informed by the Post Office’s leadership team in a briefing note that it had been “investigating claims made by a small number of largely former postmasters that faults in the Horizon computer system were the cause of losses in their branch”. It noted that, at the time, 136 people had raised concerns and 43 had been handed criminal convictions related to losses. He said “nothing had emerged to suggest” that the Horizon IT system was “unsafe”.

While Mr Parker admitted to the inquiry that the concerns about the IT system were “an issue”, he said he had to ask himself at the time “on how bigger scale is this issue?”

He said the Horizon system was doing “millions of transactions” but “a few people who are complaining”. This was “the perspective you’re drawn to,” he said.

‘I had no vested interest in trying to protect the Post Office’

Mr Parker later told the inquiry that he “had no vested interest in trying to protect the Post Office” as he was quizzed about the Swift report – a secret investigation that may have helped wrongfully accused postmasters to prove their innocence, before it was ditched

Mr Parker was told by the government to review the Horizon situation in 2015, where he commissioned barrister Jonathan Swift to investigate. This was written in 2016 but was not publicly disclosed until 2022.

Mr Parker said there was no intention to hide the Swift report but noted that he was told it was a legally privileged document. Legal privilege protects confidential material from being disclosed to anyone other than a lawyer and their client.

Mr Parker at the time said he understood that the Swift report would investigate and make recommendations, at which point it would be shared.

He said he was advised that the document was legally privileged by the Post Office’s top lawyer, Jane MacLeod.

“It’s one of my regrets that I got that advice and I took it,” he said.

The former chair was asked if Ms MacLeod advised his directly, to which he responded: “I can’t confirm one way or the other.”

“I had no vested interest in trying to protect the Post Office,” he added.

He said had the Post Office shared the Swift report, it may have led to a different approach to High Court action which the the Post Office lost at the cost of £100m.

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