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Post Office involved in ‘possibly a criminal conspiracy’ – forensic accountant

Ian Henderson gave evidence to the inquiry on Tuesday (Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry/PA)
Ian Henderson gave evidence to the inquiry on Tuesday (Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry/PA)

An independent forensic accountant drafted in to investigate the Horizon system has told an inquiry ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells “frequently and consistently” tried to steer him away from probing miscarriages of justice.

Ian Henderson, one of the two forensic accountants from Second Sight paid by the Post Office (POL) to review cases involving Horizon in 2012, said he felt he was “dealing with a cover-up… and possibly a criminal conspiracy”.

The Horizon IT inquiry was told his colleague, Ron Warmington, had spoken to subpostmaster Alun Jones and told him the actions of POL had been “the worst corporate behaviour I’ve ever come across”.

In his witness statement to the probe, Mr Warmington said: “I was very used to dealing with conflict in my profession but had never encountered such ferocious resistance to almost every sentence used in every report.

“Every point we raised, that we knew to be true, received monstrous and illogical pushback. Their approach was, in my experience, unprecedented.”

He said POL was aware “possibly at the highest levels”, including Ms Vennells, that “a consequence of its in-house and external prosecutors’ improper behaviour… it had been responsible for numerous unsafe prosecutions, convictions, custodial sentences, bankruptcies and even suicides.”

Mr Henderson told the inquiry he had signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with POL, and had faced a “thinly veiled threat” from the company’s then head of legal Chris Aujard “to bankrupt me if I continued causing trouble”.

Paula Vennells walks behind a policeman
Ian Henderson accused former Post Office boss Paula Vennells of ‘frequently and consistently’ steering him away from potential miscarriages of justice (Yui Mok/PA)

He said despite Ms Vennells telling him POL was the “nation’s most trusted brand”, he believed the company felt it was “above the law”.

An interim report produced by Mr Henderson in July 2013, alongside Mr Warmington, identified two bugs in the system that caused problems for 76 branches.

The forensic accountants were sacked in 2015, and Mr Henderson said he believed they were dismissed because they were “getting too close to the truth”.

He told the inquiry he felt POL was “constantly sabotaging our efforts to seek the truth irrespective of the consequences” and said Ms Vennells was “quite open in meetings” about the public perception of the company.

Referring to his conversation with Mr Aujard under questioning from counsel to the inquiry Jason Beer KC on Tuesday, Mr Henderson said: “He was obviously concerned about some of the things I was saying or raising in working group meetings.

“I remember this conversation – I thought it was inappropriate and, to a certain extent, somewhat surprising.”

Mr Beer continued: “What had happened to the ‘shared desire to seek the truth irrespective of the consequences?’”

Mr Henderson replied: “I think we’d moved on from that.

“I’d formed the view that quite early on in the process, Post Office was getting advice from external lawyers about the financial consequences of what we were finding – the fact that they might be looking at very material amounts of compensation.

“I remember doing a back of cigarette packet calculation, and I felt if all of the claims being raised by subpostmasters through the mediation working group materialised, we were looking at at least £300 million in compensation.

“That was a huge underestimate, but those were the sort of numbers that I had in mind at this stage.

“I think that worried Post Office as an existential threat to their business model… they were very concerned about the PR aspects of their business model.

“PR was driving a lot of the decision in Post Office at this stage.”

Mr Beer then asked: “How did you know that?”

The witness replied: “Through contact with Mark Davies who was the head of PR.

“It was very clear that Post Office senior management were very concerned about the public perception, the brand image – I mean, Paula Vennells in meetings was very open about it.

“She was determined to promote the brand of Post Office.”

In his witness statement to the inquiry, Mr Henderson said he felt Second Sight were dealing with a cover-up.

He said: “By February 2015, I no longer had confidence that POL was taking our concerns seriously or dealing with them in an appropriate manner.

“I felt we were dealing with a cover-up by POL and possibly a criminal conspiracy.

“I was concerned about the various threats that had been made to me by POL concerning alleged breaches of my NDA and my duties of confidentiality.

“Accordingly, I had to find a way of communicating my concerns, but which limited the risk of a legal action against me, or Second Sight, by POL.

“The most likely threats appeared to be an action for defamation, breach of confidence or breach of contract.”

Mr Henderson was heavily critical of POL in his witness statement, claiming their priority was “protecting the brand” and “not supporting sub-postmasters”.

He continued: “My work for POL and the (mediation) Scheme was probably the most challenging in the 40 years of my career as a chartered accountant.

“One of the reasons it was challenging was that POL would say one thing in public, and then do something different in private.

“An example of this was Paula Vennells’ statement to the Parliamentary Select Committee in February 2015, that our work had found ‘no evidence of miscarriages of justice’ and ‘it was important that we surface any miscarriages of justice’.

“Paula Vennells frequently and consistently attempted to steer Second Sight away from investigating potential miscarriages of justice.”

He continued: “When I first met Paula Vennells, she told me that POL was the nation’s most trusted brand with a history of over 400 years.

“As our work continued, I increasingly formed the view that because of this history, POL somehow felt it was above the law.

“I formed the view that POL was constantly sabotaging our efforts to seek the truth irrespective of the consequences.

“Requests for documents were either ignored or responses were excessively delayed.

“Unjustified claims of legal professional privilege were used to justify withholding documents from us.”

Concluding his witness statement, Mr Henderson repeated his view that the conduct of POL was “probably criminal”.

He said: “We tried to go where the evidence took us, but increasingly we were finding evidence of questionable conduct by POL, some of which, in my opinion, was probably criminal.

“In the course of our work, I increasingly felt that our overriding duty was, in a phrase attributed to Alan Bates, to help ‘the skint little people’ who didn’t have a voice and had been so badly treated by POL.”

More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by POL 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.

Hundreds of subpostmasters are still awaiting compensation despite the Government announcing that those who have had convictions quashed are eligible for £600,000 payouts.