Former Post Office boss returns CBE to sender over computer system scandal
Minister says Fujitsu could be 'on the hook' for compensation pending inquiry
Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells, at the center of a media storm in recent days, is returning her CBE* following multiple calls for her to be stripped of the title.
Ministers, politicians, and media pundits were quick to jump on the Post Office Horizon scandal – one of the UK's most significant miscarriages of justice – but only after a dramatization of the saga was broadcast last week. Between 1999 and 2015, 736 subpostmasters, some of whom spent time in prison and were left bankrupt, were wrongfully accused of fraudulent accounting and prosecuted, although computer errors were later found to be to blame for the discrepancies.
An inquiry into the scandal was launched in 2020, and given statutory powers in June 2021. Vennells said that she would support and cooperate with the inquiry, and expects to be giving evidence in the coming months.
"I have so far maintained my silence as I considered it inappropriate to comment publicly while the inquiry remains ongoing and before I have provided my oral evidence. I am, however, aware of the calls from subpostmasters and others to return my CBE. I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the subpostmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system," she said.
Vennells was Post Office CEO from 2012 to 2019. In a statement given to the BBC in 2014, the organization said that after two years of investigation it "remains the case that there is absolutely no evidence of any systemic issues with the computer system."
Meanwhile, work and pensions secretary Mel Stride told broadcaster LBC that the government had already paid £138 million in compensation to victims of the scandal, with pressure to resolve the remaining cases.
He said it would not only be taxpayers who were "on the hook" for the compensation and agreed Fujitsu could be held responsible, pending the results of the inquiry.
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"We've got this public inquiry under way and one of the things it's going to look at is where does culpability lie? Who is responsible, who knew what when, who did things they shouldn't have done and so on. And to the extent that that culpability rests upon the shoulders of others than government, then you can expect ministers to come to the appropriate conclusions, and perhaps it won't be just the taxpayer that is on the hook for those costs," he said.
Estimates from public procurement research organization Tussell have suggested Fujitsu could have been awarded nearly £850 million ($1.08 billion) in UK public sector work since the beginning of the inquiry, including framework call-offs. In financial 2022/2023, the Japanese supplier accrued £427 million ($543 million) in revenue from the government. Recent contract awards include a £36 million ($45.8 million) deal to keep the Post Office Horizon system running until 2025 and a £2 million ($2.54 million) extension to bring its Environment Agency contract to £19.5 million ($24.8 million).
The Register has approached Fujitsu for comment.
In an earlier statement, a spokesperson for the Japanese supplier said: "Fujitsu is committed to giving its full cooperation to the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry as it continues to examine complex events stretching back over 20 years, and to providing the fullest and most transparent information so that key lessons are learned for the future. Out of respect for the inquiry process, it would be inappropriate for Fujitsu to comment further at this time." ®
* Commander of the British Empire, the highest honor Britain can give aside from a knighthood/damehood. For the curious, it's not actually the king or queen who decides, but rather independent King's honours committees. Brit footballer David Beckham still doesn't have one, despite his reported years-long campaign.