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Petition to strip ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells of CBE tops half a million

Paula Vennells was Post Office CEO from 2012 to 2019.

A petition calling for former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells to be stripped of her CBE has topped 500,000 signatures following the final episode of an ITV1 drama into the sub-postmasters scandal on Thursday night.

Mr Bates vs The Post Office looks back at the scandal which resulted in more than 700 Royal Mail staff members prosecuted between 2000 and 2014 based on incorrect information on the service's computer system. Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting, some of whom were subsequently convicted and jailed.

Vennells, who served as Royal Mail CEO from 2012 to 2019, oversaw the organisation whilst it routinely denied there were problems with its Horizon IT system. She was awarded a CBE “for services to the Post Office and to charity” in the 2019 new year honours list. In 2021, she said she was "truly sorry for the suffering caused" after the Court of Appeal overturned the convictions of 39 employees who fell victim to faults in the service's Horizon software, made by Fujitsu.

The Post Office reached a settlement with 555 workers in 2019, but some died before they could ever see justice. Around 90 convictions have so far been overturned, with compensation payments made, while an independent public statutory inquiry is set to continue this year.

An online petition calling for Vennells to be stripped of her title was started three years ago and received little attention at the time. However, after ITV's show hit the airwaves, signatures have skyrocketed, and broke the 300,000 mark following the final episode of the drama on Thursday night. The total as of Friday morning stood at over 350,000 and was continuing to rise at pace in the afternoon, with 540,000 by 7pm on Friday.

Lia Williams as Paula Vennells in Mr Bates Vs the Post Office. (ITV)

"Having been handed a CBE for services to the Post Office, and moved out into other senior positions in government and healthcare, it is only right that this award is now withdrawn through the process of forfeiture," the petition, on the 38 Degree website, says.

In December 2019, in a damning judgment on the Horizon issues, the High Court ruled that the original Horizon system had not been sufficiently robust and had suffered from a number of bugs and errors. In his judgment, Mr Justice Fraser stated that the Post Office’s approach "demonstrates a simple institutional obstinacy or refusal to consider any possible alternatives to their view of Horizon, which was maintained regardless of the weight of factual evidence to the contrary."

It added: "This approach by the Post Office has amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon Issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat."

Since ITV aired its show calls have been made for Vennells to hand back her CBE, including business minister Kevin Hollinrake, whose brief includes postal services. He told ITV's Good Morning Britain: “Ultimately you’ve got responsibility for what happened here, you’re the chief executive, if I was Paula Vennells I would seriously consider handing that back voluntarily at this point in time.”

Meanwhile Alan Bates himself, the Welsh sub-postmaster at the heart of ITV's drama, revealed how he turned down an OBE because it didn't feel right accepting it while Vennells still had her title. He told BBC Breakfast: "If I did accept it would be on behalf of the whole group, but to accept it would have been a slap in the face really while Paula Vennells still hangs onto her CBE - for services to Post Office. If it had been for disservice to the Post Office I'd understand it."

Calls have been made for Paula Vennells to hand back her CBE, awarded for 'services to the Post Office'.

While perhaps this isn't quite as symbolic as losing a title, the current boss of the Post Office has said he will return all of his bonus payment linked to the Horizon inquiry. Nick Read apologised again for “procedural and governance mistakes made” in linking significant bonus payments to work related to the inquiry.

He said he would return this segment of the £455,000 bonus he received in 2021/22, which is understood to be £54,400.

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer refuse to back calls for Vennells to lose CBE

Rishi Sunak commented on the scandal on Thursday, adding that the government has no role in the potential stripping of Vennells' CBE. The prime minister said there is an independent process carried out by the Honours Forfeiture Committee, which is separate from government.

He added: "But, more generally, my job is to make sure that we’re putting in place the compensation schemes and all those people who were awfully treated, suffered an appalling miscarriage of justice, get the justice that they deserve. I’m pleased we’re delivering that, and I’d urge anyone affected to come forward and make sure that they can benefit from those schemes."

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also stopped short of calling for Vennells to give back her CBE. He told ITV News: "Whether she hands back her award is really a matter for her. But I do think there’s a more important point in many senses here, compensation for these victims is overdue. It was due in December. The Treasury have… set the money aside, but the Government hasn’t paid it.

"So I say to the Government, get on and do the right thing and pay the compensation to the victims of this miscarriage."

Those affected by the scandal have spoken of the emotion that the airing of the series has sparked, bringing back difficult memories.

Pam Stubbs, who ran Barkham's Post Office in Berkshire, and who is portrayed in the series, said viewing it left her in tears. She told the Bracknell News: "I’d already seen it at a pre-screening and I ended up in tears. It didn’t get any easier watching it at home. It is a hard watch."

She added: "I’ve been told by several people in the village that they found it very difficult and had to turn it off. They said it was absolutely heartbreaking."

Deirdre Connolly said the drama "just brought it all back", telling the BBC: "It's been very, very hard for a lot of people". Connolly previously described how she was told to plead guilty and forced to repay a discrepancy of over £15,000 which she did not owe, leaving her family having to re-mortgage their home and being declared bankrupt.

She said her health has declined and she now has epilepsy, which she believes was brought on by stress, telling the BBC: "The stigma of it all was just awful. My life is never going to be the same."

Sign the petition here


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