Post Office IT boss blocked Paula Vennells’ number after she ‘sought help to avoid inquiry’

The Post Office’s former head of IT said she blocked Paula Vennells’ phone number after the ex-chief executive sought her help to “avoid an independent inquiry”.

Lesley Sewell, who struggled to contain her emotions at the beginning of Thursday’s Horizon IT inquiry proceedings, said Ms Vennells had contacted her four times in 2020 and 2021 – five years after Ms Sewell had left the company.

Ms Sewell told the probe in her witness statement that she blocked Ms Vennells’ number because she “did not feel comfortable with her contacting me”.

One of the emails from Ms Vennells said she needed to “plug some memory gaps” about Horizon and “Project Sparrow” – a sub-committee which sought to get rid of forensic accountants who found bugs in the faulty system.

Her statement read: “To the best of my knowledge and research, Paula Vennells contacted me four times in 2020 and 2021 via either email, telephone call or text message.

“It has taken me some time to locate all of these communications.

“On March 8, 2020, Paula Vennells emailed my personal email account from a personal email account of hers.

post office it boss blocked paula vennells’ number after she ‘sought help to avoid inquiry’

The Horizon inquiry heard from the former Post Office head of IT Lesley Sewell (Jordan Pettitt/PA) (PA Wire)

“In that email, she asked if I could spare her some time for a call as she had ‘been asked at short notice to appear before a… Select Committee on all things Horizon/Sparrow and need to plug some memory gaps! My hope is this might help avoid an independent inquiry but to do so, I need to be well prepared’.

“I had not spoken to Paula since I had left the Post Office in 2015.”

Ms Sewell added: “Paula contacted me on four occasions in total.

“I recall blocking her number after the last call as I did not feel comfortable with her contacting me.”

At the beginning of her evidence, the inquiry’s chairman Sir Wyn Williams said he appreciated Ms Sewell’s attendance at the probe as “upsetting”.

His words followed Ms Sewell appearing to tear up as she took an oath ahead of giving evidence.

Sir Wyn said: “Ms Sewell, I appreciate this may be upsetting for you, Ms Price will ask you a number of questions in a proper and sensible manner, but if at any time you feel you need a break, just let me know, all right?”

The Post Office has come under fire following the ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, which put the Horizon IT scandal under the spotlight.

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

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

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