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Justin Welby: church should have asked more questions about ex-Post Office boss | Post Office Horizon scandal

Justin Welby: church should have asked more questions about ex-Post Office boss | Post Office Horizon scandal
Justin Welby: church should have asked more questions about ex-Post Office boss | Post Office Horizon scandal

The Church of England failed to challenge the involvement of Paula Vennells, the former Post Office boss and an Anglican priest, in Church of England bodies in light of the Horizon scandal, the archbishop of Canterbury has admitted.

In his first public comments on the matter, Justin Welby said “more questions should have been asked” about Vennells, including her position on an ethical investment committee in 2019 and 2020.

“It is clear that more questions should have been asked about the appropriateness of that involvement when more had come to light about the Horizon scandal. We recognise this and will need to reflect on it,” Welby said in response to a written question to the C of E ruling body, the General Synod, which meets in London this weekend.

Welby declined to confirm or deny that Vennells had been interviewed for the post of bishop of London, the third most senior figure in the C of E, saying he was bound by confidentiality.

In January, the BBC reported that Welby had “pushed her application and was seen as a supporter of her”. It said she was one of three people shortlisted for the post in 2017 while she was still chief executive of the Post Office.

It was also reported on Thursday that Vennells would be stripped of her CBE this week.

She offered to hand back her honour in January after the furore over the scandal caused by the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office, but the Times reported that she will be formally stripped of it by the honours forfeiture committee on Friday.

Vennells was ordained as a C of E priest in 2006. She resigned as chief executive of the Post Office in February 2019 amid growing controversy over the Horizon scandal, in which hundreds of branch managers were prosecuted for theft and fraud as a result of faulty computer software.

A month before Vennells resigned from the Post Office, she was appointed to the C of E’s ethical investment advisory group (EIAG). The committee that made the appointment was aware of the Post Office controversy but was “satisfied of her suitability to serve on the EIAG”, said Alan Smith, the first church estates commissioner, in a written answer.

“There was further review of the matter as more information came to light, in line with the EIAG’s code of conduct. One of the lessons that the EIAG must take from this issue is that, to be effective, it has to be able to make risk management and moral decisions, while not prejudging legal outcomes, or crossing legal boundaries. The high standards that the EIAG seeks to influence in others, must be applied to itself,” Smith said.

Vennells took a leave of absence from the EIAG in June 2020, and resigned from the committee in April 2021. She also quit as an associate minister in the St Albans diocese in 2021.

Welby said: “The Post Office Horizon IT scandal is a terrible miscarriage of justice that has led to heartbreaking suffering for many subpostmasters. We hope and pray that the inquiry and the government’s promise of legislation will move forward the process of proper justice and compensation for the subpostmasters who have been so badly impacted.”

Vennells has been approached for comment.

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