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Paula Vennells, the former head of Britain’s Post Office, broke down in tears during her testimony at an inquiry into one of the country’s biggest scandals involving hundreds of branch managers who were wrongly convicted due to a faulty computer system. Vennells, who earlier returned her Commander of the Order of the British Empire title, admitted to making mistakes but denied any conspiracy to cover up the scandal. The Post Office’s Horizon information technology system, introduced 25 years ago, led to unexplained losses that branch managers were held responsible for, despite them insisting they had done nothing wrong.

Between 2000 and 2014, more than 900 postal employees were wrongly convicted of theft, fraud, and false accounting as a result of the Horizon system. Some were imprisoned, and others were forced into bankruptcy. The British government has introduced legislation to reverse the convictions brought by the Post Office itself. The company, which is state-owned but operates as a private business, has the unique authority to prosecute its staff without involving the police or state prosecutors. Current executives claim they cannot imagine using this power again given the impact of the scandal.

Vennells, who served as chief executive from 2012 to 2019, maintained that the Horizon system was “robust” despite the numerous workers who claimed otherwise. She expressed regret for not questioning information she received and acknowledged that she was too trusting. Asked about branch manager Martin Griffiths, who died after being falsely accused, Vennells became emotional. She apologized for making assumptions about subpostmasters and admitted that she may have prioritized the needs of the business over the suffering of the branch managers.

Following a group of postal workers taking legal action against the Post Office in 2016 and a High Court ruling in 2019 that revealed issues with the Horizon system, the inquiry into the scandal gained momentum. A television docudrama aired earlier this year, titled “Mr. Bates vs the Post Office,” highlighted the story of branch manager Alan Bates and helped galvanize support for victims of the injustice. The inquiry’s report is expected to be published next year. Despite earlier news stories about the court hearings and public inquiry, the television show brought renewed attention to the case and the wrongful convictions.

Many of the victims were present during Vennells’ testimony, and one former branch manager who had been falsely convicted expressed sympathy for her, acknowledging the intense pressure she faced. Vennells is due to testify for three days, and her emotional reactions during the inquiry have prompted reflection on the handling of the scandal. The inquiry’s chief counsel considered whether Vennells was perhaps the “unluckiest CEO in the United Kingdom.” The public inquiry will likely shed further light on the failures and shortcomings that led to the wrongful convictions, and provide some closure for the victims who have been fighting for justice for many years.

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