Post Office sought to make Horizon bugs sound ‘non-emotive’, inquiry told

Former Post Office chief Paula Vennells did not want to use the word “bugs” when referencing the faulty Horizon system in an “Orwellian” move to sound “non-emotive”, an inquiry has heard.

Susan Crichton, the Post Office’s general counsel before resigning in 2013, giving evidence at the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, agreed that seeking to change the language demonstrated “an element of smoke and mirrors”.

The inquiry heard that in July 2013, the Post Office’s Ms Vennells had asked her “computer literate” husband for an alternative word to describe a computer bug.

In an email to then communications chief Mark Davies, Ms Vennells wrote: “My engineer/computer literate husband sent the following reply to the question: ‘What is a non-emotive word for computer bugs, glitches, defects that happen as a matter of course?

“Answer: ‘Exception or anomaly. You can also say conditional Davies exception/anomaly which only manifests itself under unforeseen circumstances xx.”

Mr Davies replied: “I like exception v much.”

Post Office stock
It was claimed that Paula Vennells requested that the word ‘bugs’ was not used (Post Office/PA)

Ms Crichton replied saying: “It certainly reads in that way, yes.”

Mr Blake said there was a discussion within the Post Office at the “highest levels” about changing the language about the bugs.

Ms Crichton had said she could not remember a discussion about language, but the inquiry was later shown an email in July 2013 where she said it “wasn’t a good idea to mention bugs”.

Mr Blake asked if this showed changing the word “bugs” was at the “forefront” of her mind, to which she replied: “That’s certainly what this email says, yes.”

Post Office court case
Former subpostmaster Seema Misra was handed a 15-month prison sentence on her son’s 10th birthday in November 2010 after being accused of stealing £74,000 (Luciana Guerra/PA)

Ms Misra, who began running a Post Office in West Byfleet, Surrey, in 2005 but was suspended in 2008, garnered press attention because she was pregnant and had her baby in prison, the inquiry heard.

Ms Crichton said in an email that contacting Ms Misra to say her case was being reviewed would be a “red rag to a bull”, but she admitted at the inquiry that she had been “short-sighted”.

The inquiry saw an email Ms Crichton sent from holiday in Croatia in June 2013 asking for an update on how an investigation into Horizon by forensic accountants Second Sight was progressing.

Second Sight’s Ron Warmington replied asking whether she was “trying to get far enough away that the shockwave won’t impact”.

Ms Crichton told the inquiry she was not aware of a “potential shockwave” arising as a result of the report, saying it was independent and should continue its investigation.

By 2012, she was concerned about the independent review of Horizon happening at the same time as prosecutions occurring, the inquiry heard.

Asked if there was a lack of urgency in pausing prosecutions, she responded: “Absolutely. With hindsight, I am sorry this took such a long time to be resolved on my watch.”

She began her evidence by apologising to subpostmasters and their families for their “suffering”, saying she wished the scandal had been “resolved more quickly” and that she hopes it “never happens again”.

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

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

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