Rishi Sunak would “strongly support” an honours committee if it looked again at the CBE awarded to former Post Office boss Paula Vennells. Ms Vennells has been urged to forfeit her honour in the wake of the Horizon IT scandal, which led to the wrongful prosecution of Post Office staff.
The Forfeiture Committee can recommend honours are stripped if a person has brought the system into disrepute. Ms Vennells has apologised to Post Office staff. Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said: “The prime minister shares the public’s feeling of outrage on this issue. He would strongly support the Forfeiture Committee if it chose to review the case.
“It is a decision for the committee, rather than the government. A petition addressed to senior civil servant Sir Chris Wormald, the chair of the Forfeiture Committee, calling for Ms Vennells to lose her honour has attracted more than one million signatures.
The committee – which is made up of a Treasury solicitor and four independent members – can submit a recommendation for forfeiture through the prime minister to the King, who is the only person who can annul an honour.
The committee does not give an opinion on whether a person is guilty of a particular act, only on whether the honours system has been brought into disrepute.
An individual can also apply to have their honour voluntarily forfeited. Ms Vennells, who was Post Office chief executive between 2012 and 2019, has said previously that she remained “truly sorry for the suffering caused to wrongly prosecuted sub-postmasters and their families”.
She said: “I continue to fully support and focus on co-operating with the [public] inquiry and it would be inappropriate for me to comment further while it remains ongoing.”
Justice Secretary Alex Chalk met Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake on Monday to discuss how to help the convicted branch managers clear their names. MPs will hear a statement from Mr Hollinrake later.
Ms Vennells was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) – an honour given to those making distinguished or notable contributions in a specific field – by the Queen in the 2019 New Years Honours for “services to the Post Office and to charity”.
Prior joining the Post Office in 2007, she worked for beauty brand L’Oréal and hospitality business Whitbread.
Ms Vennells started as a group network director, then became managing director in 2010 before being promoted to the position of chief executive in 2012.
She held the top job until February 2019, when she stepped down amid anger over the Horizon scandal. During her tenure, the company repeatedly denied there were problems with its IT system, Horizon.
Ms Vennells took over as chair of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in April of the same year, but later stepped down when a group of Post Office operators won a High Court case in which their convictions were ruled wrongful and Horizon to be at fault. Their ruling was upheld on appeal in 2021.
More than 700 Post Office branch owner-operators were wrongly prosecuted for theft, fraud and false accounting between 1999 and 2015 on the basis of faulty information from Horizon software.
Some were imprisoned, others were pushed into bankruptcy and some have since died.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey – who was postal affairs minister from May 2010 and February 2012 during the coalition government – joined calls for Ms Vennells to have her CBE revoked. It shouldn’t have been given in the first place,” he said. “The [Forfeiture] Committee needs to meet to make that decision.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “It would be inappropriate to comment on any individual honours recipient.” Honours are usually only removed from people who have been convicted and jailed for a crime.
However, that is not always the case. In 2012, former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Fred Goodwin had his knighthood removed due to his role in the collapse of the bank.