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Henry Birch, the former boss of Rank Group, is among the candidates vying to run Entain, the FTSE-100 owner of Ladbrokes.

Sky News has learnt that Mr Birch is one of a small number of candidates being considered by Entain to replace Jette Nygaard-Andersen as its permanent chief executive.

The recruitment process comes at a challenging time for Entain, which has been beset by boardroom upheaval and regulatory difficulties in various international markets.

Its stock has halved in the last year, leaving it with a market capitalisation of just under £5bn.

This weekend, sources close to the company confirmed that Mr Birch was a serious contender for the post, although they said others were also in contention.

An appointment could still be weeks or even a small number of months away, they added.

Henry Birch, CEO of Very Group
Henry Birch, former CEO of Very Group

Mr Birch stepped down as chief executive of Very Group, the online retailer owned by the Barclay family, in 2022.

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He is an experienced gambling industry executive, having spent four years as chief executive of William Hill Online prior to joining the London-listed multichannel gaming operator Rank Group.

He has also held roles at Leisure & Gaming plc and BettingCorp.

Under Mr Birch, Very Group broke the £2bn annual sales mark for the first time.

Investors in Entain have been pressing its board to recruit a new chief executive with substantial gambling experience as it grapples with a plunging share price and numerous regulatory and strategic challenges.

Last week, Sky News revealed that former bosses of bookies Coral and Skybet had rejected overtures to become its new boss.

Pic: Reuters

Industry sources said that Dan Taylor, chief executive of Flutter Entertainment’s international operations, had also been approached, although it was unclear whether he was interested.

Entain has been under siege from activist investors for months.

In January, it announced that Ricky Sandler, who runs Entain shareholder Eminence Capital, would join its board as a non-executive director.

Last month, it said that Barry Gibson, its chairman, would retire later this year and be replaced by interim chair, and former acting CEO, Stella David.

Entain has hired bankers to sell PartyPoker and other non-core operations, which the Financial Times reported could include Netherlands-based BetCity, which Entain bought for £398mn last year.

As well as Ladbrokes, Entain owns Coral and a stake in BetMGM, a major US betting player.

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MGM Resorts, the US casino operator behind the Bellagio in Las Vegas, attempted to buy Entain in 2021 but was rebuffed at a much higher valuation than the UK company’s shares trade at now.

MGM has since ruled out a further bid, although analysts expect it to return at some stage.

The company has faced a deluge of regulatory problems, triggering sharp criticism of its governance and business practices.

Last December, it was ordered to pay £615m for failing to prevent bribery at its former Turkish subsidiary under a deferred prosecution agreement.

Shares in Entain closed at 778.8p on Friday, giving the company a market capitalisation of £4.98bn.

Entain declined to comment, while Mr Birch could not be reached for comment.

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Post Office inquiry: Paula Vennells reveals her fundamental defence




Post Office inquiry: Paula Vennells reveals her fundamental defence

Paula Vennells arrived at the Post Office public inquiry a former chief executive, a former Church of England lay preacher and an ex-CBE, with only her reputation, and perhaps her liberty, left to defend.

After more than five hours of questioning she has done very little to restore the former, with the latter still very much a live issue.

While she was giving evidence her nemesis Alan Bates was meeting the Metropolitan Police to discuss their ongoing investigation.

Post Office inquiry: Paula Vennells’ evidence as it happened

The day went horribly for Ms Vennells from the moment she stepped from her car in torrential rain and was met by the sort of media scrum reserved for superstars and the shamed.

Navigating hordes of cameras and reporters is the 21st century’s version of the public stocks.

Having avoided scrutiny for nearly nine years, during which time the Post Office she ran has been revealed as deceitful, vindictive and shambolic, she should have expected nothing less.

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Inside she faced an audience of around 150 sub-postmasters, the toughest of crowds for the person ultimately responsible for sending many of them to jail for crimes they didn’t commit.

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Ex-Post Office boss asked to compose herself

After a reminder from the inquiry chair Sir Wynn Williams about her right to avoid self-incrimination, her opening gambit was an apology.

She said sorry to the sub-postmasters and families whose lives had been ruined. She said sorry specifically to Mr Bates and Lord Arbuthnot, their Parliamentary champion, and the investigators from Second Sight, who exposed the Post Office’s failings on her behalf and she shut down for their trouble.

The respite lasted as long as it took Jason Beer KC to clear his throat. The lead counsel to the inquiry’s principal weapon was irony and it was devastating, the more so for apparently being lost on Ms Vennells.

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Sub-postmasters react to Vennells’ tears

“Are you the unluckiest chief executive in history?” he asked.

After a pause, the first of many, she replied: “One of my reflections on all of this is that I was too trusting.”

That captured her fundamental defence, which is that during 12 years at the Post Office, seven of them as chief executive, she was entirely unaware of the multiple issues that led to the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

After listing the multiple things she claims in her 775-page witness statement not to have known, from bugs in the Horizon computer system to instructions to shred documents, Mr Beer asked: “Was there a conspiracy, lasting 12 years, involving different people over time to deny you documents and falsely reassure?”

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After careful consideration she concluded conspiracy might be going too far. “My deep sorrow is that individuals, myself included, made mistakes, didn’t see things, didn’t hear things,” she said.

Throughout the hearing she claimed not to have been aware of fundamental issues. For example she said she did not know the Post Office could investigate and prosecute its staff, a power it has had since the 17th century, until she became chief executive.

When confronted with clear evidence she ought to have been aware of issues, in the form of emails and documents she admitted to sending and receiving, she claimed not to have understood their true meaning at the time.

Several times she was moved to tears. More frequently she was stunned into silence by questions, struggling to summon answers when trapped by the contradictions in her evidence.

The sub-postmasters meanwhile struggled to contain their disdain, hollow laughter greeting several answers.

There was no laughter when she was challenged about suicide of sub-postmaster Martin Griffiths, and an email in which she appeared to attribute it to his mental health, rather than the actions of Post Office investigators who were pursuing him.

“Sorry is not an adequate world, I am just very sorry that Mr Griffiths is not here today,” she said.

She has two more days in the witness stand, and on this evidence, nowhere to go.

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Election campaign to derail multibillion NatWest retail offer




Election campaign to derail multibillion NatWest retail offer

Plans for a multibillion pound mass market sale of the government’s stake in NatWest Group have been derailed by Rishi Sunak’s decision to call a summer general election.

Sky News can reveal that a proposed retail offer of shares in the taxpayer-backed bank will be scuppered by the timing of the poll.

The Treasury has been preparing for months for a retail offering, with several billion pounds-worth of NatWest shares to be offloaded at a discount to the prevailing market price.

Under the government’s plans, it would have taken place alongside an institutional placing of shares, with taxpayers’ stake to be reduced to as little as 10% after the combined sale.

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Several sources confirmed while the prime minister addressed the country from Downing Street that the NatWest retail offer was “now in the deep freeze”.

Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, announced in last year’s autumn statement that he would explore a mass-market share sale “to create a new generation of retail investors”.

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Since that point, further buybacks by the bank and stock sales by the government have reduced the taxpayer’s stake to around 28% – worth about £7bn at NatWest’s current valuation.

A retail offer could yet be revived after the general election, with Labour not ruling out support for the idea in recent months.

However, the delay induced by the general election is likely to postpone the timing of the government’s full privatisation of NatWest, 16 years after it was rescued from the brink of collapse with £45.5bn of public money.

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Shares in NatWest have risen by more than 20% over the last year despite the turbulence surrounding the debanking row involving Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader.

Mr Farage, who has threatened to launch legal action against the bank, recently declared his fight with the lender “far from over”.

The government’s stake in NatWest has been steadily reduced during the last eight years from almost 85%.

NatWest, which changed its name from Royal Bank of Scotland Group in an attempt to distance itself from its hubristic overexpansion, was rescued from outright collapse by an emergency bailout that Fred Goodwin, its then boss, likened to “a drive-by shooting”.

NatWest declined to comment.

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Sub-postmaster victims and Royal Mail’s Dame Moya Greene alike don’t believe Paula Vennell’s account




Sub-postmaster victims and Royal Mail's Dame Moya Greene alike don't believe Paula Vennell's account

The account of the Post Office’s former chief executive about what she knew during key years of the firm’s scandal is not believed by the former CEO of Royal Mail, the inquiry into the injustice has heard.

Paula Vennells has been giving evidence as part of a three-day appearance at the inquiry into the impact of faulty Horizon accounting software, which led to the prosecution of more than 700 sub-postmasters.

Read more:
Key questions ex-Post Office boss must answer
Paula Vennells breaks down in tears during questioning

In addition to the wrongful convictions for theft and false accounting, many more sub-postmaster victims generated large debts, lost homes, livelihoods and reputations and suffered ill health. Some died by suicide.

Widely not believed

The inquiry heard that Dame Moya Greene, the former Royal Mail CEO whom Ms Vennells worked alongside for many years, texted Ms Vennells in January of this year to express her disbelief at the wrongdoing denials.

Ms Vennells has long maintained – and reiterated on Wednesday – that she was unaware of the extent of flaws with Fujitsu’s Horizon software.

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Sub-postmasters listening to the inquiry in the Fenny Compton village hall in Warwickshire, where dozens of sub-postmasters met for the first time in 2009 as they began their fight for justice, also said they did not believe Ms Vennells.

“She is blatantly, utterly lying, and it’s got to stop,” former sub-postmaster Sally Stringer told Sky News.

Dame Moya texted Ms Vennells after the airing of the ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, which reinvigorated interest in the scandal, saying: “When it was clear the system was at fault, the Post Office should have raised a red flag. Stopped all proceedings. Given people back their money, and then tried to compensate them from the ruin this caused in their lives.”

When Ms Vennells replied that she agreed, Ms Greene said: “I don’t know what to say. I think you knew”.

“I want to believe you. I asked you twice. I suggested you get an independent review reporting to you. I was afraid you were being lied to. You said the system had already been reviewed multiple times. How could you not have known?” her text said.

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Why she says she didn’t know

The question of how it was that she couldn’t have known was taken up the the inquiry’s lead barrister Jason Beer KC.

Ms Vennells core argument emerged early in questioning: she said she wasn’t informed of bugs because of the way information flowed within the organisation. She accepted that as CEO she was in charge of how information was communicated.

“I was too trusting,” she said.

Vennells asked to compose herself at Post Office inquiry

Emotional testimony

Ms Vennells broke down in tears numerous times during her evidence, the first of which was when Mr Beer read out details of sub-postmasters who were not convicted, as juries accepted there were flaws with Horizon.

The inquiry had just been presented with evidence of Ms Vennells telling MPs in 2012, “Every case taken to prosecution has found in favour of the post office. There hasn’t been a case investigated where the horizon system has been found to be at fault”.

This belief, Ms Vennells said, was “a representation of the information that I was given” rather than proof of an unwavering belief that nothing had gone wrong.

‘Wait and see’ accusation

Criticism came from Mr Beer over the fulsomemess of Ms Vennells cumulative 798-page witness statement.

He asked if she was adopting a “wait and see” approach: “Let’s see what comes out in evidence. See what I’ve got to admit and then I’ll admit that?”

“Given you provided a 775-page witness statement that took seven months to write, could you not have reflected on what you should have done fully and differently within the witness statement?” he added.

Post Office Horizon IT scandal inquiry counsel Jason Beer KC. Pictured on 26/04/24 while questioning Angela van den Bogerd. Pic: Screen grab from inquiry live stream.
Post Office Horizon IT scandal inquiry lead counsel Jason Beer KC.

Ms Vennells’ statement said that with the benefit of hindsight, there were “many things” she should have “done differently”, but she would wait for the inquiry to conclude to expand on that detail.

But she denied adopting a “wait and see” approach.

Rather, “It was simply a matter of time,” she said. “The inquiry asked me, I think, over 600 questions to 200 or 300 with subquestions in each. I went through probably hundreds of thousands of documents.”

Evidence to Parliament in 2015

A major question going into the inquiry was how Ms Vennells was able to tell Parliament in 2015 there was “no evidence” of “miscarriages of justice”.

On Wednesday morning, Ms Vennells said that was what she had been told “multiple times” by Fujitsu – that nothing had been found in Horizon.

Comic relief

Back in the village hall in Fenny Compton there were moments of laughter when Mr Beer asked Ms Vennells if she was “the unluckiest CEO in the United Kingdom?”

His question was asked “In the light of the information that you tell us in your witness statement you weren’t given… the documents that you tell us in your witness statement that you didn’t see. And in the light of the assurances that you tell us about in your witness statement that you were given by Post Office staff”.

‘Exculpatory’ remembering

Another line of questioning from Mr Beer was that Ms Vennells had a better memory of events and records that made her and the Post Office look good and a worse recollection of things that made her and her organisation look bad.

“Why is it that in your witness statement, when you refer to a recollection of a conversation that’s unminuted, undocumented, not referred to in any email there are always things that exculpate you that reduce your blameworthiness?” he asked.

That wasn’t her approach, Ms Vennells said.

Signing off a £300,000 legal bill to go after a £25,000 loss?

Sub-postmasters and those following the scandal likely will be listening out to see if Ms Vennells approved the legal bill to prosecute Lee Castleton, who was featured as a victim in the ITV drama.

Earlier this month former managing director Alan Cook told the inquiry Ms Vennells approved legal costs of £300,000 to prosecute Mr Castleton for a supposed £25,000 shortfall when she was a network director at the Post Office.

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