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Concerns raised over former Post Office CEO’s appointment at NHS trust under review

Care Quality Commission to review concerns over Paula Vennells’ appointment after they were raised by a former NHS consultant psychiatrist

Concerns over the appointment of former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells as a director at a major NHS trust will be reviewed in line with the NHS’s Fit and Proper Persons regulation, after they were raised by a former NHS doctor.

Vennells was appointed chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in February last year, after leaving the Post Office. But her time as Post Office CEO had seen subpostmasters blamed for accounting shortfalls that were caused by computer problems, which led to major suffering for a number of them.

The Post Office prosecuted subpostmasters, forced them to pay for losses that had nothing to do with them, and some even went to prison. Computer Weekly first made the problems public in 2009 (see timeline below).

NHS trusts are under a legal obligation to conduct ongoing checks to ensure their directors meet the health service’s Fit and Proper Persons rules. According to nhsemployers.org: “In order to meet compliance with these requirements, all NHS trusts must ensure they have robust processes in place to assess the suitability of directors at the point of recruitment and throughout their ongoing employment. They are also required to have effective arrangements in place to tackle issues should any concerns be raised about a director’s ongoing fitness and suitability to carry out any such role.”

In December 2019, following the conclusion of a multimillion-pound court case in which it was claimed that the Post Office had treated its subpostmasters in a similar way to how Victorian factory owners treated their workers, former NHS consultant psychiatrist Minh Alexander wrote to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) with her concerns about Vennells’ appointment.

As revealed in the Postofficetrial blog, Alexander asked the CQC, in the case of Vennells’ appointment, to “exercise its powers under CQC Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Persons (FPPR), and to review Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust’s Fit and Proper Person arrangements”.

Nigel Acheson, deputy chief inspector, hospitals directorate at the CQC, told Alexander in a letter that the commission will formally review her submission in line with its process for assessing potential breaches of the regulation.

“CQC’s role is to check that the care providers we register take appropriate steps to ensure that directors of their services are of good character, have the necessary skills, and are able to perform their duties,” said the CQC in its reply to Alexander.

Alexander commented: “In a safety-critical sector, it is vital that directors can be trusted to act accountably, to fulfil an organisational legal duty of candour and to prioritise patients’ wellbeing and safety above any considerations of reputation management.”

She said the Post Office’s behaviour under Vennells’ leadership was not accountable nor open about its computer problems, and the Post Office instead caused serious suffering to scapegoated subpostmasters, some of whom had been prosecuted and jailed. 

“It would be very unsafe for such a corporate culture to be replicated in the NHS, where vulnerable patients would take the brunt of any cover-ups,” said Alexander.

A spokesperson for Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, said: “NHS Improvement appointed Paula Vennells as our chair in April 2019, knowing of the Horizon computer issues.  The latest developments are in line with what was understood at the time of [her] appointment and provide no further insight for the board to consider. The board is able to draw on its own direct experience of Paula Vennells' conduct and contribution to the trust since she became chair. This has been entirely positive and in line with our organisational values. The board continues to be very grateful for [her] work and commitment to the trust."

“The board reviewed the situation and noted its position at its latest public board meeting in January," added the statement.

The Post Office’s Horizon IT problems and the behaviour of Post Office management is becoming a national scandal, with calls for a public inquiry.

MPs are beginning to ask questions. David Jones, Conservative MP for Clwyd West, the constituency of Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who led the legal battle with the Post Office, said: “People across all political parties are appalled at what has clearly happened. It is not so much about what happened, but the way the Post Office went out of its way to obfuscate it.”

Jones said he is arranging a meeting with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to support the subpostmasters in seeking redress.

He stopped short of calling for a public inquiry at this time, but said: “I would like to see how the government deals with it.”

The publicly owned Post Office is described by the government as an arm’s-length organisation over which it has no day-to-day control.

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009

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