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Care Quality Commission to discuss concerns over Paula Vennells’ NHS role

Healthcare regulator will be discussing concerns about former NHS boss chairing an NHS trust at an upcoming meeting

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) will discuss concerns raised by a doctor over the appointment of former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells as chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.

Concerns were raised under the NHS’s fit and proper persons regulation (FPPR) by a former NHS consultant psychiatrist Minh Alexander as details emerged of the Post Office behaviour in relation to the Horizon IT scandal. The CQC, which regulates and inspects health services in England, is making further inquiries.

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). The scandal has been described as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history.

In a letter to the CQC in February, Alexander said the Post Office 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,” she wrote.

In a letter to Alexander dated 19 June, Nigel Acheson, deputy chief inspector, hospitals directorate at the CQC, said: “We are making some further enquiries with the trust and we will be discussing the referral at the next FPPR meeting on the 8 July 2020.”

During Vennells’ seven years at the Post Office helm, from 2012, she earned millions of pounds while hundreds of subpostmasters were wrongly blamed for accounting shortfalls that the Post Office failed to investigate. In 2019, Vennells was awarded a CBE for services to the Post Office and charity. She was appointed by Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in February 2019.

A High Court judgment in December vindicated subpostmaster claims that Horizon was causing shortfalls and judge Peter Fraser slammed the Post Office’s business practices. He described the Post Offices denial that Horizon could be to blame for accounting shortfalls as amounting “to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat”.

Following Alexander’s concerns being raised, 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.”

Since then, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) has referred 47 cases of subpostmaster prosecutions to the Court of Appeal, because they are potential miscarriages of justice. Furthermore, the Post Office recently admitted that there are another 900 subpostmasters prosecutions made based on evidence from the Horizon system, which has now been proved to be flawed.

In March, Helen Pitcher, chairman at the CCRC, said: “If you are getting so many cases which all relate to an IT system that has been put in, somebody somewhere should have been asking if this is the fault of the individual or the system?

“Whether that happened or not I don’t know, but as a member of various boards over the years, if I was on the Post Office board I would have been saying to my head of legal, ‘I need you to come to the board and give us an account of how there could be so many cases coming under the same category’.”

She said that presupposes the matter went to the board and was highlighted to them, and that senior executives at the Post Office were aware of it. “The former CEO Paula Vennells spoke quite openly about these cases in the press,” said Pitcher. 

Peer James Arbuthnot, previously Conservative MP for Hampshire East, described the behaviour of the Post Office under the leadership of Vennells as “both cruel and incompetent”.

After the High Court case ended, Arbuthnot, who has campaigned for justice for affected subpostmasters for many years, called for Vennells, who is chair of Imperial College Healthcare Trust, to step down from public roles.

“I’m not keen on going too hard after Paula Vennells.  First, I think there is a risk it might create sympathy for her, and second, as I once said in the Lords, it’s not her suffering we want, it’s proper compensation for the subpostmasters,” said Arbuthnot.

“But it seems to me to be up to the NHS as to whether they really want her advice.  I wouldn’t want her advice because she was faced with a moral choice and she took the wrong one, the one which allowed hundreds of subpostmasters to be falsely accused, humiliated and ruined by the organisation she ran.”

Separately, a crowdfunding initiative to raise money to investigate the government’s role in the scandal set up by the Justice for subpostmasters Alliance has received pledges from the public worth over £50,000, more than half of its £98,000 target, The funds will be used to build a case to take to the Parliamentary ombudsman.

The ombudsman has the right to summon people and papers, with powers analogous to those of a High Court judge. “So the names will be named and those who took decisions will have to defend what they did, or in many cases probably didn’t do,” said former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who has spearheaded the fight for justice for more than a decade.

While it is free to apply to the ombudsman, there are costs associated with building a case. To support the subpostmasters taking on the government to redress their grievances, you can pledge here. The money will only paid once the target is met.

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

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