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Care Quality Commission enquiries into IT scandal CEO continue

NHS regulator continues enquiries about the appointment of former Post Office CEO at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust as more damning details emerge

The Care quality Commission is still making enquiries into the appointment of former Post Office chief to establish whether NHS Trust met the NHS’s regulation that ensures that directors in the NHS are suitable for their roles.

Paula Vennells, who was appointed chair at Imperial College Healthcare in February 2019, ran the Post Office during a time when the company instigated one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history. The organisation wrongly prosecuted subposmasters for financial crimes and demanded money after blaming them accounting shortfalls, which were the result of computer errors. some went to prison, many were bankrupted and lkoves were ruined.

In December 2019, concerns were raised under the NHS’s fit and proper persons regulation (FPPR), which was introduced to ensure NHS directors were suitable, by former NHS consultant psychiatrist Minh Alexander. This followed a High Court litigation that revealed details of the Post Office behaviour in relation to the scandal.

In his judgement High Court judge, Peter Fraser, slammed the Post Office’s business practices, describing its denial that Horizon could be to blame for accounting shortfalls as amounting “to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat.”

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.

The Post Office prosecuted subpostmasters, forced them to pay for losses that had nothing to do with them, and some even went to prison. A Computer Weekly investigation 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 2019, Vennells was awarded a CBE for services to the Post Office and charity.

Ongoing investigations

In February, the CQC confirmed it was looking into the appointment of Vennells, and in a letter this week to Alexander last week the CQC,  said its investigations are ongoing. “I can confirm that we have not concluded the FPPR referral and we are making further enquiries with the trust.”

According to CQC rules trusts must satisfy that they have followed a “robust process to ensure that the person in question is fit and proper for their role. There is no set timescale for FPPR investigations.

Since the referral in December, the Post Office Horizon scandal has created legal history. In June the Criminal Cases Review Commission referred 47 cases of potential miscarriages of justice resulting from private prosecutions of subpostmasters to the Court of Appeal for review. The CCRC said this was the biggest group of probable miscarriages of justice ever referred by the organisation.

This month, the Post Office announced it would not contest 44 of these appeals, meaning they are highly likely to be quashed by the Court of Appeal.

MPs are calling for Vennells to be stripped of her CBE. During a recent debate in the House of Commons Julian Lewis, independent MP for New Forest East, asked Minister for Postal Affairs, Paul Scully, whether he accepted “that those present or former Post Office officials who perpetrated this disaster and perpetuated the agony of the victims must be punished, not promoted, and shamed, rather than rewarded with honours, as I believe happened in at least one prominent instance”.

Scully said the Honours Committee and any future employers needed to look at the background of any person involved in this.

At the time she made her FPPR referral Alexander said: “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.”

Serious suffering caused

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.

The NHS FPPR means 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 February 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."

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

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