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NHS trust says appointment processes robust despite criticism of role for Post Office scandal CEO

NHS trust defends its director appointment process following an external review of its recruitment of former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells

Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust has said that an external review of its appointment of former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells has shown its processes to be robust.

The trust has been under pressure to explain that it followed the rules when recruiting Vennells, after details of her role in an IT scandal were revealed in the High Court.

Vennells’ appointment was referred to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) under a regulation that aims to ensure executives are appropriate – known as the CQC Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Persons (FPPR).

In February last year, after reading about the treatment of subpostmasters by the Post Office under Vennells’ leadership, former consultant psychiatrist Minh Alexander referred her appointment  for investigation. At the time, 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.”

Vennells led the Post Office during a scandal that saw hundreds of subpostmasters wrongly prosecuted for financial crimes after experiencing unexplained accounting shortfalls in branches.

In October last year, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust said it was seeking external legal advice in relation to its appointment of Vennells, who resigned as chair amid growing pressure in December.

Following the external advice, the trust told Computer Weekly:  “We sought external legal advice to check our processes for reviewing our trust executive and non-executive directors’ compliance with the CQC’s Fit and Proper Persons Requirement (Regulation 5). The advice confirmed that our processes are robust.”

Vennells earned millions of pounds and in 2019 was awarded a CBE for services to the Post Office and charity. That same year, just before the Post Office lost a multimillion-pound court case, Vennells left to take up the role of chair of Imperial, one of the biggest trusts in the NHS.

In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation revealed that subpostmasters, who run branches, were blamed for accounting shortfalls that they suspected were caused by the computer system they use, known as Horizon. They were forced to pay back money that, in fact, was never taken. Hundreds were prosecuted and some sent to prison. Many more lost their livelihoods when made bankrupt, and others suffered stress-related ill health (see timeline of Computer Weekly’s coverage below).

It has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in modern English legal history. Six subpostmasters recently had their criminal convictions quashed, and another group of about 40 expected to have their convictions quashed in the Court of Appeal in March.

Senior figures in the scandal will face increased scrutiny as public pressure grows. The Football Association of Wales’ (FAW) recent appointment of a former Post Office executive, Angela Van den Bogerd, who tried to mislead a High Court judge in the Horizon IT scandal, has been questioned by a Welsh Labour MP.

Jack Sargeant, MP for Alyn and Deeside, expressed his concerns that FAW had appointed Van den Bogerd despite her involvement in a national scandal.

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

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