By Dr Minh Alexander, NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 11 June 2020
Summary: The Criminal Cases Review Commission which is responsible for scrutinising possible miscarriages of justice has determined that at least 47 and implicitly, possibly up to 900 private prosecutions by the Post Office, based on evidence from the flawed Post Office Horizon computer system, are unsafe. It has advised that those who have been prosecuted on the basis of Horizon evidence who have not appealed so far should consider doing so, and it has advised that there should be a review of the Post Office’s misused prosecution powers.
Related to this, the former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells’ fitness as a director has been further questioned by a government minister, who has asked the Care Quality Commission to review her fitness in her current role of Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. A problem is that she has been carefully protected by the powerful, including the leadership of the Church of England. Furthermore, Dido Harding the Chair of NHS Improvement was personally involved in Vennells’ selection for the Imperial Chair. NHS Improvement has admitted that it gave no ‘specific weight’ to the major litigation against the Post Office nor to MPs’ concerns about the Post Office’s leadership at the time that it appointed Vennells to the Imperial Chair. NHS Fit and Proper Person arrangements are not fit for purpose. They are also under the control of Dido Harding and NHS Improvement, who have delayed in acting properly upon the recommendations of a review by Tom Kark QC into these issues.
Justice has been brutally rough for the subpostmasters, and that deep wrong is rubbed in by impunity for those responsible. This injustice is also highly corrosive to NHS safety culture.
The Post Office Horizon mass miscarriage of justice scandal is one of the deepest stains in the history of British justice and governance.
In short, the Post Office has archaic powers of investigation and prosecution, from its days of pinching highwaymen.
It has used them unwisely and there is a long record of concern about its rough justice, as illustrated by this example from Hansard 1955, about the case of Frederick Turvey, Subpostmaster Worcester, who was subjected to bruising treatment by the Post Office investigation branch & ultimately dismissed:
In the last twenty years, there have been hundreds if not thousands of cases in which the Post Office abused its powers to intimidate and unjustly prosecute sub postmasters because of phantom financial shortfalls caused by the faulty Horizon computer system, an unfit DWP cast off.
Instead of fixing the root problem, of which it was aware for many years, the Post Office brazened it out and scapegoated sub postmasters. It accused them of theft, extorted money from them which they did not owe, and prosecuted them with some cases resulting in jail sentences.
The cover up continued despite pressure from parliament and campaigners over many years, during which time the Post Office continued to harass and unjustly prosecute yet more sub postmasters.
When faced with evidence it did not like, such as the finding of investigations by forensic accountants Second Sight, the Post Office buried it.
When sub postmasters finally launched a class action at the High Court, the Post Office went into suppression overdrive with the full panoply of dirty tricks, earning it censure by the trial judge and an appeal court judge for its disreputable conduct.
Alas for the sub postmasters, the Post Office’s dirty tricks were effective in halting litigation prematurely because their resources had been depleted. They were forced to accept a sub optimal settlement, which after payment of legal costs leaves them with heartbreakingly little for the losses and the deep pain that they and their loved ones have endured.
Nonsensically, those subpostmasters who bravely risked so much by litigating, and who thereby forced disclosure of evidence which revealed that the Post Office had known that Horizon was faulty all along, will receive less through settlement than those who did not litigate will receive in compensation.
Most recently, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) finally concluded its agonisingly lengthy review of complaints of unsafe prosecutions and convictions of subpostmasters by the Post Office.
CCRC has referred a total of 47 cases to the Court of Appeal for re-examination of unsafe convictions:
The CCRC has also advised that anyone else who has been prosecuted by the Post Office on the basis of Horizon evidence should consider an appeal:
“The CCRC’s position is that if anyone believes their criminal conviction may
be unsafe because of the impact on their case of performance issues with the Horizon computer system, they should consider challenging their conviction.
If they have not already appealed and were convicted in a Crown Court, or were convicted in a magistrates’ court after pleading not guilty, they can still appeal in the normal way (seeking leave from the court where necessary). Guidance and the necessary forms can be found here: www.gov.uk/appeal-against-sentence-conviction
If they have already tried to appeal and failed, or pleaded guilty in a
magistrates court (from where there is no right of appeal against conviction
following a guilty plea), they should consider applying to the CCRC for a
review of their Horizon-related conviction. Details of how to do so can be
found on the CCRC website at www.ccrc.gov.uk”
As the Post Office has admitted that there were approximately 900 such prosecutions, we may see a flood of appeals:
The above trail of destruction obviously requires a public inquiry. No liberal democracy should allow a public body to brutalise and lock people up based on insufficient evidence, and certainly not to do so when it knows its evidence is unreliable.
As ever, the UK government is resisting a public inquiry and currently offering only a toothless review.
This protects many of the politicians and senior Post Office managers who were responsible for the disaster and or for not stopping the harm.
Paula Vennells former Post Office CEO and CQC Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Persons
Paula Vennells left the Post Office last spring when the subpostmasters’ litigation against the Post Office gathered pace. She received a golden parachute onto the Cabinet Office board and the Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.
Yesterday, an exchange took place in parliament about the Post Office scandal in which she was mentioned:
During this debate, the responding minister Paul Scully, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, stated that he had written to the Care Quality Commission (CQC). He said he had asked the CQC to check if Paula Vennells, Post Office CEO 2012-2019, was a “Fit and Proper Person” to lead Imperial College Healthcare NHS trust:
However, the CQC’s discharge of its powers under Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Persons (FPPR) has been farcical in general.
Despite a government-triggered review by Tom Kark QC, former counsel to the Mid Staffs public inquiry, CQC’s FPPR response continues to be largely useless and is by design protective of senior wrongdoers.
Paul Scully’s claim that he has asked the CQC to assess Vennells’ fitness is flawed, because the CQC refuses to determine whether NHS trust directors are fit and proper persons. CQC will only superficially review whether a trust has followed an adequate procedure to check for fitness. CQC insist that it is the responsibility of trusts to check if their directors are fit and proper persons.
Of great concern, NHSI stated in its response that it gave no “specific weight” to either the commencement of the subpostmasters’ class action against the Post Office, nor to MPs’ criticisms of the Post Office’s leadership in the Horizon dispute.
NHSI is the regulator charged with the action plan from the Kark review of FPPR. So far, NHSI has dragged its feet and done its best to water down the recommendations. It is significant and particularly troubling that NHSI shows little commitment to FPP issues in its own recruitment behaviour.
Furthermore, Dido Harding has been tasked by Matt Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to lead the persistently shambolic UK coronavirus test and trace programme. This sits ill with the fact that she remains a member of the Jockey Club board of directors, which decided to go ahead with the Cheltenham Festival despite concerns about coronavirus transmission.
Dido Harding also sits on the government’s Health Honours Committee, along with David Behan former CQC CEO who embarrassingly walked through the revolving door onto the board of the care home giant HC-One. Harding thus helps pull the central strings that decide who rises and falls.
The close knit club which has for so long helped to recycle the unfit will not like the idea of acting against one of their own, such as Vennells.
BUT Vennells was quietly dumped by the Cabinet Office in response to heavy pressure from MPs. And the scandal and pressure on the government has since deepened because of the CCRC intervention and Court of Appeal cases. So who knows?
In the meantime, I have suggested to the minister that if he thinks the CQC should determine whether NHS trust directors are Fit and Proper Persons, he ought to ask his friend at the Department of Health and Social Care to amend CQC regulation 5, and excise CQC’s wriggle room.
Letter to Paul Scully, BEIS, 11 June 2020
Dear Mr Scully,
Paula Vennells and CQC Regulation 5, Fit and Proper Persons
I see that you reported in parliament yesterday that you have written to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) to the regulator to check whether Paula Vennells is a Fit and Proper Person to be an NHS Trust director.
I should point out that the CQC is at pains to claim that it has no power to do so, and that it only determines whether regulated bodies have followed an adequate process to ensure that their directors are Fit and Proper Persons.
If you think that the CQC should determine fitness per se, this would require a tightening up of CQC Regulation 5, to ensure that the CQC takes greater responsibility for ensuring NHS trust directors are Fit and Proper Persons. Obviously, you would need to liaise with Matt Hancock about this.
For completeness, I copy below correspondence from NHS Improvement, which is responsible for the appointment of Chairs and NEDs at non-Foundation NHS trusts such as Imperial. As you will see, Dido Harding NHSI Chair was personally involved in the decision to select Paula Vennells as Chair of Imperial.
Justin Welby Archbishop of Canterbury welcomed Vennells into the heart of his corporate schemes at the Church of England. He declined to get his hands dirty after the end of the Post Office trial, referring the thorny issue of Vennells’ continued ministry to her local bishop. Her bishop, St Albans, has refused to consider Safeguarding issues raised by her conduct at the Post Office, claiming wrongly that he must confine his considerations to her conduct at the Church. Efforts continue to hold the Church to account.
Update 19 July 2020: Dido Harding was appointed by the Secretary of State as national ‘test and trace’ tsar. Her claims that this much criticised programme is improving week on week has been formally debunked by BBC fact checking.
It is farcical for someone who behaves like this to be in charge of the Kark FPPR review implementation, as head of NHS Improvement, the regulatory body tasked with this work.
About some of the victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal
“On 16 March, ministers received advice from Imperial College modellers led by NERVTAG member Professor Neil Ferguson, who found that the Government’s stated approach at the time of simply ‘slowing’ the virus could result in as many as 250,000 deaths. The Imperial College paper had further warned that, in the absence of any control measures, an unmitigated epidemic in the UK would lead to 510,000 deaths in Britain.
It is widely believed that the formulation of these figures was the first time the Government had visibility of the catastrophic loss of life that could result from its own previous strategy. However, NERVTAG minutes dated 21 February reveal that, according to working assumptions at the time about the rate and deadliness of transmission provided to Government by its scientific advisors, anywhere between 833,313 and 1,333,330 Britons would potentially die.”
The source from which Byline Times’ figures of “833,313 to 1,333,330” potential deaths were derived was the minutes of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group meeting on 21 February 2020, which gave the following government assumptions at that time:
NERVTAG meetings are attended by members of the advisory group, representatives from the Department of Health and Social Care, representatives from Public Health England and Representatives from bodies such as NHS England.
The minutes of extraordinary NERVTAG meetings since 13 January 2020 in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak are a window into various aspects of advice given to the UK government and its pandemic response.
This is the link to all the government’s published NERVTAG meeting records:
In contrast, on 13 January 2020, NERVTAG deliberations include an argument that it was not worth screening at ports of entry because China was believed to be conducting exit screening, and a view that the benefits of screening arrivals was “very unlikely to outweigh the substantial effort, cost and disruption.”
A range of between 7 to 14 days for self isolation, with preference for a longer timescale initially
That more cautious timescales be given to vulnerable groups such as those with compromised immunity
“3.25 NERVTAG’s recommendation for the length of time in self-isolation should be between 7 and 14 days and this could come down as transmission reduces. In the current situation NERVTAG would prefer this period to be towards the longer end of the range. The caveat accompanying this recommendation is that those in immunocompromised groups and those on steroids (including those with lung disease) to be considered for longer periods of self-isolation due to the reports of increased shedding and vulnerability. NERVTAG would revisit this when more data is available.”
Patrick Vallance’s comments implied that the UK government expected people infected with the novel coronavirus would develop immunity.
However, NERVTAG held a meeting on the same day, 13 March 2020, at which members acknowledged there was uncertainty about immunity to the new coronavirus.
NERVTAG agreed that the possibility of re-infection should be further investigated, and also reflected in modelling of the pandemic.
“NERVTAG discussed the evidence around reinfection/short term sterilising immunity. Concerns were raised that the length of immunity is unclear. Evidence from endemic coronaviruses is that after a mild infection antibody response may wane and individuals can become re-infected and shed further virus.
Three months may be a reasonable point after which susceptibility due to waning immunity may occur in those who suffered a mild initial infection. Members agreed that the novel nature of SARS-CoV-2 means that immune response may be more robust than for seasonal coronaviruses.
Members agreed that although there is considerable uncertainty, reinfection is a possibility that should be considered in modelling and longitudinal studies to identify reinfections are recommended.”
Obviously, unreliable and weak immune responses and reinfections within a short period of time would undermine the government’s claims of being able to achieve herd immunity by infecting 60% of the population.
NERVTAG recommendations to UK Government on PPE for pandemics and use of respirators
NERVTAG archives show that during Jeremy Hunt’s tenure as Health Secretary, NERVTAG made recommendations to the government on preparing for pandemics in terms of stockpiling PPE, and the need for eye protection. Some of the government’s responses to the recommendations are included in these documents:
“Gowns are preferential to aprons (better coverage of uniform/clothes) where there is a risk of extensive splashing of blood or bodily fluid, and for aerosol generating procedures. Again, this is in line with HSE recommendations”
“The committee agreed that the addition of gowns to the pandemic stockpile for use during splash-prone or AGPs would be of benefit, as this would bring the stockpile in-line with standard infection control procedures for seasonal influenza.”
As we have since learned, the government failed to do so and healthcare workers have been put at risk due to acute shortage of gowns during the current coronavirus pandemic. The UK is on course for the highest number of healthcare worker deaths in Europe:
The Chair of the UK Statistics Authority has written to Matt Hancock UK Health Secretary, advising that UK government statistics on testing need to be more trustworthy. His letter of 11 May 2020 is reproduced below.
Sir David Norgrove letter to Matt Hancock regarding COVID-19 testing
Dear Secretary of State,
On 2 April the Government announced its goal to carry out 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day by the end of April and on 6 May announced its ambition for 200,000 tests a day by the end of May. There has been widespread media coverage of the Government’s progress.
I know you are a strong supporter of the proper use of statistics and data and that you will understand that for the sake of clarity and confidence it is important that the target and its context should be set out.
It should be clear whether the target is intended to reflect:
tests that have been administered;
test results received; or
the number of people tested.
Each of these is of interest of course, whether or not they are targets.
In reporting against this target, sole focus on the total national number of tests could mask helpful operational detail. The way the daily tests data have been broken down by the different ‘pillars’ to illustrate the changing purposes of the programme is useful. Further breakdowns would provide more context, for example through showing the levels of testing by geographical area.
The daily data for the UK are currently reported on the gov.uk coronavirus page and a time series is available through the slides and datasets to accompany the daily coronavirus press conferences. However, there is limited detail about the nature and types of testing and it is hard to navigate to the best source of information. It would support trustworthiness for the testing data to be more straightforward to find, with detailed breakdowns and richer commentary.
The data around COVID-19 are inevitably complex, which makes it the more important that publications should meet the standards set by the Code of Practice for Statistics. We urge Government to update the COVID-19 national testing strategy to show more clearly how targets are being defined, measured and reported. Measurements will no doubt need to change and develop as we move into new phases for tackling the pandemic.
Sir David Norgrove
3) Immunity Passports
The US and UK governments have given much emphasis to so-called “immunity passports” based on testing positive for antibodies. This is despite a lack of scientific evidence base. The human immune response to novel coronavirus has not been fully studied and the evidence so far suggests that some individuals produce low levels of antibodies in response to infection, which are not robustly protective and are unlikely to prevent reinfection. The World Health Organisation has rightly advised that the science does NOT currently support the use of “immunity passports” and that they may INCREASE virus transmission by giving false assurance. This is the relevant WHO scientific briefing of 24 April 2020:
“The decision to pursue an approach of initially concentrating testing in a limited number of laboratories and to expand them gradually, rather than an approach of surging capacity through a large number of available public sector, research institute, university and private sector labs is one of the most consequential made during this crisis.
From it followed the decision on 12 March to cease testing in the community and retreat to testing principally within hospitals.
Amongst other consequences, it meant that residents in care homes—even those displaying COVID-19 symptoms—and care home workers could not be tested at a time when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant.”
By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 2 May 2020
Some good news in the midst of the terrible devastation of the coronavirus emergency.
Mr Tristan Reuser was found by an Employment Tribunal (ET) to have been unfairly dismissed by his employer University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, with the added twist that his Medical Director was found to have misled the General Medical Council by referring him without disclosing that he had made public interest disclosures. This is against revised GMC rules, brought in after the Freedom To Speak Up Review was published in 2015, to deter the vexatious referral of whistleblowers as a grave form of reprisal. The ET was fulsome in it criticism of senior trust managers.
The trust followed a most unfortunate path of digging itself in deeper by punishing Mr Reuser with an appeal, echoing the disgraceful repeated appeals by Croydon Health Services NHS Trust in Dr Kevin Beatt’s case which were all to no avail.
However, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has comprehensively rejected all grounds of the Trust’s appeal against the ET finding in Mr Reuser’s favour, with an admonition from the judge that disliking criticism is not sufficient grounds of appeal:
Moreover, the EAT has partially accepted a cross appeal by Mr Reuser’s team and remitted a matter to the original ET for further consideration. This relates to the reasons for his unfair dismissal, which he contends is the fact that he made public interest disclosures:
The EAT has remitted this matter to the original ET for reconsideration:
Thus, the trust not only wasted precious public money on a meritless appeal, but it has also possibly shot itself in the foot.
Related GMC and FPPR referrals on senior trust managers have been spun out by the GMC and CQC, but this appeal judgment takes away their excuses for prevaricating, unless of course the trust abuses the public purse with yet another appeal.
Whistleblowing in the coronavirus emergency
I should like to stress that the risks of litigation for whistleblowers are horrendous at the best of times, the process being protracted and highly traumatic. Even ‘wins’ are not real wins, and involve many personal losses for the whistleblower. It is a scandal that whistleblowers must shoulder this burden alone, when performing a public duty that benefits us all.
Ordinarily, whistleblowers are advised to use internal and official external channels of whistleblowing for a number of reasons, including maintaining “protected” legal status, weak though that is under UK law.
At present, it seems to me from all the signs that official channels for whistleblowing are worthless and very unsafe for both whistleblowers and for the public. We have seen national bodies repeatedly colluding with the UK government’s misleading claims about its handling of the coronavirus emergency, and suppression is in overdrive.
The safest route, both for whistleblowers and the public, as far as I can see at present is to make direct disclosures to the media on an unnamed basis. Choose your media outlet wisely, based on careful assessment of their professionalism and adherence to facts.
(1)A qualifying disclosure is made in accordance with this section if—
(a)the worker makes the disclosure in good faith,
(b)he reasonably believes that the information disclosed, and any allegation contained in it, are substantially true,
(c)he does not make the disclosure for purposes of personal gain,
(d)any of the conditions in subsection (2) is met, and
(e)in all the circumstances of the case, it is reasonable for him to make the disclosure.
(2)The conditions referred to in subsection (1)(d) are—
(a)that, at the time he makes the disclosure, the worker reasonably believes that he will be subjected to a detriment by his employer if he makes a disclosure to his employer or in accordance with section 43F,
(b)that, in a case where no person is prescribed for the purposes of section 43F in relation to the relevant failure, the worker reasonably believes that it is likely that evidence relating to the relevant failure will be concealed or destroyed if he makes a disclosure to his employer, or
(c)that the worker has previously made a disclosure of substantially the same information—
(i)to his employer, or
(ii)in accordance with section 43F.
(3)In determining for the purposes of subsection (1)(e) whether it is reasonable for the worker to make the disclosure, regard shall be had, in particular, to—
(a)the identity of the person to whom the disclosure is made,
(b)the seriousness of the relevant failure,
(c)whether the relevant failure is continuing or is likely to occur in the future,
(d)whether the disclosure is made in breach of a duty of confidentiality owed by the employer to any other person,
(e)in a case falling within subsection (2)(c)(i) or (ii), any action which the employer or the person to whom the previous disclosure in accordance with section 43F was made has taken or might reasonably be expected to have taken as a result of the previous disclosure, and
(f)in a case falling within subsection (2)(c)(i), whether in making the disclosure to the employer the worker complied with any procedure whose use by him was authorised by the employer.
(4)For the purposes of this section a subsequent disclosure may be regarded as a disclosure of substantially the same information as that disclosed by a previous disclosure as mentioned in subsection (2)(c) even though the subsequent disclosure extends to information about action taken or not taken by any person as a result of the previous disclosure.
43H Disclosure of exceptionally serious failure.
(1)A qualifying disclosure is made in accordance with this section if—
(a)the worker makes the disclosure in good faith,
(b)he reasonably believes that the information disclosed, and any allegation contained in it, are substantially true,
(c)he does not make the disclosure for purposes of personal gain,
(d)the relevant failure is of an exceptionally serious nature, and
(e)in all the circumstances of the case, it is reasonable for him to make the disclosure.
(2)In determining for the purposes of subsection (1)(e) whether it is reasonable for the worker to make the disclosure, regard shall be had, in particular, to the identity of the person to whom the disclosure is made.
An additional option is to disclose to the media on a named basis but to ask for your anonymity to be maintained in reporting. There are understandable circumstances in which people might prefer this. But be aware that it introduces some risk of accidents, such as interception of the data about your identity. Equally, there is a precedent of a whistleblower being questioned under oath at ET about whether they were the source of a disclosure of privileged documents to a journalist (they were). But that is less of a consideration if you intend to stay under the radar and have no intention of any open legal dispute with your employer.
If the situation changes, the risk assessment may once again favour official channels, but I suspect that will be some time.
Beware any advice at present which points you in the direction of official channels of external reporting, such as to regulators and bodies such as NHS England, which are highly compromised and have a major conflict of interest in the UK coronavirus debacle. For example:
““When this is all over, the NHS England board should resign in their entirety.” So wrote one National Health Service (NHS) health worker last weekend. The scale of anger and frustration is unprecedented, and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is the cause.”
Avoid third parties on the whistleblowing scene who have vested interests, including financial motives, and who make repeated unsubstantiated or unattributable claims.
With judicious selection of trustworthy media, and pertaining to valuable disclosures that are truly of public interest, you can be self sufficient in your whistleblowing and can avoid introducing risk from unreliable actors.
If you do seek advice at present, seek it from a lawyer whom you have personally engaged and who has a duty of confidentiality to you. Lawyers instructed by unions are answerable to your union, despite protestations otherwise, and your best interest will not necessarily be the first consideration.
An excellent dissection by the Financial Times of the UK coronavirus PPE procurement disaster, the failures of the UK government and some of the senior officials who have enabled the government’s dissembling:
I have transcribed the data, as of 21 April 2020, to a spreadsheet so that it can be interrogated more easily by anyone who has an interest in these deaths, with a death of a Southwark social worker added.
Additional details have been added such as employing NHS trusts where relevant, and links to press reports of each death.
I will endeavour to update the spreadsheet periodically.
By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist 5 March 2020
This is a quick bulletin from the kitchen front. I am technically on a short break making marmalade, homemade aromatic bitters – mmm – and other matters domestic.
In a stable, liberal democracy, the State should not be able to rob innocents and throw them in jail. It should certainly not be able to do so with impunity.
Post Office Ltd unjustly extorted money from subpostmasters under threat of jail. It took precious capital that people had painstaking built up to buy their businesses, stole their nest eggs and long term security, and the product of their labour, sometimes from over many years.
One harmed subpostmaster has likened the relationship with Post Office Ltd to a form of “slave labour”.
Since 2015 the UK government has recognised modern slavery in law:
“The common factors are that a victim is, or is intended to be, used or exploited for someone else’s (usually financial) gain, without respect for their human rights. The perpetrators seeking to take advantage of them could be private individuals, running small businesses or part of a wider organised crime network.
“5. Types of modern slavery
Labour exploitation usually involves unacceptably low pay, poor working conditions or excessive wage deductions, but is not solely about this. In order to constitute modern slavery there will also be some form of coercion meaning that victims cannot freely leave for other employment or exercise choice over their own situation. Where the perpetrator is taking advantage of a child or vulnerable person, an offence can be committed without the element of coercion”
I see little difference in what the Post Office did compared to gangmasters. It held subpostmasters in the vice of a highly oppressive contract; they were forced to accept wholly unjustified deductions out of their own pockets for phantom shortfalls that never occurred. They lived with the terror of not knowing when another massive, ruinous financial shortfall might materialise or when Post Office Ltd might arbitrarily tax them again. They were roughed up with searches, interrogations, ready-made confessions to sign, and threatened with jail if they did not cooperate. Even when they paid, they were still prosecuted. Their human rights were abused.
There is an even more unsavoury suggestion in some of the subpostmasters’ accounts that some of the prosecutions and terminations of submostmasters just happened to be convenient to Post Office Ltd’s national closure, sorry, modernisation programme.=
“Throughout my case and indeed following its outcome, I received enormous support from friends, villagers and customers who refused to believe that I had made off with any money…in fact the consensus of opinion was that POL were deliberately fabricating a case for closing our branch without the cost of significant recompense to the Postmaster (this event had occurred in the middle of a national closure programme to find 2500 branches to close). Very soon after my sentencing, I was contacted by a fellow ex Postmaster who had experienced the same treatment and further enquiries uncovered a significant number of similar cases up and down the country”
The government’s conduct through its organ, Post Office Ltd, has been so scandalous that it has left subpostmaster claimants with almost nothing to show for the appalling trauma of being forced to litigate, because Post Office Ltd failed to engage fairly with a mediation.
Seema Misra, who trusted our justice system and pleaded not guilty but wassent to prison whilst pregnant and when her son was aged ten, does the maths:
Nevertheless, CPS does reveal that it received complaints about at least five of Post Office Ltd’s private prosecutions and that it exercised its prerogative to take over and put a halt to two of these prosecutions.
A public inquiry is so obviously required into this most grave matter, not least because Post Office Ltd was a wholly government owned company, and governments should not behave like hoodlums or robber barons. A detailed argument for public inquiry by Eleanor Shaikh who supports the subpostmasters can be found here:
The Johnson government gave an apparent, tentative agreement to an inquiry into Post Office Ltd but will not act without huge continuing pressure. The parliamentary select committee which overseas the government department responsible for Post Office Ltd has launched its own brief inquiry and is chasing Johnson about a public inquiry:
According to the BEIS select committee, Paula Vennells is due to give oral evidence as part of a second panel on 24th March 2020 (assuming parliament has not been shut down by the government as has been mooted, on grounds of coronavirus risk):
“On Tuesday 24th March (am), the Committee is expected to question the current PO Ltd CEO, Nick Read, the former CEO, Paula Vennells, Fujitsu, a BEIS Minister and a representative from UKGI (UK Government Investments).”
A Westminster Hall debate led by the MP of one of the victims, Tracy Felstead, who has jailed by Post Office Ltd at the age of nineteen, takes place today on how the unsafe convictions can be overturned:
And what of NHS Improvement, the NHS regulator which helped Paula Vennells Post Office Ltd CEO 2012-2019 find a new billet as a Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust?
More illegality of course. NHSI has defaulted on an FOI about its actions in appointing Vennells as Chair of Imperial. It initially apologised for delay and promised a reply, then went silent. It maintained this silence after a personal reminder to its Chair Dido Harding, another former captain of the communications industry and collaborator with Vennells in the digital venture ‘Go On UK’.
An unanswered FOI reminder to Dido Harding:
From: minh alexander <REDACTED>
Subject: FOI request Fit and Proper Person issues in the appointment of Paula Vennells as Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust
Date: 27 February 2020 at 14:35:37 GMT
To: Dido Harding <REDACTED>
I am rather concerned by a delay in NHSI’s response to the FOI request below about NHSI’s handling of Fit and Proper Person issues and Paula Vennells’ appointment by NHSI to the Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.
I first made my request on 16 January and was expecting a response by 13 February.
NHSI has apologised for going over this statutory deadline and last week indicated that I would be getting a reply this week. But I am concerned not to have heard anything now that we are nearing the end of the weekl.
As there is a massive weight of concern about Post Office Ltd’s actions, and as No 10 has apparently acquiesced to the growing calls for an inquiry, I would be grateful if NHSI would expedite its reply.
It does seem very important that patients are properly protected and that there is accountability for the Safeguarding process.
With best wishes,
A complaint has been filed with ICO to stop the delay from dragging on too long, but NHSI will doubtless do its best to resist transparency.
By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 1 March 2020
February has been an unexpectedly busy month and so forgive me if this is short and not so sweet.
The Tories made political hay with the MidStaffs disaster, but defaulted on safe staffing. Health Secretaries Hunt and Hancock have paid lip service to the value of whistleblowers, but have permitted their destruction, and allowed impunity for reprisal.
In the last six years, hardly any referrals of NHS directors to the Care Quality Commission under Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Persons have resulted in findings of serious breach.
Here are some FPPR referrals on individuals/ trust boards who have been proven by courts or formal investigations to have harmed whistleblowers, but in response to which the CQC has found no breach or no serious breach of Regulation 5:
The board of Mid Essex Hospital Services NHS Trust
These days, I make FPPR referrals less in expectation of an appropriate system response, but on a point of principle, to highlight failures and to maintain a proper record of concern and provide collective memory where the system fails.
A year ago Jo Williams the former Chair of the Care Quality Commission, whose leadership and treatment of whistleblowers was much criticised by the MidStaffs public inquiry and by MPs, was appointed as Chair of Alder Hey NHS Foundation Trust. Accordingly, I made an FPPR referral to CQC.
A year on, the CQC has predictably shut down the FPPR referral, declaring that Alder Hey’s FPPR process is “robust”. This is the trademark closure letter:
And who were Jo Williams’ referees for her appointment to the board of Alder Hey, first as a NED and then as Chair?
Dr Patricia Mills Consultant Anaesthetist West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust whistleblower
In a nutshell, Dr Mills has been horribly persecuted for doing her duty as doctor to ensure that there was learning from the avoidable death and catastrophic harm respectively to two patients, Daniel Parsons and Paul Farmer, under the care of West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust.
Classically, trust executives have reframed her patient advocacy as unacceptable behaviour and set a protracted disciplinary process in motion.
The Trust CEO Steve Dunn was revealed by the Sunday Times to have behaved unpleasantly and unprofessionally at a meeting with Patricia Mills, with the trust minimising this behaviour as merely “tough”.
“The chief executive is alleged to have angrily demanded to know why she had written the letter to the chairman of the board and accused her of undermining Dr Nick Jenkins, the medical director, on patient safety issues. Dunn is said to have asked: “You think I’m an arsehole, don’t you?” and Mills to have replied: “Yes, I do at this moment.”
It seems that trust executives were especially threatened by Dr Mills because as part of fulfilling her GMC obligations, she questioned the Medical Director’s response to the avoidable death and harm. For example:
“A source said Mills claimed to have raised the issue with Jenkins on five occasions and had been disappointed that there had only been a perfunctory investigation.”
Patricia Mills is one of the doctors who was placed under huge pressure by the trust to provide fingerprints and a handwriting sample during a later whistleblower witch hunt.
A former trust clinical director Dr Jon Cardy has told the Sunday Times that a number of doctors have informed him of oppressive trust management, to the point that two doctors have been suicidal. The reported mistreatment of staff according to Dr Cardy has included subjecting doctors to formal investigations after whistleblowing.
In the meantime, Matt Hancock Health Secretary and local MP told the local press that everything had been handled “entirely appropriately.”
And as if she has not suffered enough already, Dr Patricia Mills was run over two weeks ago whilst walking her dog down a country lane, requiring hospital treatment.
As a country we are sliding into very unpleasant political territory, with attacks on press freedom, other portents of authoritarianism and increasingly brazen unaccountability for the powerful.
There will be difficult times ahead for whistleblowers, and it may be wise to expect less of officialdom and already fragile official mechanisms for reporting and redress. This government is already openly attacking some whistleblowers:
By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 29 February 2020
The mass miscarriage of justice by Post Office Ltd against subpostmasters spanning two decades is a most extraordinary tragedy . It is a very British scandal of establishment cover up and careless, “patronising disposition of unaccountable power”, to borrow a phrase from a prominent son of the Church.
Although a decisive High Court victory by the subpostmasters shone a very large light on the nature of power, lives remain seriously wrecked, convictions are still in place, no senior officials or government ministers have yet been held to account and importantly, there are reports that Post Office Ltd seems not to have changed its behaviour towards subpostmasters.
In addition, multiple complaints have been made to the Church of England about Paula Vennells’ continuing ministry as a priest, under the Clergy Discipline Measure.
I have now raised a concern under the Church of England’s Safeguarding procedures, on the basis that Post Office Ltd continued to treat subpostmasters and their families abusively under Paula Vennells’ seven year tenure as CEO.
I have also asked the Church to disclose the number of complaints received about her so far, and to lend its political power to the call for a public inquiry and urgent suspension of Post Office Ltd’s prosecutorial functions.
The Safeguarding referral has been very, very kindly supported by testimony from subpostmasters, difficult and highly unpleasant though it is for them to revisit memories of the abuse by Post Office Ltd.
One former postmaster, and Church of England warden, Mr Tom Hedges has given permission for his impact statement to be published, so that people can understand what it has been like for the families. I am most grateful to him and deeply respect his courage and dignity in his efforts to see that things are put right and made safe for others.
Tom’s impact statement follows below. The main Safeguarding referral to Paula Vennells’ bishop, Alan Smith the Bishop of St Albans, is provided in the appendix.
POST OFFICE HORIZON SCANDAL
VICTIM IMPACT STATEMENT BY D T (TOM) HEDGES FEBRUARY 2020
Have you ever been accused of a crime you did not commit, taken to court on made up evidence, been advised that if you try and fight the charge, you will go to jail, so you plead guilty because you are terrified?
Well that is what happened to me at the hands of the Post Office under the control of its board of directors. Sure we took the legal entity Post Office Ltd to court, and obtained partial redress, but companies are run by people and it is their actions and decisions that caused this horrendous tragedy to engulf at least the 557 people in the group action and more cases are coming to light all the time.
I suffer from a disability that requires the use of a medical device to ensure I do not die. I had to almost fight to take this equipment into the dock when I was sentenced, as it would not have been possible to get this life saving equipment to me, if I had been “sent down”. This hugely heightened my stress and fear during my court appearance.
The whole experience has effected me and my family in a hugely detrimental way. Even after the few thousand we are to receive as our share of the settlement, we are hundreds of thousands out of pocket. We were forced to sell our PO, Retail Business and comfortable home at a distress price, about half of its value before that fateful day. We just about avoided bankruptcy and were forced to live on benefits ever since. I could not obtain a job with a criminal record. I did obtain two reasonably paid job offers, but but both were withdrawn, when my criminal conviction was revealed. This stigma sticks and hurts. If I wanted to visit the USA, I cannot, as they will not allow convicted criminals to enter, even for a holiday. Several people both individuals and whole families shunned us in the village, some even crossing the road to avoid us. These people had always been well disposed to us and was one of the reasons why we moved out of the village into a nearby town, that provided anonymity. That did and still does, hurt.
The mental toll from that fateful audit day onwards was crippling, as the full might of a huge company was unleashed on me and only the support of a wonderful wife, loving family, close friends and my faith, saw me through. I can well understand why others contemplated and even went through with, taking their own lives, if they had no support.
My wife and I have been forced to live in rented accommodation, with the high rents and uncertainty that this brings, renting from a private landlord. The waiting list for council or housing association property is over five years in our area.
As I am now 66 and in receipt of both my state and private pension. I had been looking forward to a reasonably comfortable retirement. We had planned to sell up when I was 64/5 and release the equity in our business and home and be able to buy a small property outright and put some money in the bank for rainy days. This has all been taken from me and our rent per month is more than my private pension, so we are living on what’s left of our state pensions.
However I count myself lucky compared to others who suffered in our group, but we all have one thing in common, this experience has scarred us for life and no one is being held to account for this.
People make and carry out policies within companies, but the law dictates that the legal entity is the company. We have settled with the company and it admitted its failings, but its directors and ex directors caused this situation in the first place and are free to do it all again.
“Is that right and just?”
The Church of England’s Safeguarding policies and procedures can be found here.
Key documents and judgments from the Post Office trial can be found here.
This is a brief account of the government’s inadequate handling and spin about NHS whistleblowing and safety, and how this PR machinery is helping to support Paula Vennells’ position at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust:
Information disclosed today by the Crown Prosecution Service adds to the general concern about the competence and probity with which Post Office Ltd wielded its prosecutorial functions.
The CPS can take over private prosecutions where concerns have been raised. CPS has disclosed that although its records may not be complete, it was referred five private prosecutions by Post Office Ltd. It decided to take over two of these and discontinued them. I will try to find out more.
Safeguarding referral regarding Paula Vennells to Alan Smith, Bishop of St. Albans
Bishop of St Albans
Church of England
29 February 2020
Dear Bishop Alan,
Safeguarding concern about Paula Vennells
I write to make raise a Safeguarding concern about Paula Vennell’s continuing ministry at Bromham Benefice, in your diocese.
Paula Vennells was centrally involved in highly abusive institutional actions against subpostmasters and their families when she was Post Office Ltd CEO in the period 2012 to 2019, in regards to the dispute over the Horizon IT system.
I believe that the relevant matters fall under the Church of England’s Safeguarding procedures, especially with regard to vulnerable people and children, but also more generally to all the adults who were affected, based on the Church’s policy statement:
“All adults, including vulnerable adults, have a fundamental human right to choose how and with whom they live, even if this appears to involve a degree of risk. They should be supported to make those choices, to live as independently as possible and treated with respect and dignity.” [my emphasis]
With regard to adults affected by the Post Office’s harmful actions, vulnerable or not, I believe that the following provisions under Church policy are especially relevant:
“Psychological abuse including emotional abuse, threats of harm or abandonment, deprivation of contact, humiliation, blaming, controlling, intimidation, coercion, harassment, verbal abuse, isolation or withdrawal from services or supportive networks.
Financial or material abuse including theft, fraud, exploitation, pressure in connection with wills, property or inheritance or financial transactions, or the misuse or misappropriation of property, possessions or benefits.”
With regards to the children of harmed subpostmasters, I believe that the policy provision on neglect is most relevant, and that the Post Office Ltd’s negligence and lack of duty of care to these families led to other forms of active harm to the children:
including failure to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter, to protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger, to provide adequate supervision and/or access to appropriate medical care or treatment. It may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance abuse.”
Post Office Ltd terrorised subpostmasters and their families with accusations based on unsafe evidence from its flawed Horizon IT system, despite holding knowledge that this system was flawed. This persecution started before Paula Vennells’ tenure but continued after she became Post Office Ltd CEO.
Post Office Ltd unsafely prosecuted many hundreds of subpostmasters, and sent some to jail knowing that its evidence was in doubt.
The full extent of the harm has yet to be revealed as many cases are still coming through the system and have yet to present at court.
Post Office Ltd lied to many subpostmasters, telling them they were the only person who had reported any problems with the Horizon IT system, when in reality it was in possession of many years’ evidence of glitches across its system.
Mr Tom Hedges
Mr Tom Hedges a Church of England warden and former postmaster was prosecuted by Post Office Ltd solely on the basis of Horizon evidence. Post Office Ltd told him he was the only person who had claimed computer error:
“During an audit in May 2010 I was accused of theft and false accounting, suspended, dismissed and then convicted at Lincoln Crown Court,” he said. “I was given a seven-month suspended prison sentence, ordered to do 120 hours community service and had to pay £1000 costs.
“The sole evidence against me was The Post Offices computer system known as Horizon.
“At the time I was told by Post Office that their system was infallible. I had not taken any money, but I was advised by my lawyer that the court would accept that a company the size of The Post Office would have a ‘bomb proof system’ and that if I pleaded ‘not guilty’ I had no hope of convincing the court otherwise. The consequences of making a not guilty plea and then being found guilty would have almost certainly been a custodial sentence.
“Faced with this prospect he advised a guilty plea and very likely a suspended sentence, was my best choice. I was petrified of the prospect of jail so chose to plead guilty.”
This falsehood was repeated across different cases, and Post Office Ltd repeatedly failed to disclose highly relevant information about Horizon bugs during its prosecutions; actions which cannot be seen as mere isolated errors of omission.
When subpostmasters found they were not alone, organised and challenged Post OfficeLtd’s false narrative, the Post Office still maintained ludicrous denial for many years, with a High Court finding in December 2019 that its denial was akin to a claim that the Earth was flat.
These are all the judgments and relevant key documents from the Post Office trial, collated on the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance website: documentation
It appears that amongst a number of possible reasons for Post Office Ltd’s entrenched and prolonged denial was the fact that government and the Paula Vennells pinned the organisation’s business plan on digitalisation and an increased range of business activities which required digitalisation. Admitting that the Post Office’s core digital accounting system was unreliable would have been highly prejudicial to these ambitions.
But Post Office Ltd’s abusive scapegoating of subpostmasters, blaming them for phantom financial shortfalls caused by glitches in the Horizon system and demanding ‘recompense’ with menaces, was monstrously callous and subjected many hundreds of families to profound, life changing and far reaching harms.
Post Office Ltd made people vulnerable from the stress it placed them under with grossly unfair contractual arrangements and wrongful prosecutions. Once they were made vulnerable, Post Office Ltd continued to mistreat them, reckless of the consequences of such mistreatment. The harms suffered by subpostmasters and their families included the following:
People lived with unbearable stress for years
They experienced traumatic, humiliating events such as having their homes searched and being handcuffed, which for law abiding people was completely alien and very frightening
Mental health and physical health suffered very seriously in some cases. For example, some people have had serious stress related illness such as strokes.
Pregnant subpostmistresses were exposed to risk of miscarriage from extreme stress
There was serious financial loss, to the extent of bankruptcy and long term economic insecurity and homelessness. For example, one couple ended up living in a van.
The financial abuse by Post Office Ltd in coercing payments from subpostmasters, for phantom shortfalls using a very oppressive contract and threats of prosecution has still not been rectified, in that the monies have not been repaid
Many have been left without adequate pensions or equivalent security for their old age, in an increasingly uncertain world and decreasing State pension provision
Family life was disrupted, marriages came under pressure and fell apart in some cases
The children of subpostmasters had childhoods shadowed by parental stress, frank mental illness, financial ruin, loss of family homes and much reduced life chances.
They experienced enforced separation where families broke up under strain, parents were forced to live apart due to economic consequences or a parent was wrongly jailed.
In one of the attached supporting documents, you will see that a young child had to be without her mother for 13 months because the family, as a result of Post Office actions, did not have the means to arrange a visa.
Children themselves were also subject to stigma and bullying during tender, formative years. This is one example:
There is especially serious harm to the children of parents who are jailed, which I cover in more detail below.
The above harms to the children of the subpostmasters should be seen as serious institutional child protection issues, because Post Office Ltd was cognisant for many years that its prosecutions were unsafe. Despite this, it was reckless as to the harm inflicted on the most vulnerable innocents.
Some subpostmasters experienced the unimaginable agony of being disbelieved by loved ones
Many experienced terrible stigma and were shunned by their communities, with the stigma extending to their families. Some people were even physically assaulted because of the stigma against them
Years were lost with the complex and very stressful litigation
Litigation costs, vexatiously drawn out by Post Office Ltd’s various aggressive and dishonourable tactics, described by a Court of Appeal judge as “attritional” and “extremely aggressive”, added to substantially to the financial loss
Employment prospects were very seriously damaged because of the unsafe convictions, feeding into the downward spiral of stigma, social isolation and poverty
Being forced to litigate and to appeal against unsafe convictions were an additional, re-traumatising harms
For those who faced the prospect of jail or were actually sent to jail, this was amongst some of the greatest cruelty by Post Office Ltd.
However, the fact that Post Office Ltd continued to prosecute subpostmasters over Horizon related shortfalls during Paula Vennell’s tenure as Chief Executive, and was willing to expose yet more people to the risk of prison, showed continuing, serious institutional irresponsibility and abusiveness.
As a former consultant psychiatrist who has cared for patients in our prison system, I am only too aware of how harsh and frightening an environment prison is, especially for those serving their first sentence.
Suicide risk is elevated for people on remand and any new arrivals, especially people in jail for the first time.
Self harm is common across the prison estate.
UK government safer custody statistics on numbers of prison self harm incidents 2012-2018:
Suicide risk is elevated in prisons compared to the general population.
Post Office Ltd cruelly exposed subpostmasters to these risks when it sent them to prison despite knowing they could be innocent.
The children of people who are jailed suffer very significantly:
The jailing of women in particular tears apart families and scars children.
The Corston Report 2007 by Baroness Jean Corston the then Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights was conducted on the special needs of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. It concluded firmly that women offenders had very different needs and that custodial measures should be applied much more sparingly:
“Custodial sentences for women must be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public.”
It is therefore especially poor that some female subpostmasters with children were so harshly pursued after 2007 and sent to prison for non-violent first offences.
The Corston reports sets out the following important observations on the imprisonment of women with respect to their families:
“3.25 For many women the prison experience is made worse because they are anxious all the time about their children’s well being, or even their whereabouts. Even a short absence from home can disrupt family life and lead to serious problems for children. Many women try to run their homes from prison. Visits with children can cause distress.
A lifer cited in one research paper I have read said; “I need those visits but I’ve also got some rather unpleasant scars through my children grabbing hold of me and screaming “Mum, mum, mum – I don’t want to leave you mum”…I’ve come upstairs and just couldn’t handle it, so I’ve picked up a razor…”
“Custodial experience affects women differently and disproportionately from men. For example, they are located further from their homes and families because of the small number and geographical spread of women’s prisons, which makes visiting difficult. Women in prison are less likely than men to have someone on the outside looking after their home and family and they are more likely to lose their home and children as a result of imprisonment.”
2.17 Women prisoners are far more likely than men to be primary carers of young children and this factor makes the prison experience significantly different for women than men. As Baroness Hale, the only woman Law Lord, has put it, “Many women still define themselves and are defined by others by their role in the family. It is an important component in our sense of identity and self esteem. To become a prisoner is almost by definition to become a bad mother. If she has a husband or partner then again almost by definition she will become a bad wife or partner. Separating her from her family is for many the equivalent of separating a man from his job.” A Home Office study in 1997 showed that for 85% of mothers, prison was the first time they had been separated from their children for any significant length of time.
2.19 Only 5% of women prisoners’ children remain in their home once their mother has been sentenced to custody. As many as 25% are cared for by grandmothers; 29% by other family members or friends; 12% are in care or with foster parents or adopted. The case study of 50 self-harmers showed that a third of the women had been in care as children themselves and the Social Services were currently in contact with nearly half of the women. One of the most alarming statistics that I have seen reported appears in the Revolving Doors Agency’s survey in which 1,400 women serving their first sentence in Holloway were interviewed. 42 women had no idea who was looking after their children. Quite apart from the dreadful possibility that these children might not be in a safe environment, this must cause mothers great distress and have deleterious consequences for their mental health.”
Post Office Ltd thus recklessly and seriously harmed the children of subpostmasters when it sent their parents to prison knowing that they could be innocent.
“Trusting the legal system would deliver justice, she refused to plead guilty. She was two months pregnant with her second son when she was sentenced to 15 months in jail. It was her first son’s 10th birthday. She doesn’t remember what happened in court: she woke up in hospital. Her tears fall as she remembers how she begged a police officer not to handcuff her, begged him to let her leave the hospital by a back door and, when he refused, begged for his jacket to cover her wrists. “It was my local hospital,” she says, “I didn’t want people to see me going out with handcuffs on.”
Post Office Ltd is supposed to be a business with a social purpose, but it showed no conscience whatsoever in its institutionally sociopathic victimisation of the subpostmasters and their families.
Not only did it harm people who became vulnerable due to mental ill health and massive duress such as prosecution and financial ruin, but it actively worked to create that vulnerability with its tactics of intimidation, isolation and threatening litigation strategy. The fact that Post Office Ltd continued its abusive denial and resistance years after serious harm was obvious, and many subpostmasters had been rendered vulnerable by mental ill health and chronic serious stress from intolerable circumstances, showed grave institutional irresponsibility and recklessness if not malice.
Paula Vennells was at the helm of Post Office Ltd for seven years in which denial and unsafe prosecutions continued, and further abuse took place in the form of Post Office Ltd’s abusive handling of the Post Office mediation scheme and cover up of unfavourable findings by its own appointed investigator, Second Sight, which it gagged.
Paula Vennells misled parliament in 2015by maintaining Post Office Ltd denials about flaws in the Horizon IT system and the possibility of unsafe prosecutions.
“It is important to put to bed any implication that we are not accounting properly.”
“We are a business that genuinely cares about the people who work for us. If there had been any miscarriages of justice, it would have been really important to me and the Post Office that we surfaced those. As the investigations have gone through, so far we have no evidence of that.”
Later, during the Post Office trial, evidence emerged that Paula Vennells had sought to solicit a favourable response from her staff to present in evidence to the 2015 BIS select committee. She told her staff that she “needed” to tell the Committee that there was no remote access to the Horizons system. The effect of such an assertion would be to help remove the element of reasonable doubt about Post Office Ltd’ charges of criminality against subpostmasters. Judge Fraser described the events thus in his judgment:
“545….The statement in the Defence was misleading too. It ought also to be noted that the truth did not emerge internally within the Post Office in the email answers provided to internal inquiries in 2015 by senior Post Office personnel, such as the Chief Executive, who posed the specific question in preparation for providing evidence to a Select Committee and asked: “What is the true answer?”
“546. She also said in the same email “I hope it is that we know this is not possible and that we are able to explain why that is”. The true answer is that, contrary to her aspiration, it was possible.”
“547. She also stated “I need to say no it is not possible and that we are sure of this because of xxx and that we know this because we have had the system assured.” The true answer to that was also “yes, it is possible”.
Paula Vennells’ 2015 comments to parliament in oral evidence had the effect of minimisation and subtle victim blaming, claiming that there were only a “small number” of unhappy and vocal subpostmasters:
“…the vast majority of people have no issue with the system, and they are actually quite satisfied with the training and support around it. We are dealing with a very small number of people who have had some really difficult things happen to them”
“Inevitably, because of their distress, the people who have gone through this are very vocal and very challenging about what they have been through—quite rightly so.”
In my view, there is a lack of anything approaching appropriate acknowledgment in her public statements to date, of the depth of suffering by the subpostmasters and their families.
Post Office Ltd previously maintained under FOIA that no internal whistleblowing disclosures were raised between 2012 to 2019 about Horizon:
It admitted to only a tiny handful of other whistleblowing incidents in those years. This lacked credibility given the size of the organisation. Also the Post Office whistleblowing policy requires annual reports on numbers of incidents, and there were dedicated reporting systems in place including an online service, suggesting that a certain volume of reports was expected.
A BBC File on Four broadcast on 11 February 2020 revealed that there were at some point, Post Office whistleblowers who raised concerns about the Horizon system. They too received an intimidating system response, which included suggestions that their jobs and careers were at risk if they did not “’move on and let it go’. This adds to the evidence of poor, unsafe Post Office Ltd culture.
Please see below the Fit and Proper Person referral to the Care Quality Commission which I sent you previously, which gives some more detailed facts. Following at least two FPPR referrals, one from myself and one from Tom Hedges, the CQC has raised a challenge with the employing NHS trust.
Please note that Paula Vennells accepted in the oral evidence to parliament in 2015 that she was responsible for how Post Office Ltd conducted itself:
“Q100 Nadhim Zahawi: You are the chief executive, so the buck stops with you.
Paula Vennells: It does stop with me. Also, therefore, as chief executive, I am responsible for the reputation of and what happens for the Post Office.”
I am concerned from the above pattern of events that Paula Vennells raises has a capacity for abusing power, which makes her unsuitable for any position of trust and exposure to people at vulnerable points in their lives, and to any ordinarily vulnerable adult and to children. I am concerned that her past behaviour is incompatible with the position of trust that comes with her role as Church of England priest, bringing her into contact with vulnerable people and people in crisis or at critical points of their lives, such as bereavement and other loss.
“I have little doubt that the reason for my termination is that I had not only uncovered limitations and potential errors with the Horizon system, but that I continued to question Post Office on the contractual relationship between subpostmasters and Post Office.”
Paula Vennells’ leadership of the Post Office represented a continuance of this aggressive institutional denial.
In all the circumstances, I am very concerned in particular that she may cover up any matters which affect reputation. For example, I am very troubled as to how she might approach any reports of abuse that she receives from or relating to vulnerable people, if such reports happen to stand between her and her goals and ambitions. I see she is tipped to be a Bishop and I am very concerned if she is again given power over others.
Her lack of appropriate acknowledgment of the devastating harm caused and her recent scant apology which only caused more distress and was made at a very late stage, suggested a lack of learning.
“It was and remains a source of great regret to me that these colleagues and their families were affected over so many years. I am truly sorry we were unable to find both a solution and a resolution outside of litigation and for the distress this caused.”
Paula Vennells quoted by the Daily Mail 23 December 2019
It therefore implied a capacity for repetition.
The Church of England should recognise the grave injustice of minimising the misery inflicted on hundreds of families by Post Office Ltd under Paula Vennells leadership, which is de facto what is happening through her continuing ministry.
I attach, and will forward under separate cover, testimony from subpostmasters which includes information about some of the experiences of their close family members.
Additionally, these are links to some of the accounts in the public domain of the harmed subpostmasters’ experiences:
I would be grateful if the Church of England would conduct a thorough evaluation and investigation of all the relevant Safeguarding issues raised by the Post Office trial, including by contacting the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, the Communications Workers Union and the forensic accountants Second Sight, for all relevant and also emerging evidence. I ask that you act on the Safeguarding evidence and protect parishioners and wider members of the public with whom Paula Vennells may come into contact through her various roles in the Church, including business and corporate support to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In particular I ask that you treat the testimony from harmed former subpostmasters which accompanies this Safeguarding referral with the greatest respect and sensitivity, and not add to their trauma. It has taken great courage and strength by the victims of the Post Office to continue with their struggle all these years in the face of bitter institutional resistance. Their struggle is not over, nor are the consequences of Post Office Ltd’s abuse.
I make this point as I am aware that the Diocese has written to at least one harmed subpostmaster who complained about Paula Vennells, stating that it will make deliberations about whether he is a person who has a “proper interest” in raising complaints about her. This may be the Church’s standard administrative procedure, but I found it very shocking that such words could be used to people who have suffered so much.
In the interests of transparency, I would also be grateful if the Church of England would disclose how many complaints it has now received about Paula Vennells’ continuing ministry. I appreciate that the Church is not subject to FOIA. However, some other important bodies which have a public function and which are not subject to FOIA nevertheless attempt to provide open access in a similar spirit to FOIA. I hope the Church will adopt the same principle.
Indeed I will go one step further and ask the Church of England to use its considerable political power to support the victims of Post Office Ltd by backing the call for a public inquiry and for urgent suspension of Post Office Ltd’s prosecutorial functions, given the weight of evidence of serious incompetence and misconduct.
By Dr Minh Alexander, NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist 27 February 2020
Summary: This piece examines the fine governmental art of suppressing whistleblowers, using various forms of managed opposition. The whistleblowing charity Protect’s close relationship with the government and income from the public sector is examined. Protect’s protracted unwillingness to criticise the obvious flaws and failures of the government’s Freedom To Speak Up project is described. Notably, Protect holds data from its helpline which suggests that after Freedom to Speak Up Guardians were introduced, healthcare whistleblowers continued to seek help outside of their own organisations, after more of them tried internal mechanisms but were not reassured. This data was tucked into Protect’s 25th anniversary report, but without a frank acknowledgment of its significance. Instead, Protect wished vainly that the Freedom To Speak Up model might yet help “transform” NHS culture. Fundamental reform of unfit UK whistleblowing law is required for real change. However any attempt at law reform is now fraught with dangers given the authoritarian Johnson administration, which has just outed education whistleblowers. Law reform ventures could easily backfire and put future whistleblowers in a worse position. Nevertheless several establishment actors are trying to make off with the law reform bandwagon under these uncertain conditions. WhistleblowersUK and its suspect APPG wish to place a new whistleblowing Office under the control of the MoJ or Home Office. Protect propose an inadequate re-brand of existing law, which will not threaten but flatter the government and continue the symbiosis. It is trying to generate PR for its initiative with an event on 18 March 2020. None of the Bills currently doing the rounds in parliament assures explicit and robust parliamentary scrutiny of any new whistleblowing agency. Without regular scrutiny and refreshment, any new whistleblowing agency created will soon become another tired, saggy part of the existing political furniture.
The octopus is an old emblem of the Mafia, coiling and insinuating its many tentacles into different parts of society.
In fact, governments may outdo any organised crime syndicates in their abuse of power, subterfuges, rackets, stratagems for unjustly dipping into the common man’s pockets and their parking of boots on necks
Governments may be dictators who permit token opposition or field fake candidates, or purportedly liberal governments that pretend to cede power to ‘independent’ bodies whilst keeping firm grip.
The government dissembled about what it had done, but its denial was hardly credible:
“The DfE said the “names of the three individuals were not redacted from the Freedom of Information response because the requester was already aware of their identity and had shared their names via her solicitors with a number of other organisations, including NET Academies Trust, as part of her legal claim.”
They then claimed the FOI response was “only shared with the requester and the department did not publish this information online”.
But a spokesperson for mySociety [who run What Do They Know] challenged the latter statement, adding that the department has had “4,525 requests since the site was launched eleven years ago, so they should be well aware that when a request is made through ‘What Do They Know’, the response is published online automatically”.
This flagrant breach of whistleblower confidentiality and identity was exceptionally serious not least because the Secretary of State for Education, and by proxy his Department, is a Prescribed Person under UK whistleblowing law, with statutory duties to receive and record disclosures from education whistleblowers.
The EU whistleblowing directive now outlaws such revelation of a whistleblower’s identity.
If all UK government departments start to behave in this manner, it will send a very clear signal that whistleblowers can expect nothing but abuse from this government.
The Department for Education is of course a work in progress for two key players in the authoritarian Johnson administration: Cummings and Gove.
Thus it may be a government priority to purge the DfE of normalcy and truth tellers, in order to push through its control over the next generation.
Traditionally, UK governments have managed whistleblowing through a combination of strategies such as complicity by regulators who do not always act in the public interest, the capture of a few whistleblowers and the cultivation of close relationships with organisations that purport to represent whistleblowers, softening their sting. The late Dr Jean Lennane, a whistleblower psychiatrist and for many years a transparency campaigner in Australia, had a rule of thumb that most anti-corruption bodies stay honest for no longer than three years, assuming they were sound to start with.
In terms of whistleblower capture, we have seen whistleblowers take the shilling and progress to promotions and well paid public sector jobs, land paid project work without competition, and secure business contracts paid from the public purse. In exchange, they have rubbished their peers, generally or specifically, plugged government policy, endorsed discredited organisations harmful to whistleblowers, and provided a synthetic rent-a-crowd to nudge public confidence in government’s fabrications.
Protect, the not-very-oppositional whistleblowing charity has enjoyed a symbiosis with government for over two decades and monopolised the market in providing advice services.
Most public sector bodies have whistleblowing blurb that signposts workers to Protect.
Protect has cruised along on the Employment Tribunal National User Group for years. The purpose of the meeting of this group is for stakeholders to raise concerns.
“The stakeholders use the meetings to raise issues or concerns with the service provided by employment tribunals.”
In the group’s published minutes from February 2016 to the present time, which shows attendance by Protect at nearly all the meetings, I found one comment by Protect staff:
“Item 9 Any other business Roger Easy pointed out his concern in the difficulty in locating whistleblowing cases within the EAT website. The President informed Roger that Nicola Daly was the new EAT Registrar. He would let Nicola know that Roger would write to her about his concerns.”
But perhaps it’s more about the networking with all the other parties at the table: BEIS, TUC, ACAS, EHRC, important lawyers, Law Society, Reuters, CAB, etc, etc.
One wonders where the balance falls between influencing and being influenced.
Protect knew the law, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA), was weak because Protect has told some whistleblowers to run and not to fight.
Most importantly for NHS whistleblowers, Protect has extended its fraternisation to the National Guardian’s Office. This started soon after the 2016 appointment of the second National Guardian, Henrietta Hughes, who replaced Eileen Sills, the Bolter.
In 2017, reverential messaging about the Freedom To Speak Up followed. For example, instead of challenging Robert Francis about non-evidenced based internal Guardians, Protect simply transmitted his spin that Guardians were “pioneers”.
There has been cross fertilisation. Protect’s Head of Legal headed off to the National Guardian’s Office as the National Engagement Manager, complete with selfies:
A presentation in March 2018 by the former Protect Head of Legal in her new role at the National Guardian’s Office included the following optimistic claims about the effectiveness of NHS trust Freedom To Speak Up Guardians:
In June 2018, I crossed swords with Francesca West, Cathy James’ successor, when she made a comment at a conference on the twentieth anniversary of PIDA, at which she suggested that the government’s Freedom To Speak Up project was progressing well. This was in the absence of evidence and evaluation.
A Protect announcement of a new trustee in October 2018 emphasised the value that Protect placed in its relationship with government, following the passage of PIDA:
“Protect welcomes new trustee and employment lawyer David Widdowson, who has extensive whistleblowing expertise, to the Protect Board.
David is a long-standing member of the Employment Lawyers Association, and a member and subsequent chair of a working party which commented on the two abortive private members bills and then on the bill which became the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. Comments at the consultative stage were influential in the ultimate drafting of the bill and formed the basis of a very successful relationship with the DTi, now BEIS (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy). He also has trustee experience.”
There is a need to engage, but quite so enthusiastically?
Protect’s messaging about NHS cases in this period has been something of a balancing act. It has criticised some public institutions as part of showcasing its role as an advocate for prominent NHS whistleblowers, but it remained curiously silent about how the National Guardian failed the same whistleblowers.
Protect in fact held data which suggested ineffectiveness of the government’s Freedom To Speak Up model. However, the charity was loath to comment too bluntly on this fact.
The charity’s 25th anniversary report showed that in the three years after Robert Francis published his report of the Freedom To Speak Up Review, the number of calls from healthcare workers to its helpline did not change significantly.
However, there was a drop in the proportion of healthcare callers who were making a first time disclosure:
This implied that some healthcare workers had already tried internal routes of disclosure, but had not been reassured by their employer’s responses.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the mushrooming Freedom To Speak Up Guardian posts in these three years.
Instead of straightforwardly spelling out this unfavourable finding, what did Protect say?
“We hope the introduction of Freedom to Speak Up Guardians does help to transform the whistleblowing or speak up culture in the NHS. It is early days, and still very much in its infancy, but we know from experience there does have to be top down buy in from senior management, the Board as well as obviously the day to day workforce.”
Aye, pig & lipstick transformation.
Protect must surely know that the Freedom To Speak Up model is a recipe for abuse destined for the policy bin, even if the Department of Health and Social Care tries to keep it on life support for as long as possible.
Protect must also know that the Freedom To Speak Up model was just a re-warmed version of the civil service nominated officer scheme, which has never been properly evaluated and has certainly not transformed whistleblowing governance in Whitehall.
The very serious NHS whistleblowing scandals that are still occurring, such as at West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, are abundant evidence that after five years of the Freedom To Speak Up project, nothing has been transformed.
We also have yet to see what role the government had in the whistleblower witch hunt at West Suffolk, which took place in the Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s constituency.
Structurally enmeshed, Protect contributes to the Freedom To Speak Up project training Freedom To Speak Up Guardians.
An FOI disclosure by Health Education England on 28 April 2017 Ref. showed the following financial transaction between HEE and Protect (then known as Public Concern at Work):
HEE went through a tendering process to identify suppliers for the following services that arose from Sir Robert Francis’ Freedom to Speak Up (FtSU) aimed at developing education and training guidance to support staff with raising and responding to concerns. The contract was awarded to PCaW on 1 November 2015 to deliver 13 face-to-face training sessions, 2 e-learning sessions and a conference for Freedom to Speak Up Guardians and a video of training session. The value of the contract was £109,600.
The original completion of the contract was planned for end of March 2016, but was extended to March 2017 due to delays of setting up the National Freedom to Speak Up Guardian Office and lack of national advice in this area. The contract has now come to an end.”
There is therefore a conflict for Protect in commenting on the effectiveness of the Freedom To Speak Up project.
How does this influence the level of Protect’s opposition to the government?
Some at Protect may believe in what they are doing, but they need to candidly ask and answer these questions of themselves.
Successive waves of grassroots whistleblowers have campaigned for many years for reform of totally unfit UK whistleblowing law, which is the real change that is needed. Recently the bandwagon has started to creep forwards.
But someone has now tampered with the steering, and several establishment parties are trying to make off with it.
WhistleblowersUK and their Whistleblowing-kerching-APPG want to gallop towards US bounties.
In 2014, shortly after publication of the Midstaffs public inquiry, Jeremy Hunt came under mounting pressure to improve the NHS’ handling of whistleblowing.
He commissioned Robert Francis to conduct the Freedom To Speak Up Review, which made weak recommendations and was totally silent about the nature of the concerns which whistleblowers had reported to the Review.
Robert Francis later indicated through correspondence that most of the evidence submitted to the Review was destroyed.
Francis and the government devised a publicity tool called the Freedom To Speak Up model, which made it look as if something was being done, when nothing was done at all:
Henrietta Hughes, former Medical Director of NHS England London, the National Freedom To Speak Up Guardian sits at the head of the project. She has helped those proven to have harmed whistleblowers to launder reputation. For example, David Loughton CEO of Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, who has been found by an investigation to have harmed a whistleblower and has been criticised in several other whistleblower cases, tweeted this smiling image of a visit by Hughes:
Similarly, Henrietta Hughes visited West Suffolk NHS Foundation NHS Trust in January 2018 and praised their speaking up culture when in reality it was failing badly, and was criticised by the CQC. Just a few months after her visit, the trust launched a whistleblower witch hunt and demanded fingerprints and handwriting samples from its staff as part of the witch hunt:
Many troubling questions continue to swirl around Whistleblowers UK and the APPG.
Norman Lamb MP resigned from the APPG in October 2019 because of unanswered questions that he put on my behalf.
Tom Lloyd WhistleblowersUK Chair declined to answer questions which I put to him personally last year, and I did not pursue them further with him.
But as some serious new matters have arisen, I have written to him again. My letter is provided below.
Chair of WhistleblowersUK
20 February 2020
WhistleblowersUK’s financial arrangements, re-investment of surplus income, not for profit status, and declaration of interests
In August 2019 I asked you for information on clients to whom WhistleblowersUK had sold consultancy services, as advertised on your CEO’s LinkedIn page, at that point:
I also asked you:
“I now see that there have been two payments of £7,500 respectively in February and June 2019, described as donations, from Constantine Cannon.
Please could you advise if these are the payments referred to in the whistleblowing APPG’s registered details, with respect to the statement: “WhistleblowersUK is paid by Constantine Cannon LLP to act as the group’s secretariat From : 10/07/2018 To : 09/07/2019” or whether the two payments in February and June were separate, additional payments unrelated to Whistleblowers UK’s role as APPG secretariat.”
I did not receive specific answers to these questions.
Indeed, in your response to my enquiry you commented:
“You have made several requests for information that we are under no obligation to provide.”
However, Norman Lamb resigned from the Whistleblowing APPG on 24 October 2019 because he could not get answers from WhistleblowersUK to various questions that I had raised about finances and potential conflicts of interest, including my request for a list of organisations to which Whistleblowers has sold Non Executive Director services, as advertised by your CEO.
He commented in his resignation letter, addressed to your CEO:
“I do believe fundamentally in transparency and being accountable to members of the public who ask questions.”
I had not intended to write to you again. However, now that a document has emerged showing that WhistleblowersUK asks whistleblowers to pay £100/ hr for assistance, and 5% of any future award or settlement (the “WhistleblowersUK “Statement of Cooperation and Agreement”), I feel it is all the more important to re-visit financial transparency.
This is particularly as in 2015, you prepared a speech in which you described WhistleblowersUK’s role as one of holding whistleblowers’ hands, and signposting them onwards to appropriate sources of support.
“We receive calls and emails and refer people to appropriate support and legal advice, in short we “hold hands” with whistleblowers as their story unfolds. Perhaps most importantly we believe them.”
£100/hr seems a lot to ask for signposting, particularly from vulnerable, distressed whistleblowers who are facing a lifetime of economic insecurity from crippling legal costs, loss of livelihood and blacklisting.
£100/hr also seems a great deal given that WhistleblowersUK has made repeated public statements that it can only help some whistleblowers, because it lacks funds and depends solely on volunteer staff.
On WhistleblowersUK’s website, you state that surplus income is re-invested to help whistleblowers in various ways:
“WhistleblowersUK is a not for profit organisation that reinvests its surplus income to provide help, support and information to whistleblowers.”
The accounts submitted by WhistleblowersUK to Companies House provide only limited detail:
Accordingly, is it possible for WhistleblowersUK to provide a full account, by financial year since 1 April 2015, of:
1) Total Income gathered from direct payments by or percentage recovery on awards/ settlements from whistleblowers under your ’Statement of cooperation and agreement’
2) Total income from donations
3) The total number of whistleblowers helped by WhistleblowersUK
4) Total surplus income and how it has been used to help whistleblowers?
I am especially anxious for clarification of the numbers of whistleblowers who have been helped by Whistleblowers UK. This because WhistleblowersUK has made inconsistent statements about the numbers of people it has helped.
On social media, WhistleblowersUK stated on 14 January 2019 that it had helped “hundreds” of people:
In contrast, on your website, your CEO states that WhistleblowersUK has helped “dozens” of people:
On 24 February 2019 WhistleblowersUK appeared to again contradict its social media statement of 14 January 2019 with another statement, that it received hundreds of requests but had only been able to help in a “small number of cases:
I appreciate that WhistleblowersUK elected not to answer my previous questions about potential conflicts of interests such the identity of clients to whom it had sold any consultancy services, any remunerated services to the FCA and the identity of any clients to whom it had sold NED services, and as far as I can see your CEO has taken down her LinkedIn page
However, if WhistleblowersUK has changed its position on transparency about these matters, I would be glad of some answers.
If Whistleblowers no longer seeks to provide consultancy services or to place NEDs in organisations for remuneration, I would be grateful for that clarification.
As a former Chief Constable and senior public servant, I am sure you can appreciate the importance of accountability and transparency, and issues of trust when caring for vulnerable people in crises.
Lastly, please note if you have not already done so that the Whistleblowing APPG twitter account recently retweeted an extremely controversial figure who has been questioned by the police in regards to complaints about incitement of Race hatred. I hope that as Chair of the APPG secretariat, you will never tolerate this, and everything else that it implies.
Dr Minh Alexander
NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist
Anneliese Dodds Labour MP Oxford East Whistleblowing APPG Vice Chair
Baroness Susan Kramer Liberal Chair of Whistleblowing APPG
WhistleblowersUK Company Number 09347927 is the secretariat for the controversial Whistleblowing All Party Parliamentary Group, which launched a Bill for an Office For the Whistleblower in January. It has the appearance of a marker to benefit whistleblowing industry middlemen, without specifying elements that are essential to the public interest.
WhistleblowersUK are collaborating with the whistleblowing charity Protect to get traction for UK whistleblowing law reform.
However, the combination of questionable players and an even more questionable authoritarian Johnson government means that adjustments to UK whistleblowing law carry extremely serious risk for UK whistleblowers, especially if WhistleblowersUK and the Whistleblowing APPG succeed in their proposal to place UK whistleblowing under the control of either the Ministry of Justice or the Home Office.