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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 subpostmasters who have effectively had their names cleared by the CCRC:
The list below provides details of all of the cases whose referral has been announced today. They details appear in this order:
Surname, forename – Offence(s) – Date of Conviction – Court of Conviction
Ashraf, Kamran – Theft – 28/1/04 – South Western Mags’ Court
Blakey, David – Theft and false accounting -17/12/04 – Great Grimsby CC
Butoy, Harjinder – Theft – 25/9/08 – Nottingham CC
Cleife, Julie – false representation – 26/10/10 – Basingstoke MC
Howard, Gillian – False accounting – 26/4/11 – Bradford CC
Mahmood, Tahir – False accounting – 16/12/05 – Birmingham CC
Warren, Ian – Theft – 30/3/09 Chelmsford CC
Williams, Margery – false representation 16/2/12 -Caernarfon CC
Yates, David – Theft and false accounting – 31/10/03 – Guilford CC
Very importantly, CCRC has called for review of the Post Office’s prosecution powers.
The lack of effective government oversight of the Post Office as a prosecutor is one of the most shocking aspects of the scandal.
When I asked the Post Office for copies of all audit, investigation and review reports of its performance as a private prosecutor, it simply replied “Post Office does not hold this information”:
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:
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.
Nevertheless, I made an FPPR referral to CQC on Vennells last December and so did others. The only stirring since has been a report that the trust confirmed it received a FPPR enquiry from the CQC.
It is quite usual for CQC to drag FPPR processes out for many months, in the hope that fuss dies down. Regardless, I will chase again.
In the case of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, a non-Foundation NHS trust, it is the responsibility of the regulator NHS Improvement (NHSI) to appoint Chairs and NEDs.
I asked NHSI for information on how it appointed Vennells to the Chair of Imperial. This was the reply:
As you can see, the Chair of NHSI, Diana “Dido” Harding, a Tory member of the House of Lords, took part in appointing Vennells to the Imperial Chair:
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.
With best wishes,
Dr Minh Alexander
Cc Matt Hancock Sec State Health & Social Care
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.
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About some of the victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal
Victims of the Post Office’s sub-postmaster scandal on their decade of hell Hundreds of sub-postmasters had their lives ruined when a faulty IT system led to them being accused of fraud. Katie Glass hears their stories of torment, prison — and the unfinished battle to clear their names