By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and retired consultant psychiatrist 3 March 2021
Summary: On 15 July 2020 Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust issued a strange denial of wrongdoing or doubt about Revd Paula Vennells’ fitness to be chair of an NHS trust. The trust initially denied that Vennells herself helped to craft this statement. After further questions, disclosed correspondence between the Imperial director of communications and NHS Improvement throw doubts on Imperial’s claim that Vennells did not have a hand in the statement. Moreover, Imperial admits that the statement was sent to all board members before it was released, so all had responsibility. Other information obtained through FOI shows that Imperial had not agreed any terms of reference for an external review under CQC Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Persons, which the trust promised to undertake after Care Quality Commission intervention, by the time that Vennells tendered her resignation on 30 November 2020. The trust previously claimed that external legal advice concluded that its FPPR governance was “robust”. It is now revealed that this advice was provided by Capsticks LLP in February 2020. The trust now admits that it in addition to the usual administrative checks, Capsticks urged Imperial to consider more widely if Vennells was of good character. The question is whether the Imperial trust board applied itself to this consideration with good faith and any meaningful rigour. CQC’s deliberations on Imperial’s compliance with Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Persons is still awaited.
Paula Vennells was a Post Office Ltd senior manager for ten years, and the company’s chief executive for seven of these years.
She was seriously criticised for her role in the Post Office’s protracted and flawed denial that it unsafely prosecuted and convicted hundreds of subpostmasters, based on its unreliable Horizon computer system.
Vennells left Post Office Ltd in 2019, becoming chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, with Dido Harding Chair of NHS Improvement taking part in her selection.
I referred Vennells to the Care Quality Commission under CQC Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Persons in December 2019, following a damning High Court judgment against Post Office Ltd.
BEIS ministers later questioned Vennells’ leadership of the Post Office and importantly, her fitness for her current role as Imperial chair:
On 15 July 2020, after the BEIS ministerial FPPR referral, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust issued a pre-prepared statement at its Annual General Meeting, read out by the deputy trust chair Nigel Acher, which was dismissive of the serious concerns about Vennells’ fitness.
Strangely, the trust’s statement claimed there were no new insights about her role in the Post Office Ltd scandal from when she was appointed as trust chair in Spring 2019:
“Sir Gerald: “Thank you, thank you very much indeed Paula. Mr Wilson, thank you for your question. [he reads] Indeed no one could follow what has happened to many of the Subpostmasters using the Horizon system without being profoundly moved, but when Paula was appointed by NHS Improvement, just over a year ago, she was open about the ongoing Horizon issues during her time at the Post Office. And following the Post Office legal ruling and settlement at the end of 2019, and subsequent developments. our board has reviewed the situation carefully and thoroughly. All of the information we have remains in line with what was understood by NHS Improvements at the time of Paula’s appointment in April 2019. And the board has no additional insight into the complexities of the Post Office issues over the past 20 years and we are only able to draw on our own direct experience of Paula’s conduct and contribution to this Trust, which has been entirely positive. Thank you Paula, back to you.”
This was very surprising given several excoriating court judgments that were issued after Vennells’ appointment as Imperial Chair. The High Court and Court of Appeal judgments lambasted Post Office Ltd’s denial of problems with the Horizon Computer system and its “mid Victorian factory owner’s” attitude towards and treatment of subpostmasters. Judges also criticised Post Office Ltd’s disreputable conduct and many incorrect claims in proceedings, aggressive litigation tactics and its extraordinary, baseless and unsuccessful attempt to boot the High Court trial judge off the case. Post Office Ltd’s behaviour during the trial helped to drive up costs, thus effectively robbing gravely harmed sub postmasters and their families of much needed compensation.
As Post Office Ltd’s CEO, it is hard to see how Vennells could reasonably escape criticism for many of these failings. She was surely either an active party to bad governance, or she did not have proper grip and failed to understand, recognise or correct bad governance. Moreover, as CEO she must have had a significant hand in shaping Post Office Ltd culture and corporate habits in her seven years as chief executive, leading up to the conclusion of the Post Office trial.
I asked Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust which trust directors helped to draft the statement of denial issued at the 15 July 2020 AGM. The trust initially answered evasively on 14 January 2021 as follows:
“This particular outline response was developed with input from board members, though not the chair.” [My emphasis]
When challenged about this failure to answer my question, the trust remained opaque and claimed on 25 February that it could not tell me which directors were involved in the drafting because it held no records. But it did concede that the statement was shared with all directors before it was issued:
“The Trust does not hold recorded information in response to this request. The statement was drafted by the director of communications based on discussions with board members and previous responses. As is usual practice, it was shared with all board members in advance, along with other suggested responses to questions likely to arise at the AGM, including questions that may have been asked directly of the chair.”
The Imperial FOI response of 25 February 2021 can be found here.
Additionally, Imperial disclosed that it ran its statement on Vennells past the regulator NHS England/ Improvement. The trust disclosed its email correspondence with the regulator as part of the 25 February 2021 FOI response.
Significantly, despite the trust’s above claim of 14 January 2021 that Vennells had no part in drafting the 2020 AGM statement, the correspondence disclosed on 25 February 2021 suggests that Vennells (and the Imperial’s CEO Tim Orchard) may have been involved in preparing the trust’s AGM statement. An email by Michelle Dixon Imperial’s Director of Communications stated:
[date redacted but probably 14 July 2020] “I’ll send to Tim and Paula this evening too for any updated view.”
I have asked the Trust to clarify this apparent anomaly and explain why it originally denied that Vennells was party to drafting the denial.
Michelle Dixon like Vennells, has passed through the Cabinet Office.
Vennells got a seat at the Cabinet Office board table as a NED in February 2020 as she departed from the Post Office, but later resigned, after pressure on the government from MPs and peers mounted.
Although Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust issued the defiant 15 July 2020 AGM statement about Vennells’ fitness, this was followed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission’s finding there had been a miscarriage of justice caused by the Post Office. CCRC referred unsafe sub-postmaster convictions to the Court of Appeal.
Imperial was then forced to agree to commission an external review of CQC Regulation Fit and Proper Person issues on Vennells, after intervention by the Care Quality Commission.
Imperial indicated in its FOI response of 14 January 2021 that it abandoned this external review of FPPR because of Vennells’ resignation from its board:
“Paula Vennells tendered her resignation from Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust on 30 November 2020. In light of this, and bearing in mind the cost of the investigation and the fact that it is unlikely to report before 31 March, we propose to not go ahead with the review as planned.”
In the trust’s later response of 25 February 2021 it additionally admitted that it had not even agreed terms of reference for the external review by the time of Vennell’s resignation:
“The Trust approached a barrister who agreed to take on the work, but we had not agreed the terms of reference or entered into a contract at the time of Paula Vennell’s resignation. No work was commenced and we therefore do not hold any further recorded information in response to this.”
Additionally, in January 2021 Imperial claimed to Karl Flinders at Computer Weekly:
“We sought external legal advice to check our processes for reviewing our trust executive and non-executive directors’ compliance with the CQC’s Fit and Proper Persons Requirement (Regulation 5). The advice confirmed that our processes are robust.”
The trust has now supplied additional information on this reported legal advice, showing that the advice came from Capsticks LLP in February 2020 and that it focussed mostly on narrow administrative definitions of Fit and Proper Persons:
“We sought advice from Capsticks Solicitors LLP in February 2020 upon receipt of a letter from the CQC about the application of Fit and Proper Persons Requirement (FPPR) to the Trust chair.
The advice received confirmed the Trust’s view that it has robust FPPR processes in place, specifically in relation to the issues raised by the CQC letter.
On the basis of the information provided by the CQC, the requirement of the FPPR in question was whether or not the Trust chair was of good character. In that regard, none of the specific considerations referred to in part 2 of Schedule 4 of the FPPR applied.
Specifically, it was not the case that Ms Vennells:
- did not have the qualifications, competence, skills and experience that are necessary for the position of chair (the CQC had confirmed at its last inspection of the Trust, that the senior leadership team had the appropriate range of skills, knowledge and experience)
- had health concerns
- had been responsible for, been privy to, contributed to or facilitated any serious misconduct or mismanagement in the course of carrying on a regulated activity.
The advice also noted that the regulations state that, in assessing a director’s character, the matters to be considered must include those in Schedule 4 part 2 though not exclusively. The Trust was advised to consider other matters in addition to those specified in Schedule 4 part 2 if they indicated that the chair may not be of good character, which we also endeavour to do.” [My emphasis]
A key question is whether trust directors took the last part of this legal advice seriously.
There is of course a serious flaw in the system. NHS Improvement appoints the chairs and non executive directors of non Foundation NHS trusts, but thereafter the subordinate trusts assume legal responsibility under CQC Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Persons for ensuring that directors continue to be Fit and Proper Persons. It is unfair to place trusts in this position of having to effectively overturn unsuitable appointments by the regulator.
But trust directors are nevertheless highly paid senior officials who should put their duty to the public above their self interest.
We await the outcome of the CQC’s deliberations on the FPPR referrals that it has received about Vennells’ role at Imperial.
The question that CQC must address is whether the trust’s FPPR governance is acceptable, regardless of whether Vennells is departing.
But any criticism of by CQC of FPPR issues at Imperial is a sensitive matter because it would effectively also be a criticism of NHS Improvement and Dido Harding NHSI Chair, who took part in Vennells’ selection as Imperial Chair.
UK whistleblowing law
Subpostmasters were not covered by existing weak UK whistleblowing law, so their countless disclosures to Post Office Ltd about flaws in the Horizon computer system and unsafe prosecutions were not recognised under the law as whistleblowing.
UK whistleblowing needs to be greatly strengthened to cover a wider range of whistleblowers, to prevent cover ups and to deter and sanction those who cover up.
If you have not already done so, please help by signing and sharing this petition to parliament to reform the law: