Coronavirus: Records of UK Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG)

Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist 11 May 2020

 

Introduction

This post is to share records of this key government advisory group that has had little coverage.

On 1 May 2020 BylineTimes @BylineTimes reported that the UK government was aware in late February 2020 that there could be over a million Covid-19 deaths in the UK, but took little action for 3 weeks:

Government Anticipated More Than A Million COVID-19 Deaths But Refused to Take Action for Three Weeks

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:

Screenshot 2020-05-11 at 14.58.29

[From: Minutes of a meeting on 21 February of UK Government New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) ]

 

 

What is the “New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group” (NERVTAG)?

The government’s published material states:

“NERVTAG is an expert committee of the Department of Health (DH), and advises the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and, through the CMO, to ministers, DH and other Government departments.

It provides scientific risk assessment and mitigation advice on the threat posed by new and emerging respiratory virus threats and on options for their management.”

This is the published NERVTAG members’ declaration of interests:

NERVTAG Register of Member’s Interests: update November 2018

This is the published NERVTAG code of practice:

Code of Practice for Members Version 1.0 – November 2015

NERVTAG is a joint venture by two government entities, the Department of Health and Social Care, and its subsidiary body, Public Health England.

Some have claimed that Public Health England is an independent agency and that it was responsible for poor decisions on the coronavirus crisis.

However, Public Health England (PHE) is an executive agency of the UK government, controversially formed by the coalition government in 2013.

PHE is part of the civil service, sitting within the line management of the Department of Health and Social Care.

Although the government states that PHE has “operational autonomy”, the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Care has oversight of PHE, including monitoring PHE’s activities, intervening with regard to significant problems at PHE and reporting concerns about PHE’s activities to the DHSC board:

Screenshot 2020-05-11 at 14.57.17

PHE’s performance is also scrutinised partly through “PHE’s Chief Executive meeting formally with Ministers on a regular basis.”

Screenshot 2020-05-11 at 14.57.54

 

NERVTAG meetings

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:

NERVTAG meeting minutes 2014-2020

These are specific links to the extraordinary NERVTAG Covid-19 meetings held from 13 January 2020 onwards, (downloaded 11 May 2020):

NERVTAG extraordinary meeting 13 January 2020

NERVTAG extraordinary meeting 21 January 2020

NERVTAG extraordinary meeting 28 January 2020

NERVTAG extraordinary meeting 30 January 2020

NERVTAG extraordinary meeting 3 February 2020

NERVTAG extraordinary meeting 7 February 2020

NERVTAG extraordinary meeting 21 February 2020

NERVTAG extraordinary meeting 6 March 2020

NERVTAG extraordinary meeting 13 March 2020

NERVTAG extraordinary meeting 20 March 2020

NERVTAG extraordinary meeting 27 March 2020

 

The NERVTAG meeting records show contrasts with some countries like Taiwan, which reacted immediately to news from China of the novel coronavirus in December 2019.

For example, on 31 December 2019, Taiwan took immediate action to screen arrivals:

Screenshot 2020-05-11 at 16.18.17

[Taken from a list of Taiwan’s government actions published in JAMA]

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.”

The minutes of a NERVTAG meeting on 6 March 2020  gave recommendations for ending self-isolation:

  • 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.”

The UK government issued advice to the public which diverged from WHO guidelines.

This is the UK government’s published guidance on ending self isolation:

Screenshot 2020-05-11 at 14.55.46

I have not seen UK Government advice tailored for members of the public who may be immunosuppressed.

 

Herd Immunity

NERVTAG advice to the government diverged from some comments by Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser.

On 13 March 2020 Patrick Vallance spoke and wrote about the UK government’s intention to pursue herd immunity, on Radio 4 Today and in The Spectator respectively.

He also told Sky News that the government wanted about 60% of the UK population to catch the virus, in order to produce herd immunity:

“The UK’s chief scientific adviser has said the government wants 60 per cent of the population to catch coronavirus to try and create “herd immunity” to protect against the virus becoming an annual crisis.”

This is the Spectator article of 13 March 2020 by Patrick Vallance which is described as an “edited transcript” of his BBC Radio 4 interview:

“How ‘herd immunity’ can help fight coronavirus”, Patrick Vallance, Spectator 13 March 2020

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.”

[My emphasis]

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:

NERVTAG Sub-committee on the pandemic influenza Facemasks and Respirators stockpile: Formal Recommendations to the Department of Health

NERVTAG Sub-committee on the pandemic influenza facemask and respirator stockpile: DH response

Updated NERVTAG Sub-committee on the pandemic influenza Facemasks and Respirators stockpile: Formal Recommendations to the Department of Health

15 September 2017 Re: Updated advice from the NERVTAG subcommittee on facemasks and respirators

In 2019 under Matt Hancock’s tenure as Health Secretary, NERVTAG advised the UK government that gowns were preferable to aprons:

“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”

NERVTAG recommended that the UK government should add gowns to the pandemic stockpile:

“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:

Britain On Track For Highest Health Worker Deaths In Europe

Additionally, there are several recorded discussions about PPE in the minutes of the extraordinary NERVTAG meetings on Covid-19, listed above.

There was also a meeting of a NERVTAG subcommittee on 3 March 2020 which looked at non-invasive ventilation and nosocomial [hospital/ institutional] transmission of the virus:

Minutes of the NERVTAG COVID-19 NIV and Nosocomial Transmission Subcommittee Meeting 3 March 2020

 

RELATED ITEMS

1) Exercise Cygnus

The government ran a pandemic drill in 2014 and 2016, named ‘Exercise Cygnus’, which revealed issues with preparedness.

There was limited coverage at the time, although the Times did report some public comments by Sally Davies Chief Medical Officer:

NHS fails to cope with bodies in flu test

An NHS England document indicated that the plan was to publish a report on the outcome of the exercise:

Screenshot 2020-05-11 at 15.34.05

However, on 28 March 2020 it was reported that the government decided not to publish the report because it was too “sensitive”.

The Guardian reported on 7 May 2020 that a copy of the Exercise Cygnus report had been leaked:

Revealed: the secret report that gave ministers warning of care home coronavirus crisis

What was Exercise Cygnus and what did it find?

This is a copy of the leaked Exercise Cygnus report that was redacted and uploaded by The Guardian:

Exercise Cygnus Report, Tier One Command Post Exercise, Pandemic influenza, 18 to 20 October 2016

 

2) UK coronavirus testing 

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

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:

  • testing capacity;
  • 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.

Yours sincerely,
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:

WHO 24 April 2020 “Immunity passports” in the context of COVID-19 Scientific Brief

4) BMJ 15 May 2020 an authoritative analysis, informed by public health expertise: “The UK’s public health response to covid-19 Too little, too late, too flawed”

5) 19 page letter of 18 May 2020 by Greg Clark Chair of UK parliamentary Science and Technology to Boris Johnson about grave failings by the UK government in its response to the coronavirus pandemic:

“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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Tristan Reuser, surgeon, successfully defends an EAT appeal by University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust

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.

This is the ET judgment:

Employment Tribunal in the matter of Mr Tristan Reuser v University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust Case number 1303554/2017

I exchanged correspondence with the GMC in relation to general issues arising from Mr Reuser’s case:

Mr Tristan Reuser surgeon & GMC. Update on GMC, whistleblowing and implementation of the Hooper recommendations

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.

Dr Kevin Beatt NHS whistleblower & the negligent GMC

Court of Appeal Judgment Beatt v Croydon Health Services NHS Trust [2017] EWCA Civ 401

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:

Screenshot 2020-05-02 at 11.00.00

This is the full EAT judgment:

Employment Appeal Tribunal in the matter of Mr Tristan Reuser v University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust Appeal No. UKEAT/0020/19/BA

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:

Screenshot 2020-05-02 at 11.05.15

The EAT has remitted this matter to the original ET for reconsideration:

Screenshot 2020-05-02 at 11.07.35

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.

Under the law, the test which affords whistleblowers legally “protected” status when making direct disclosures to the media is stringent and requires elements of urgency, exceptional gravity and good reasons to distrust official channels.

To my mind, these are the conditions that we are seeing with regard to the coronavirus emergency.

The Public Interest Disclosure Act itself has this to say:

43G Disclosure in other cases.

(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.”

From the Lancet Editor’s paper  COVID-19 and the NHS—“a national scandal”

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.

Stay safe.

 

RELATED ITEMS

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:

How poor planning left the UK without enough PPE

Screenshot 2020-05-02 at 08.11.55

 

For those who are interested in the flaws of UK whistleblowing governance and law, this is a brief summary:

Replacing the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA)

 

 

 

 

Covid-19 deaths of UK health and social care workers listed

Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 22 April 2020

Pictured above is the minimum recommendation by the EU European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control for PPE for healthcare workers treating Covid-19 patients. taken from the following guidance:

Guidance for wearing and removing personal protective equipment in healthcare settings for the care of patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 February 2020

The UK has now seen over a hundred deaths of health and social care workers from novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

The journal Nursing Notes has collated a database of deaths that are in the public domain:

Covid-19 memorial

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.

The spreadsheet can be downloaded from this link:

https://minhalexander.files.wordpress.com/2020/04/nursing-notes-data-health-and-social-care-staff-21.04.2020.xlsx

Of staff deaths in the public domain, the data so far shows 67 Covid-19 staff deaths in 51 NHS trust. Of these, there were 11 staff deaths in 7 mental health trusts.

The worst affected trusts are:

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 06.44.21

The seven mental health trusts affected are as follows:

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 06.48.49

This is a breakdown by staff groups of all 112 health and social care worker deaths in the public domain:

 

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 06.54.47

RIP all

UPDATE 28 APRIL 2020

As of end of 27 April 2020, I found 145 Covid-19 deaths of UK health and social care workers in the public domain, drawn from the Nursing Notes’ Covid Memorial  database and other media sources.

This is the updated spreadsheet of frontline deaths:

nursing notes data health and social care staff 27.04.2020

This is a breakdown by staff group of all 145  health and social care worker Covid-19 deaths that are in the public domain:

Screenshot 2020-04-28 at 06.02.19

59 English NHS Trusts had a total of 80 reported staff Covid-19 deaths. The worst affected NHS trusts are as follows:

Screenshot 2020-04-28 at 05.56.43

12 mental health trusts had a total of 16 reported staff Covid-19 deaths:

Screenshot 2020-04-28 at 05.56.57

RIP all

 

RELATED ITEMS

BMA press release 3 May 2020:

BMA survey reveals almost half of doctors have relied upon donated or self-bought PPE and two thirds still don’t feel fully protected

The Age of Kings. Post Office Ltd’s unchecked reign and NHS Improvement’s unaccountability about Paula Vennells

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.

To business.

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:

Modern Slavery Act 2015

 

This is what the government has to say about modern slavery:

“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

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:

Screenshot 2020-03-05 at 06.03.02

The Crown Prosecution Service has revealed via FOIA that it holds no central data on private prosecutions such as those by Post Office Ltd, which raises questions of oversight by other branches of government besides BEIS, the government department which owns and is responsible for the Post Office. CPS has also revealed that despite the years long scandal over Post Office Ltd’s unsafe prosecutions, no government department has ever stepped in and asked CPS to scrutinise any of Post Office Ltd’s prosecutions.

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:

Letter 10 January 2020 to Andrea Leadsom Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy

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:

ESRHnEeWkAEIqmS

ESRHpsuX0AYY3Cf

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:

Westminster Hall debate 5 March 1.30pm on the Criminal Cases Review Commission process for the unsafe convictions of subpostmasters with respect to the Post Office Horizon IT system

The debate can be watched on Parliament TV iplayer:

https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/43a773a5-2ca3-405a-8247-0a7703534961

NHS Improvement’s reticence

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>

Hi Dido,

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,

Minh

 

 

 

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.

That is after all the divine right of Kings.

 

Case 16 Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

“We attended this meeting leaving our home in the early hours of the morning, some of the stories I could not believe of the honest hard working individuals one postmistress had been in the job for fifty one years.”

 

 

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Safeguarding referral to the Church of England regarding Rev Paula Vennells, former Post Office Ltd CEO & current Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust

After the Post Office Horizon Trial: Paula Vennells, Mammon and the bishops

My Beautiful (Ministerial) Launderette: The National Guardian and Paula Vennells

No 10 is trying to control the media, and everyone in our democracy should be afraid

Screenshot 2020-01-11 at 05.17.06

Tories exploited MidStaffs politically but made no real changes: Jo Williams Alder Hey Chair and ex CQC Chief joins the list of CQC’s FPPR failures, as unaccountability grows

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:

David Loughton

Adrienne Murphy

Paula Vasco-Knight

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:

Screenshot 2020-03-01 at 07.32.48

And who were Jo Williams’ referees for her appointment to the board of Alder Hey, first as a NED and then as Chair?

The great and the good – a past permanent secretary of the Department of Health and a past minister.

There were some indications that the former Permanent Secretary in question was Sir Christopher Kelly, now at the Kings Fund. I asked him to confirm, but I did not receive any response.

The NHS frontline and patients have little chance against such networks of embedded power and privilege, that defend their own no matter what.

This is amply demonstrated by today’s huge coverage by the Sunday Times of Dr Patricia Mill’s whistleblowing case at West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, in Matt Hancock Secretary of State’s constituency.

 

 

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:

Department of Education in serious data breach after naming whistleblowers 14 February 2020

Cycles repeat. Twenty years ago, this is what Australian campaigners were finding:

Screenshot 2020-03-01 at 08.02.19

Stay safe and look after each other.

 

RELATED ITEMS

My Beautiful (Ministerial) Launderette: The National Guardian and Paula Vennells

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A Serious Health Warning about the Freedom To Speak Up Project: What all NHS staff should know before they whistleblow

Robert Francis’ denial and a major failure of the government’s Freedom To Speak Up model at West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust

Regulation 5, Fit and Proper Persons: Dissecting CQC’s Dissembling

 

apology-redress

 

 

 

A Safeguarding referral to the Church of England regarding Rev Paula Vennells, former Post Office Ltd CEO & current Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust

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 France, the contaminated blood scandal resulted in jail time for an official and a manslaughter conviction for a politician in 1999. In the UK, a public inquiry into avoidable contaminated blood deaths was only reluctantly announced in 2017, thirty four years after a senior doctor had warned the UK government of the risks to the public.

Lord Arbuthnot who has supported the subpostmasters, and in particular his constituent Jo Hamilton,  has called for a clear out of Post Office Ltd’s board and for Paula Vennells its former CEO to stand down from her public roles.

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.

 

Screenshot 2020-02-29 at 06.19.08
Tom Hedges, former Hogsthorpe postmaster, pictured on 8 January 2020 in the Skegness Standard after the High Court judgment of 16 December 2019 against Post Office Ltd

Postmaster from Hogsthorpe is ‘vindicated’ by court ruling

 

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:

My Beautiful (Ministerial) Launderette: The National Guardian and Paula Vennells

This is an earlier account of some background on Paula Vennells and the Church:

After the Post Office Horizon Trial: Paula Vennells, Mammon and the bishops

UPDATE 4 MARCH 2020

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.

FOI disclosure by CPS 4 March 2020 Complaints about prosecutions by Post Office Ltd and discontinuation of two Post Office Ltd private prosecutions Ref 8958

 

APPENDIX

Safeguarding referral regarding Paula Vennells to Alan Smith, Bishop of St. Albans

BY EMAIL

Alan Smith

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:

“Neglect

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.”

  “At the time the PO assured me I was the only person, claiming it was a computer error,” he said. 

 

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:

“Mr Castleton described how he and his family were abused, including an incident where his daughter was spat at, because “local people presumed I was a thief”.

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.

 

The Criminal Cases Review Commission has advised that 22 of the 35 Post Office Horizon cases that it is reviewing for suspected miscarriage of justice related to 12 people who received suspended prison sentences and 10 people who served prison sentences, with the longest sentence being 2 years.  Most of the cases of jailed subpostmasters in the public domain relate to prison sentences that began before Paula Vennells was promoted to CEO at 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:

Screenshot 2020-02-29 at 07.18.46

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:

 

Prison Reform Trust: What about me? The impact on children when mothers are involved in the criminal justice system

Screenshot 2020-02-29 at 05.37.19

 

Screenshot 2020-02-29 at 07.21.59

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.”

Family

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.

Janet Skinner’s son was 14 when she went to jail:

“Her son, Matt, was 14 at the time and taking his GCSEs; he learnt about her conviction from the local paper. “We didn’t get to say goodbye. We came home expecting to see her and she was gone,” he says.”   

Seema Misra was jailed whilst pregnant, on her son’s tenth birthday:

“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 2015  by 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:

“there have been no whistleblowing concerns raised 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.

Alan Bates the lead claimant in the Post Office trial believed that the Post Office terminated his contract because he uncovered problems in the Horizon system:   

“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.

Another subpostmaster alleged on 6 February 2020:

“…foolishly I reported every incident encountered with Horizon, by email to Paula Vennells. Who in response sent senior managers to threaten me.”

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:

A former Subpostmaster writes: “This was systematic abuse… I lost my business and lost my family”

Times 9 February 2020: 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

Alan Bates: The ‘details man’ the Post Office paid the price for ignoring

Former West Boldon postmaster who lost £100,000 in Horizon Post Office debacle calls for judicial enquiry

The Post Office computer problem that destroyed the lives of pillars of the community

Criminal Cases Review Commission investigation of miscarriages of justice

“The horror of that whole Post Office fiasco was a major factor in her death.”

A former village postmistress sentenced to 18 months in jail is one of 34 people whose convictions are being reviewed

Rubbina Shaheen was jailed for 12 months at Shrewsbury Crown Court in 2010 after she was accused of stealing £43,269.

Noel Thomas: “But his life was turned upside down when he was jailed for nine months in 2006 after being accused of taking £48,000.”

Post Office IT fiasco: ‘Decade of hell’ for accused

Decent lives destroyed by the Post Office: The monstrous injustice of scores of sub-postmasters driven to ruin or suicide when computers were really to blame

My uncle took his own life after the Post Office went after him – this High Court ruling is too little, too late

Jo Hamilton ‘Victory against Post Office one of the best days of my life’

Oxford Post Office manager speaks out after £57m pay-out

“I hate everything about it. I will not go into a post office.”

“…I was told by Post Office that their system was infallible…. At the time the PO assured me I was the only person, claiming it was a computer error”

Tragic Redditch postmaster died before being exonerated of false accounting

Post Office vs Mental Health: “It’s been a living hell.”

Peter Murray part 3

Pete Murray Part 4: “You’d better get yourself a lawyer”

Pete Murray part 2 “What kind of games are you playing with human beings’ lives?”

Pete Murray 1 “The Post Office claim I owe them £35,000, despite never showing or telling me what I have done wrong.”

A former Subpostmaster writes: “I hate them.”

A claimant writes: “I felt a fool for trusting them”

A former Subpostmaster writes: “She was simply regurgitating a lie”

 Tuesday, April 23, 2019 “I balanced and it showed a loss of £32,000”

‘Post Office false theft claim left me bankrupt’

Depression, bankruptcy and jail: Why we sued the Post Office

You may also wish to listen to:

  1. This Private Eye podcast – Going Postal

https://www.private-eye.co.uk/eyeplayer/play-367

  1. This File on Four broadcast – Second Class Citizens: The Post Office IT Scandal

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000f5hb

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.

You will probably be aware that No 10 has signalled preliminary willingness to consider an inquiry.

Paula Vennells sought to aggressively defend Post Office Ltd’s reputation.

In doing so, she has immeasurably wounded the Church’s reputation.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Minh Alexander

NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist

Cc Justin Welby Archbishop of Canterbury

John Sentamu Archbishop of York

Dame Sarah Asplin President of Tribunals and Chair of Clergy Discipline Commission,

Church of England

Screenshot 2020-01-11 at 05.17.06

 

The Government & Whistleblowing: Or an everyday story of managed opposition?

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.

Domestically we can probably expect worsening in repression under the authoritarian, press-bashing Johnson administration.

For example, the UK Department of Education has just outed some school whistleblowers, probably maliciously.

 

The Department of Education outs whistleblowers

In January, through the well-known online, public FOI site ‘What Do They Know’, the Department for Education released a response under FOIA with the names of three whistleblowers still visible.  Their names were mentioned FIVE times. One of the whistleblowers was left too frightened to give evidence to a SATs cheating probe.

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.

They have dabbled in extremist unpleasantries such as eugenics and biological determinism and  have like-minded friends:

Michael Gove still defending Toby Young after revelations about his links to Nazi eugenics enthusiasts

Sabisky row: Dominic Cummings criticised over ‘designer babies’ post

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.

Most recently, the government has audaciously misrepresented an outpost of the Department of Health and Social Care Press Office as the National Guardian’s Office for NHS whistleblowers.

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.

Neither has Protect been vocal in raising the alarm on the very low success rate of claims under weak UK whistleblowing law (only about 3% succeed at hearing), despite the fact that the charity has routinely gathered stats for years now.

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.

Protect Cathy James selfie with HH
Cathy James past CEO of Protect posing with Henrietta Hughes NHS National Guardian November 2016

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”.

Protect Robert Francis pioneers tweet

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:

Protect Lorraine Turnell HH selfie
From left to right: Henrietta Hughes, Lorraine Turnell and a Freedom To Speak Up Guardian

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:

Screenshot 2020-02-27 at 01.30.44

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.

Screenshot 2020-02-27 at 01.11.09

However, there was a drop in the proportion of healthcare callers who were making a first time disclosure:

Screenshot 2020-02-27 at 01.12.50

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.”

“Transform”?

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.

Robert Francis’ denial and a major failure of the government’s Freedom To Speak Up model at West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust

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):

Response

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.

Indeed, Cathy James the charity’s former CEO informed me that roughly 43% of Protect’s income is from the public sector.

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.

The Whistleblowing APPG’s new Bill and unanswered questions about finances and potential conflicts of interest

Whistleblowing v Bounty hunting. A new whistleblowing APPG with sponsorship from bounty hunters

Letter to Tom Lloyd WhistleblowersUK Chair: WhistleblowersUK’s financial arrangements, re-investment of surplus income, not for profit status, and declaration of interests

Protect just want to gently re-brand PIDA, doubtless to a mutually beneficial PR fanfare for themselves and the government.

Lords a Leaping 18 March 2020

Speaking of PR, Protect are holding an event in March to give more visibility to their law reform bid:

Screenshot 2020-02-27 at 01.18.40

 

 

Crucially, none of the Bills doing the rounds in parliament include an explicit, assured mechanism for robust, direct parliamentary oversight and scrutiny.

But then such accountability would shatter the enchantment.

No.

‘Tis a bal masqué, and the music must play…..

 

Screenshot 2020-02-26 at 23.56.17

Screenshot 2020-02-26 at 22.27.18

 

RELATED ITEMS

Forget the unicorns. Protect’s proximity to WhistleblowersUK

Breach of confidentiality by CQC and complicity in referring a whistleblower to the Disclosure and Barring Service

Censorship of national health and social care whistleblowing data: CQC’s economy with the truth

My Beautiful (Ministerial) Launderette: The National Guardian and Paula Vennells

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:

The Disinterested National Guardian & Robert Francis’ Unworkable Freedom To Speak Up Project

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:

David Loughton tweet Henrietta Hughes Selfie Oct 2019

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:

Henrietta Hughes selfie with Steve Dunn 11.01.2018
Henrietta Hughes posing with the West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust Freedom To Speak Up Guardian and Chief Executive on a visit in January 2018

Continue reading “My Beautiful (Ministerial) Launderette: The National Guardian and Paula Vennells”

Letter to Tom Lloyd WhistleblowersUK Chair: WhistleblowersUK’s financial arrangements, re-investment of surplus income, not for profit status, and declaration of interests

Dr Minh Alexander, NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 20 February 2020

WhistleblowersUK is a private company which is seeking to exert major influence on how the UK deals with whistleblowers, but it has not been accountable.

On its website, its CEO Georgina Halford-Hall claims that she set up the company:

Screenshot 2020-02-20 at 08.39.39

https://www.wbuk.org/our-people

Companies House records state that WhistleblowersUK was set up in December 2014 by Ian Foxley, with Halford-Hall later appointed as a director on 8 April 2015:

Screenshot 2020-02-20 at 10.15.33

Screenshot 2020-02-20 at 08.42.10

WhistleblowersUK is paid by US Bounty hunting lawyers Constantine Cannon to act as secretariat for the controversial Whistleblowing All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG):

Whistleblowing v Bounty hunting. A new whistleblowing APPG with sponsorship from bounty hunters

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.

Norman Lamb resignation letter from APPG

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.

 

BY EMAIL

Tom Lloyd
Chair of WhistleblowersUK
20 February 2020
Dear Tom,
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:
Screenshot 2020-02-20 at 05.54.12
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.”

https://tomclloyd.wordpress.com/2015/06/25/the-work-of-whistleblowersuk/comment-page-1/

£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.”

 

Screenshot 2020-02-20 at 05.48.58

The accounts submitted by WhistleblowersUK to Companies House provide only limited detail:

https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/company/09347927/filing-history

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:

Screenshot 2020-02-14 at 06.12.05

In contrast, on your website, your CEO states that WhistleblowersUK has helped “dozens” of people:

Screenshot 2020-02-20 at 07.08.40

https://www.wbuk.org/our-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:
Screenshot 2020-02-14 at 06.12.25

 

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.

Many thanks,

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

 

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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.

The Whistleblowing APPG’s new Bill and unanswered questions about finances and potential conflicts of 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.

 

Unsung whistleblowers from NHS Nowheresville, betrayed by cynical UK government policy

By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist 18 February 2020

 

 

Summary: The National Guardian has been rewarded with an OBE after wasting public money on endless propaganda, encouraging NHS staff to speak up without reliable protection in place. After two successive years of month-long PR campaigns just before staff survey forms were completed, and five years since the Freedom to Speak Up Review on NHS whistleblowing, the overall NHS staff survey score on confidence in speaking up has moved from 70% to 71.7%.

But continuing horrendous victimisation and Orwellian whistleblower witch hunts make the shallow PR achievement somewhat meaningless.

Yet another example of NHS trust whistleblower victimisation is provided. Staff spoke up in a group, but still suffered detriment. This is despite Robert Francis’ highly speculative, non-evidence based claims that protection can be assured by just getting more folk to whistleblow.

Francis has the gall to claim that after five years, his Freedom To Speak Up model – which he originally recommended for purportedly speedy effect – needs time to work.  When people will stop listening to the Man with the Non Plan?

 

 

The annual national NHS staff survey has today been published. In the few years after Robert Francis’ Freedom To Speak Up Review, the measure of staff confidence in speaking up about unsafe clinical practice flatlined at approximately 70% of all NHS staff:

Last year it crept up to just 70.5% after a massive month of wet and windy PR campaign led by the National Guardian’s Office and supported by hundreds of Speak Up Guardians recruited in NHS trusts, to persuade more staff to speak up. This strategically took place just before NHS staff were due to fill in staff survey forms in the autumn of 2018.

The rationale behind persuading more staff to speak up, according to thin, speculative claims by Robert Francis, is that it is safer for staff when the majority speak up.

I would say that the government has just been irresponsibly duping staff into speaking up without ensuring reliable protection.

After another Speak Up Month campaign by the National Guardian last autumn, with even more trust Guardians recruited, this year’s measure of confidence in speaking up has inched up to 71.7% nationally.

 

NHS STAFF SURVEY OVER THE PERIOD IN WHICH THE NATIONAL GUARDIAN’S OFFICE HAS BEEN ESTABLISHED:

Year National average score on “I would feel secure raising concerns about unsafe clinical practice”

 

2016 70%
2017 70%
2018 70.5% (after a month long PR campaign by NGO)
2019 71.7% (after a month long PR campaign by NGO)

 

Coinciding with this bump, Henrietta Hughes got an OBE in the New Years’s honours for services to comms, sorry, the NHS.

But this surface gloss, of very slightly improved staff perception nudged by relentless comms, is far from proof of real improvement in how the system responds when staff raise concerns.

Matt Hancock still won’t answer me as to whether he will ensure by law that CQC will have a duty and power to investigate individual whistleblowers’ concerns. His permanent secretary is ignoring a complaint about this recalcitrance.

In real time, we have the slow motion car crash of the West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust whistleblower witch hunt scandal, in which the role of a regulator – NHS Improvement – is highly suspect and is currently being covered up by NHS Improvement, with help from the DHSC.

There are other continuing active cases of whistleblower harm and suppression, some hidden, some in the public domain.

For example, unfairly sacked senior nurse Linda Fairhall has just decisively won  an ET claim for unfair dismissal due to whistleblowing, but is still facing more harm because her former employer has threatened to appeal. Her case is another important example of serious failure of government policy, partly because the HR Director at her trust was also the Freedom To Speak Up Guardian.

Yet another recent example of failure of the Freedom To Speak Up project, with disappointing conduct by an NHS Freedom To Speak Up Guardian, is provided below. It shows that despite Robert Francis’s desperate recent claims, there is no safety in numbers for whistleblowers when your employer is determined to be abusive.

The fact that this tale has to be highly anonymised says it all about the emptiness of the continuing government propaganda.

These ongoing failures are set in the context of UK whistleblowing law which is unfit for purpose and has no prospect of real reform under the Johnson government.

 

 

UK whistleblowing Law and internal champions

The UK government pretended to lead the world with the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, a badly written, weak whistleblowing law that:

 

–       Did not compel anyone to protect whistleblowers

–       Did not compel anyone to investigate concerns and rectify wrongdoing

–       Did not robustly deter reprisal or provide sanctions against individuals responsible for reprisal

It may have been well meant, and was unique in its time, but deliberate compromises against whistleblowers’ interests were made to assuage industry.

For the last twenty years, the UK government has had a symbiotic relationship with a charity, Protect (previously known as Public Concern at Work) which helped give birth to this bad law.

Both had evidence of the law’s serious failures but neither took radical action to put this right. The law has only been occasionally tweaked in the last twenty years, and Protect has recently put yet more tweaks on the table.

In 2015 a review of NHS whistleblowing by the government, the so called Freedom To Speak Review by Robert Francis had a chance to recommend substantive law reform but did not.

Instead, Francis made superficial and tokenistic recommendations for NHS organisations to have internal whistleblowing champions or “Freedom To Speak Up Champions”, who had no powers but would purportedly “oil the wheels”.

They were to be coordinated and supported by a National Guardian, who was equally powerless, and whose remit excluded the investigation of whistleblowers’ concerns. The handling of whistleblowers’ concerns remained wholly the responsibility of employers, and this left power in employers’ hands.

Such a model is of course riddled with conflict of interest, because it is hard for a Freedom To Speak Up Guardian, an employee, to truly hold an employer to account. Those who challenge a bad employer run the risk of being victimised, as has happened to some Freedom To Speak Up Guardians.

All such internal whistleblowing champion models are weak and doomed to fail:

A portrait of ineffectiveness: Internal whistleblowing champions in their own words

Since the establishment of the Freedom To Speak Up project, the confidentiality of disclosures to some Freedom To Speak Up Guardians have reportedly been breached, for example, at West Suffolk.

Some Guardians have breached their duty of care to whistleblowers by sitting on their hands and not helping when asked to do so, and they have instead allowed abuse to take place unchallenged.

Some Freedom To Speak Up Guardians have been trust directors who were actually responsible for or party to reprisal. All whilst hypocritically churning out sickening publicity material about values and transparency, and encouraging staff to whistleblow.

Much like crocodiles inviting a wide eyed fawn into the water.

 

 

 

The NHS Nowheresville Freedom To Speak Up Guardian

Experienced NHS clinical staff at St. Nowheresville became concerned about serious risks to patients.

The concerns were widely shared amongst clinicians.

When these concerns were raised, the senior management response was hostile and provocative.

Staff were vilified.

The raising of concerns was not valued, but decried and criticised as trouble making.

Staff who were seen as the greatest threat to management were picked off, to decapitate the group.

Familiar, orchestrated tactics of isolation, trumped up charges and unfair processes were applied.

Staff appealed to the Freedom To Speak Up Guardian for support, but no response was forthcoming.

Staff suffered various kinds of detriment.

Serious issues with patient safety continue.

The injustice still angers and distresses the staff because it was never put right, and there is little prospect that it will be put right in the current system.

They still see the trust Freedom To Speak Up Guardian encouraging other staff to speak up, although they are aware that some staff have been deterred by their horrendous experience.

 

Robert Francis says give it more time

In 2015, Robert Francis dodged making a recommendation to substantively reform unfit UK whistleblowing law by claiming that this would take too long.

Instead, he maintained that his voluntary Freedom To Speak Up model, based on soft culture change, would deliver faster results.

These days, he bends the other way and claims that culture change takes time and that we must give his appalling Freedom To Speak Up model time to work.

 

For example, a good Samaritan sent me an exchange of correspondence with Robert Francis which included these comments by Francis on 14 January 2020:

“I fear we are not going to agree about the value of the Freedom to Speak Up National Guardian.  Her office and the network she leads is making a great deal of progress on promoting the freedom to speak up without legislative or regulatory powers.  The concept of guardians in this context is a new one and needs time to develop.”

 

That’s the contempt of the British ruling classes for you.

Remember all.

Resist.

 

Robert Francis on Mars Show 2045

 

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Henrietta Hughes selfie with Steve Dunn 11.01.2018
Henrietta Hughes posing for a characteristic selfie with the criticised Freedom To Speak Up Guardian and Chief Executive of West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, which launched a witch hunt for a whistleblower, demanding that staff provide fingerprints and handwriting samples. She wrote the trust a letter of praise about its culture shortly before the witch hunt. Her Office publicly thanked the CEO for his commitment to Freedom To Speak Up. The CQC reported that the Freedom To Speak Up Guardian emphasised the relationship with the Board, but was not sufficiently focussed on the needs of staff and did not provide appropriate quality reports, that showed due learning and thematic review.