Whistleblower colleagues and I have set up a Westminster petition calling for much better protection of whistleblowers and their valuable disclosures, which protect us all.
UK whistleblowing law is very weak and favours employers and corporate interests, not the public nor whistleblowers. It allows cover ups all the time, which endangers public safety and allows corruption to flourish.
We would be most grateful if you would sign and share with others, to make the government respond.
In 2018 the twentieth anniversary of the notoriously weak UK whistleblowing law, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA), we were invited by Dr Philippa Whitford to produce a concise advisory paper on PIDA’s core weaknesses. This was to inform debate and feed into parliamentary work on this topic. This is the paper that we wrote:
As evident from this transcript of the parliamentary debate, the UK government’s response was tepid.
Indeed, the government had already expressed scepticism about the new proposed EU whistleblowing directive, which was since become law.
Although the EU directive crucially requires the proper handling of whistleblowers’ disclosures, which UK law indefensibly does not, our government absurdly suggested in a memo to the parliamentary European Scrutiny Committee that UK whistleblowing law was already strong.
The new Public Interest Disclosure (Protection) Bill
Two years on, the parliamentary activity that started in 2018 has culminated in the production of a Bill, led by Dr Philippa Whitford and supported by Peter Grant, Alison Thewliss, Andrew Mitchell, Dr Julian Lewis, Kevin Hollinrake and Wera Hobhouse to model potential improvements that could be made in UK whistleblowing law and governance:
The Bill has been developed with input from a variety of parties.
It calls for repeal of PIDA and provides a new freestanding law. It has wider scope and breaks away from the confines of employment law where PIDA is situated, seriously restricting PIDA’s efficacy.
The Bill contains several essential elements of good practice that whistleblowers have been calling for, such as:
Compelling the proper handling and follow up on whistleblowers’ concerns and the correction of wrongdoing
Criminal sanctions for individuals for harming whistleblowers or failing to act appropriately upon their disclosures, to provide meaningful deterrence of victimisation and suppression
Wider definitions of detriment which capture some of the subtler means by which whistleblowers may be persecuted
An expeditious mechanism for redress of harm to whistleblowers that does not require them to face the risk and trauma of litigation, as is the case under PIDA
Legal recognition that third parties such as close relatives of a whistleblower can suffer detriment, and should also be entitled to redress
The Bill establishes a principle of fair compensation for harm and loss but specifically precludes rewards for whistleblowing, to protect credibility in whistleblowing
The introduction of the concept of ‘moral harassment’ or mobbing, currently recognised under EU law, and an issue that is important in many whistleblowing cases
A central body to enforce better whistleblowing governance by employers and bodies such as regulators
The Bill is a constructive step forwards and a sound reference point for future debate on UK whistleblowing governance. It represents a better offer than PIDA.
Independence of the proposed whistleblowing body
Our one key reservation is the independence of the proposed central whistleblowing body, which the new Bill terms “the Commission”.
As currently drafted, the Bill states that the body should be independent, but implies that the Commission will be under the purview of a government department and gives the relevant Secretary of State powers to amend the Commission’s regulations.
We have advised against any such government control and maintain our position that guarding the independence of any whistleblowing body is a mission-critical issue.
A great deal of whistleblowing, especially in the public sector, is ultimately whistleblowing about government policy and its effects. Government control over a whistleblowing body sets up instant conflict of interest.
As per our original 2018 paper, we not only believe that a whistleblowing body should be constituted to be independent, but that specific procedural safeguards are required to ensure that is the case. In our view new legislation should include safeguards of regular parliamentary scrutiny and intermittent review and external audit.
Whistleblowing bodies are easily captured, and much vigilance is needed to prevent this.
The upheaval of the COVID-19 crisis has revealed the ugliness of what can happen when a government’s political interests collide with the public interest. Government economy with the truth and disinformation are currently reported and evident on a daily basis. Public servants are whistleblowing much more frequently to the media. Trust in conventional channels of reporting has clearly been shaken, with good reason.
The political interest of any government of the day will always be a threat to transparency and to whistleblowers.
An important recent High Court judgment against the Secretary of State for Justice included a startling finding that the government interfered with the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It did so by abusing its appointment powers, in not renewing the tenure of a Commission Non Executive Director who had been oppositional to the government.
The High Court concluded “This was political interference”:
“63. A submission dated 19 July 2018 was prepared by the ALB CoE for the Minister (Edward Argar, again). The name of the author is redacted on the document. But the document was cleared by Ms Wedge and was copied to her when sent. This was the submission seeking a final decision on the proposed recruitment of up to six new commissioners on 3-year fee-paid terms. The issue of extension of X’s term was addressed in that same submission. The Chair’s recommendation of a temporary extension of X’s tenure and the mixed views on his performance were noted. The submission continued (emphasis added):
“Given the concerns about performance (and a lack of any more recent information about whether they have been addressed) and the fact that we are aiming to conclude the new campaign by early December in any event, we suggested that you do not agree to either a re-appointment or short extension but instead invite [X] to apply for the forthcoming campaign …
We are also aware that [X] has been amongst the cadre of Commissioners seeking to resist further changes to governance/working arrangements. We consider that refusing the re-appointment request will provide the new Chair of the Commission with the opportunity to assess X’s skills and strengths afresh against the job description and criteria for the new campaign as well as against a fresh applicant field. Opening the vacancy resulting from the end of [X’s] tenure will also provide an opportunity to seek to improve the diversity of the commissioners, something which the CCRC is committed to doing.”
64. This is a troubling passage. At the hearing, Mr Pobjoy, counsel for the SoS, accepted that the highlighted passage was, in his words, “not appropriate” for inclusion in the ministerial submission. Ms Wedge’s evidence skirts around this passage, so it was not until the hearing that the SoS acknowledged the problem in any way. Any fair minded and informed observer reading this submission would conclude that the Minister was being invited to reject the Chair’s recommendation that X’s tenure should be extended, albeit only temporarily, for a number of reasons including because X did not support MoJ’s proposed changes. It was not appropriate for the Minister to be advised in this way, or for the Minister to have regard to the fact that X had previously resistedchanges suggested by MoJ when considering his temporary re-appointment. This was political interference. It was inconsistent with the Governance Code.
65. The Minister did not extend X’s tenure, despite the Chair’s recommendation that he should be extended temporarily. Ms Wedge says this was because at the time it was anticipated that the new recruitment campaign would be concluded within a couple of months. This rather misses the point. The Chair had recommended extension pending that recruitment campaign.”
The Law Gazette reported on the government’s scandalous behaviour:
As the backstop against miscarriages of justice, the Criminal Cases Review Commission is an extremely important quasi-judicial body. The High Court’s finding is an indictment of the health of our democracy.
Such abuse could easily apply to a whistleblowing Commission, and it is crucial that no such government leverage can be applied to a body that is tasked with holding the government to account.
Whistleblowers have never been needed more, but the risks that they face are commensurately greater in the current climate and the strains imposed by the pandemic.
We have set up a Westminster petition calling for replacement of PIDA and strengthening of protections for whistleblowers and the public interest and establishment of an independent whistleblowing parliamentary body. We have cited the new Public Interest Disclosure (Protection) Bill as a starting point for debate:
“Replace UK whistleblowing law, and protect whistleblowers and the public
The Government should reform whistleblowing law to: require disclosures be acted upon and whistleblowers protected, with criminal and civil penalties for organisations and individuals failing to do so, establish an independent parliamentary body on whistleblowing, and provide easy access to redress.
We believe the Public Interest Disclosure Act fails to protect whistleblowers, the public and the public purse. It doesn’t compel protection, nor ensure investigation of disclosures or correction of wrongdoing. It doesn’t prevent cover ups, and gives inadequate redress after serious, irreparable harm, and can lead to wasteful, destructive litigation. Only 3% of cases succeed at hearing.
A new whistleblowing Bill by Dr Philippa Whitford MP contains several good practice elements which can inform debate on replacing PIDA.”
We are aware that change will be unlikely in the short term, and recognise the project to reform the law is a work in progress that will need sustained effort. We hope that you will support the petition and help keep the debate going.
This is the link to the petition if you would like to sign it:
Some other discussion points on the new Public Interest Disclosure (Protection) Bill:
The Bill implicitly defines a duty to protect whistleblowers in that the protection of whistleblowers is an explicit duty of the Commission which sets whistleblowing standards for others
However, we advise that an explicit, proactive, pre-detriment legal duty by employers and public authorities to protect whistleblowers should be added.
This would be consistent with the preventative principle set out in the Bill to reduce conflict and harm.
We believe the Bill could be improved with the addition of criminal sanction for not correcting wrongdoing (the Bill currently provides criminal sanction for failure to adequately investigate protected disclosures).
We suggest that the definition of detriment should include breaching or attempting to breach a whistleblower’s anonymity, and inappropriate gagging (see below).
Could the Bill’s section on NDAs be strengthened?
We believe that defining and making inappropriate gagging a legally recognised detriment would strengthen protections against whistleblowers being silenced.
We have also recommended that ‘super gags’, confidentiality clauses which hide even the existence of settlement agreements, should be banned.
What is a just maximum prison sentence with regard to any new whistleblowing law’s criminal provisions?
Should particularly egregious acts and omissions in whistleblowing governance that result in mass harm be subject to longer sentences than 18 months?
Australian corporate whistleblowing legislation provides prison sentences up to two years.
The UK Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 provides for prison sentences up to two years.
Gross Negligence Manslaughter has a sentence range of 1-18 years custody and potentially attracts a life sentence, “a blatant disregard for a very high risk of death” contributing to the definition of “high culpability”.
We advise that there is a mechanism for whistleblowers to access legal remedy as a last resort, in the event that redress via the whistleblowing body fails.
This would mirror US arrangements which allow whistleblowers to litigate if other means of redress are not satisfactory.
Does the Bill need to be adjusted to ensure that any new whistleblowing body has realistic focus and workload, especially when starting up?
International experience is that too wide a scope initially can reduce effectiveness.
Our concerns in regards to the width of the Bill’s scope relate in part to the Bill’s very wide definition of who is a whistleblower. For example, the list of parties defined as a whistleblower includes:
“(x) an observer or passer-by; or
(y) any other person.”
This echoes proposals by the controversial Whistleblowing APPG to accept anybody as a whistleblower. Such an arrangement would pave the way for deputisation of members of the public under US style bounty hunting laws.
We agree with the wider definition of whistleblowing to include groups particularly relevant to public safety and the public interest, such as patients, their families and foster carers looking after very vulnerable children, who currently may suffer retaliatory economic harm if they speak up but are not employees and thus are not protected by current law.
However, we feel the scope of the law and of any whistleblowing body should not be widened to the point of over burdening the system and affecting effectiveness.
The Bill is currently drafted to include close relatives only, and current law does not include co-habitees as “close relatives”.
We suggest that the definition of third parties who suffer detriment alongside whistleblowers should at least include co-habitees, if not others.
Emphasising the critical need for any whistleblowing body to be fully independent of the government, the case of a consultant anaesthetist Dr Julian Campbell has raised very serious questions about the NHS National Guardian’s approach to whistleblower confidentiality and her impartiality. She contacted the Freedom To Speak Up Guardian at his employing trust without his consent, causing him great distress because the trust Speak Up Guardian is married to the medical director about whom he had raised concerns:
By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 8 August 2020
Summary: Due to poorly designed systems and poor culture, NHS employers are able to treat healthcare workers unfairly with impunity. Oversight bodies allow this to continue by turning a blind eye. The disempowered status of NHS frontline workers and the consequent lack of genuine freedom to speak up is a safety issue. An example of very poor HR practice is given regarding Harrogate and District NHS Foundation, as found on a review of trust culture and leadership by Deloitte. The staff mistreatment at Harrogate is examined through the case of Dr Julian Campbell, consultant anaesthetist who suffered a surreal six year ordeal and unofficial restriction of his practice. He informed the General Medical Council, Care Quality Commission and National Freedom To Speak Up Guardian about the poor HR practices at Harrogate and their impact on patient care, but they deflected his concerns. Of very serious concern, after Dr Campbell sought help from the National Guardian’s Office, he later discovered that the National Guardian contacted the local trust Freedom To Speak Up Guardian without his permission. This was despite this person being married to the Medical Director about whom he had raised concerns. This is additional evidence raising serious questions about the impartiality of the National Guardian’s Office and the degree to which it may pose a risk to NHS whistleblowers. To genuinely protect whistleblowers, UK whistleblowing law needs to be reformed and ineffective schemes should be replaced with robust enforcement infrastructure.
Many cases over many years have shown that NHS doctors have few rights when their organisations take against them.
Doctors are therefore dependent on a post code lottery, in which some fare well. But the lottery is determined by the competence and integrity of local managers, and whether such managers choose to abuse disciplinary processes for ulterior motives or out of incompetence.
This injustice has serious implications for patient safety because of its effect on culture and workforce confidence.
Harrogate’s restriction of a doctor’s practice
Multiple staff have raised concerns about Harrogate’s culture.
One of these is Dr Julian Campbell, consultant anaesthetist, who experienced the nightmarish disempowerment which can follow accusations about medical competence.
Allegations were made about Julian Campbell’s clinical practice in 2015 after twenty years as a consultant with no previous such concerns raised against him. Restrictions were placed on his practice. A long, very stressful saga followed for him and his family. He was referred to the National Clinical Assessment Service (NCAS). His Royal College found there were no safety concerns with his patient care, but six months training was recommended, which he successfully completed based on advice from his Medical Defence body. But irregularly, he remained banned from working unsupervised on call and in the trust’s ITU on the grounds of “confidence”.
Alongside this, Dr Campbell raised concerns about the Deputy Medical Director’s repeatedly antagonistic behaviour towards him and his concern that this sometimes seriously affected patients’ care. He raised these concerns with the trust personnel director and his clinical lead.
Dr Campbell and his wife Judith later made representations to regulators – the General Medical Council and Care Quality Commission, and to Henrietta Hughes the National Freedom to Speak Up Guardian, raising concerns about unfair treatment, bullying, ageist treatment (they say that at one point, he was asked if he was too old to do on call), irregular handling of evidence by senior trust doctors and the trust’s failure to properly address the issues of patient safety raised by Dr Campbell.
For example, Judith Campbell informed the GMC of the following events:
“Mrs Campbell told us about an incident referred to as the ‘sentinel case.’ This case concerned a patient whom Dr Campbell had anaesthetised in May 2014 and was discussed at an ITU morbidity and mortality meeting (‘M&M’ meeting) on 14 May 2015. The patient had undergone a laparotomy on [date redacted to avoid patient identifiability, but the surgery had taken place one year previously]. Mrs Campbell explained that two doctors inaccurately presented that patient’s case to the M&M meeting without any prior communication with the professionals who had provided care for the patient. The errors in the presentation were such that Dr Campbell did not even recognise the patient when the case was presented. Mrs Campbell explained that the patient in the sentinel case was presented in such a way that prima facie, the consultant anaesthetist who had treated the patient had failed to undertake a number of basic actions and the failure had contributed to the patient’s death. However, Mrs Campbell says that in reality, the patient was palliative and subsequently died on ITU.
The day after the M&M meeting, the Deputy Medical Director told Dr Campbell in an email that he was the consultant anaesthetist who was responsible for the treatment and imposed supervision upon Dr Campbell, preventing him from being solely responsible for anaesthetising patients in category ASA 3 and above until he had undergone additional training. Dr Campbell was also prevented from working unsupervised on ITU.”
An important concern that Julian Campbell raised was that the trust’s Freedom To Speak Up Guardian, a doctor, was married to the then Medical Director David Scullion, with arising of conflict of interest.
In Julian Campbell’s case, this made it impossible for him to raise a concern about the actions of trust medical managers with any sense of safety and security. Indeed, he received an email on 23 November 2018 from the Freedom To Speak Up Guardian commenting on this issue:
Dr Campbell subsequently flagged the conflict to the trust Chair and the then chief executive. He reports that they refused to accept that any conflict existed. The Freedom to Speak Up Guardian continued in her role despite his concerns.
Harrogate’s previous chief executive until her retirement in March 2019 was a medic, Dr Ros Tolcher. Dr Campbell was told by her successor that she had hired Deloitte to undertake a review of trust culture.
But even Deloitte, whilst emphasising positives, could not fail to make some damning findings against Harrogate’s management.
These are some of Deloitte’s critical findings, including perceived conflict of interest regarding the Harrogate Freedom To Speak Up Guardian being married to the Medical Director, and astonishingly heavy handed application of staff capability procedures. The latter included irregular “informal capability plans” [consistent with Julian Campbell’s experience] without prior communication, sometimes denying staff representation during such processes.
“A significant feature of our work was the number of both medical and nursing staff who reported apprehension or fear regarding the incident reporting and investigation approach in place at the Trust. Staff specifically cited the Complaints and Risk Management Group (CORM) as a source of fear, either as a result of personal experience or reputation. This was particularly (but not exclusively) felt to be an issue for the medical staff we spoke to. It is unusual for us to receive such consistent feedback that a single governance entity is a source of trepidation, as a result it would appear wise to revisit the governance structures around patient safety and particularly in relation to CORM.”
“The Freedom to Speak Up arrangements in place at the Trust were frequently commented on by the medical staff interviewed as part of our work, with many feeling that current arrangements presented an actual or potential barrier to openness. Whilst no individual questioned the integrity of the FTSUG (who was frequently described as accessible, approachable, compassionate and helpful), our view is that the potential conflict of interest that exists under the current arrangement is such to act as a deterrent to some who may wish to raise concerns.”
“We have been unable to undertake targeted work to evaluate the views of minority or hard to reach groups of staff due to the lack of diversity and inclusion structures, forums and arrangements in place at the Trust. In our experience not having such arrangements in place is unusual, as most NHS Trusts have implemented and well established such structures. Whilst some racist attitudes were present in free text comments in response to the survey of HIF staff, we had no direct issues raised with us regarding equality and diversity related bullying during our work.”
“Whilst it is not unusual for some staff to criticise the responsiveness or level of service provided by corporate services during our reviews, human resources support at HDFT was frequently criticised by staff during our work. The HR department was described variously as:
· Providing variable advice (dependent upon who in the HR department a line manager spoke to);
· Adhering rigidly and inflexibly to policy;
· Being slow to act on issues, with cases dragging on in some instances for years; and
· Leaving staff with a feeling that the HR position regarding behavioural issues is to try to “make them go away””.
“We asked all those in line management positions what level of training and development they had received in relation to performance management, managing difficult conversations and resolving conflict. In all cases staff told us that they felt the current offer in place at the Trust in this area to be inadequate. Our work also found concerns regarding the quality of HR policy and procedure currently being applied at the Trust. For example, a number of staff described instances where they had been placed on an ‘informal capability plan’ by the HR team with no prior discussion or communication and that they had been denied any representation at the meeting scheduled to discuss and agree this plan. We understand that a programme of work to review HR policies has now been commenced.”
“B.1 Medical Leadership
A significant number of individuals raised concerns with us about the culture amongst medical staff at the Trust, in particular relating to medical leadership (it is important here to state that we received almost universal praise from staff in relation to the behaviour and leadership of the Clinical Directors). The staff reporting these concerns were of all grades and from a broad range of specialties. The concerns raised ranged from general issues about poor behaviour not aligned to the trust’s values, to direct accusations and descriptions of bullying and harassment. Of the 35 staff raising these concerns with us 26 explicitly used the term ‘bullying’ or ‘bully’ to describe behaviour and a number relayed instances where they felt they themselves, or others had been bullied. We have detailed some of the examples of bullying cited by staff in the full version of this report.
A number of the staff we spoke to during our review referenced what they felt was the impact of the medical leadership culture upon engagement, openness and incident reporting from medical staff. These individuals explicitly stated that there was a negative impact upon the patient safety reporting culture at the Trust, to the extent that some behaviours were a deterrent to reporting.”
During phase 1 of our review a number of staff raised concerns about Radiology, either in general terms about Radiology as a department, or specifically regarding the practice and behaviour of individuals within Radiology. In all of these instances the concerns raised related to behaviours towards medical staff from specialties outside of Radiology when requesting scans. In phase 2 of our work we spoke to 14 members of staff from within Radiology directly, and a further 51 members of staff from Radiology responded to the survey based on the NHSI / Kings fund culture diagnostic tool.
A number of staff raised general concerns with us about the culture in Radiology, referring to a department with a poor culture, and describing Radiology as being ‘unhelpful’, ‘unfriendly’ and/or obstructive department. Some staff from outside of Radiology (particularly the doctors in training who spoke to us) compared the department to others where they had worked, reflecting that they had not experience such problems requesting scans in other Trusts. In our own experience of undertaking leadership, governance and cultural reviews at NHS Trusts, we have rarely come across such strength of feeling about the approach of a Radiology department to requests. We found this issue to be mirrored within Radiology, where we found staff to use combative language when describing their department’s relationship with wider organisation. Triangulating this point, 60% of survey respondents within Radiology did not agree with the statement “the Trust values the service we provide”.
“Finally, we found limited oversight and visibility of cultural and organisational development based assurance and indicators at Board and committee level. The Executives and Non Executive Directors interviewed reflected that this was a gap in the governance and assurance arrangements in place at the Trust. There is in our view scope to undertake work to strengthen this aspect of governance and provide greater opportunity to explore assurance on organisational culture at Board level.”
Nevertheless, the board papers indicated that the trust board undertook the following actions:
“6. A summary of the actions agreed by the subcommittees is set out below.
a. Our Board will place culture and experience at the heart of its governance and decision making. This includes the creation of a people and culture committee, which will focus on culture and staff wellbeing, and the development and implementation of a more routine approach to identifying concerns about the culture and behaviours within teams. Our HR experts will focus on the proactive identification and resolution of issues, supporting first line leaders and teams to quickly address the underlying causes of behaviours that are not in line with our values. Finally, we have strengthened the leadership capacity of Harrogate Integrated Facilities through new appointments, and we have appointed a new medical director with specific leadership experience in culture and engagement who started in post on 15th June 2020.
b. In order to better support staff the culture in which the incident reporting process sits will be reviewed, and the approach of CORM in particular, will be reformed. Support will be provided to users of Radiology and the Radiology team to agree a common vision for radiology at HDFT and standards of behaviour. The time taken to address concerns or poor behaviours will be reduced and a feedback loop to check for improvements will be introduced. OD support will be provided to Harrogate Integrated Facilities and external facilitation support to our radiology team, where a number of issues were identified will be commissioned to improve the experience of staff in Radiology and those who refer to it. Finally, our Freedom to Speak up Guardian arrangements have been reviewed and changes made from 18th June 2020.
c. To further promote fairness, consistency and responsiveness the approach to concerns being raised, the application of HR policies, and the provision of advice which support these will be reviewed. Additional controls to recruitment have been put in place, whilst the overall process is reviewed. The pilot ‘first line leaders programme’ will be rolled out to all managers and leaders in HDFT and HIF and other development programmes will be aligned to this to ensure there is comprehensive support for managers. Our staff networks will be used to learn about the specific lived experience of colleagues from minority groups. Finally, our policy is being updated to specifically include how conflicts of loyalty and relationships between work colleagues should be managed.
d. Formal investigations will take place focusing on behaviours in Radiology, into appointments identified as not meeting the required HR criteria and process in HIF and the reported culture of bullying in Estates. There will be an external assessment of the capacity and capability within HIF overall, and in more depth in Estates.”
“We have recruited Dr Jacqueline Andrews as our new Executive Medical Director. She has significant medical leadership experience and has been appointed with specific objectives around the development of a positive culture. Jackie starts in June 2020.”
An internal email of 17 June 2020 by the board lead for Freedom To Speak Up showed that the Harrogate trust Freedom To Speak Up Guardian was stepped down due to the concerns about perceived conflict of interest. However, she has continued in her role as Deputy Director of Governance:
“From: HDFT-UPDATE (HARROGATE AND DISTRICT NHS FOUNDATION TRUST) Sent: 17 June 2020 15:03 To: allusers; AllUsers Subject: Interim Freedom to Speak Up Guardian Arrangements
Sent on behalf of Jill Foster, Chief Nurse, Non-Executive Director of Harrogate Integrated Facilities, Executive Lead for Freedom to Speak Up
Interim Freedom to Speak Up Guardian Arrangements
HDFT is a values driven organisation; respectful, responsible and passionate. We promote the need to treat each other with kindness, civility and compassion.
We want all our colleagues at HDFT and HIF to feel supported in their work, to experience civil and respectful behaviours, to feel that different perspectives are looked for and are welcomed, where there are concerns feel able to speak up safely and to feel that concerns will be acted upon swiftly and appropriately.
The Freedom to Speak Up Guardians (FTSUG) have an important role for ensuring colleagues have a safe route for being listened to and supported in speaking up about patient safety, quality of care and their experience of working in our organisations.
We have been reviewing our current Freedom to Speak Up arrangements to ensure there are no barriers to encouraging people to speak up. Currently we have two Freedom to Speak Up Guardians, Dr Sylvia Wood, Deputy Director of Governance and Shona Kerr, Health Visitor. From today, Sylvia will not continue in the role of Freedom to Speak Up Guardian.
Sylvia was the Trust’s first Guardian and has worked tirelessly to ensure colleagues have been supported through difficult times, felt listened to and have had their concerns resolved. At the time Sylvia was asked by the Board to take up the role, it was known that she was married to the Trust’s Medical Director. Sylvia has undertaken the role with determination, passion and integrity, has always been open about this conflict of interest, and has been thoughtful in seeking to consider how to address such issues more broadly. However, it has become clear that despite Sylvia’s personal efforts, a marital relationship with a senior colleague is seen by some as a barrier to speaking up.
On reflection, given the unique role of the FTSUG, the Board has decided that in order to be a FTSUG, it is important that there is no such conflict of interest. As David continues in a senior role in the Trust as a Consultant Radiologist it is not possible for Sylvia to continue as a FTSUG. She will therefore step away from this role from today and I would like to say thank you on behalf of the organisation for her dedication in developing this very important route for colleagues to bring forward their concerns. I am looking forward to continuing to promote a fair and just culture with Sylvia in her role as Deputy Director of Governance.
I am delighted that Shona Kerr is continuing in the role of Freedom to Speak Up Guardian. In addition to Shona, two colleagues – Kath Banfield, Head of Nursing, and Alison Pedlingham, Head of Midwifery – have temporarily agreed to be Freedom to Speak Up Guardians. This is so we can all collectively agree to a permanent arrangement for Freedom to Speak Up Guardians.
To help us decide our future Freedom to Speak Up structure I am asking all colleagues, if you wish to, to participate in a survey linked below:
Alongside the Deloitte review, the responses from GMC, CQC and the National Guardian to Julian and Judith Campbell’s concerns were typically deflective.
The GMC deemed that the concerns about trust medical managers were not at a threshold to bring them under GMC’s jurisdiction as fitness to practice issues, even though honesty was raised in some instances. GMC instead advised that they were matters for the trust to resolve.
The GMC stated in its final response of 23 October 2019 to Judith Campbell (ie. before the Deloitte review had reported):
“I am writing to let you know that having very carefully considered your request, an Assistant Registrar has concluded that there are no grounds for commencing a review of our decisions.
The reasons for the Assistant Registrar’s conclusion are explained in their decision, which is enclosed at Annex A. The Assistant Registrar has authority from our Chief Executive Officer to make these decisions.
I realise that it must seem cold and insensitive that we refer to the law and our rules when dealing with such a personal matter which has clearly been upsetting for both you and Dr Campbell. These are referred to only so we can fully explain what we can and cannot do, and why we have made the decisions we have.”
Although the CQC received Julian Campbell’s concerns in August 2018, it rated Harrogate “Good” overall and “Good” on the Well Led domain in March 2019, despite deeming the trust as “Requires Improvement” on Safety.
When later challenged with the evidence from the critical Deloitte review, the CQC stuck to its usual line of insisting that it does not investigate individuals’ concerns, and only undertakes generic inspection.
An email from CQC of 7 July 2020 to Julian Campbell stated:
“To clarify, we do not undertake investigations to resolve, prove or disprove the individual concerns a person has about their place of employment. The decisions our inspection personnel make are a result of evidence obtained and corroborated during and in between inspections. Even if CQC had concerns or found failings at the Trust in those areas raised by you, our role would be to drive improvements through issuing requirements or to take enforcement action.
From the records, I can see that the information shared with CQC was added to the central recording system alongside all the intelligence received about the Trust. In the planning of the inspection, I can again see your information has been taken into account and used alongside the views and experiences of other staff members.
I am satisfied that we have handled your information in line with our policies and procedures for whistleblowing. Clearly the Trust were aware of your concerns prior to our involvement. Our role is not to investigate the individual issues that whistleblowers may raise but to use our inspection powers to ensure that the Trust is meeting the fundamental standards. This was undertaken via the November 2018 inspection which included focus groups speaking directly with staff to gain their views on the culture in the Trust and saw that senior management were aware of the need to make improvements in some areas.”
Fit and Proper Person (FPPR) referrals have since been made to the CQC, but with little expectation that CQC will respond robustly.
The National Guardian
Julian Campbell first contacted Henrietta Hughes’ office on 21 August 2018 about his concerns with Harrogate’s managers and culture, and the conflict of interest surrounding the trust Freedom To Speak Up Guardian.
Henrietta Hughes’ Case Review & Governance Manager, Simon Pook, wrote back on 14 March 2019, implying that the conflict of interest with the trust Freedom To Speak Up Guardian had been resolved by the hiring of an additional Freedom To Speak Up Guardian:
“In response to the issue you raised concerning the trust Freedom to Speak Up Guardian and a possible conflict of interest, we have taken this matter up with the trust. As a result, to address the issue you have raised, the trust informed us at the end last week that they have now begun recruiting an additional Freedom to Speak Up Guardian to provide workers with an alternative source of support.
In respect of the other issues you describe in your referral, we are able to assist you to access support to raise this in your trust, for example should you wish to raise a formal complaint, or request an internal review of the handling of your case. While we appreciate that you may not wish support from the Freedom to Speak Up Guardian to do this, for the reasons you have given, we can help facilitate contact with others with responsibility for supporting workers to speak up, for example the organisation’s non-executive director.”
On 18 March 2019 Dr Campbell challenged this National Guardian’s Office (NGO) response and he expressed a serious lack of confidence in internal trust processes.
“To be offered support to raise the issues internally when I had understood that you would be an independent reviewer of the issues that I have raised is, quite frankly, devastating. Who will hold HDFT to account if the National Freedom to Speak Up Guardian won’t?”
In response, the NGO advised that it might consider a review of the trust, pending further enquiries:
“If we conclude…that the investigation was potentially flawed, we would undertake a review of how the trust responded to the issues you spoke up about to identify learning and improvement for the trust. Where we find evidence on such reviews of both speaking up culture, as well as process and policies that need improvement, we jointly agree actions to address this with the trust and our colleagues at NHS Improvement.”
Dr Campbell gave the National Guardian permission to contact NCAS and the trust Non Executive board lead for Freedom To Speak Up in order to make further enquiries about his case.
However, he later discovered that National Guardian in fact contacted the local Freedom To Speak Up Guardian about his case without his permission. He was told this by Steve Russell the trust CEO at a meeting on 11 June 2019.
He wrote in distress to the National Guardian’s Office on 13 June 2019:
“It has therefore caused me great distress to discover that the National Guardian did not contact the CEO, as your email indicated she would, but that she in fact contacted Sylvia Wood, who is now able to inform her husband.”
Following this challenge, the NGO wrote the next day to report that the National Guardian had spoken to the trust CEO that morning and:
“This discussion was encouraging. The CEO gave assurance to Dr. Hughes that the trust is keen to identify any learning and improvement concerning the matters you have raised with us. It was agreed that the trust will now contact you to discuss how to move forward on this, including agreeing a point of contact with you, with whom the NGO can liaise.”
But no National Guardian case review of Speaking Up at Harrogate has since been announced.
It is poor that the NGO initially accepted a governance bodge by the trust as “resolution” of the conflict of interest issues at Harrogate, instead of ensuring a truly safe solution was found.
It is especially worrying that the National Guardian contacted the trust Freedom To Speak Up Guardian about a case without permission, and without disclosing that she had done so. What does this say about the independence and impartiality of the NGO? How many other times has such communication taken place behind the scenes? The NGO already has little credibility with whistleblowers. Its failure to date to genuinely challenge vested interests has only strengthened the nagging impression that it was established to be a government PR tool. The Office was designed to be weak. If it fails to observe even whistleblowing basics such as respecting confidentiality, that would make it an active risk to whistleblowers and the public interest.
“Lack of information about how the trust would support and protect an individual’s confidentiality”
Criminals have more rights than doctors
Julian Campbell and his family have endured six years of gruelling institutional processes, ending his long career as a public servant on a sour note. Whilst no oversight body has investigated what happened to him, the findings of the Deloitte review give credence to his concerns. Importantly, the review suggests that others have experienced mistreatment and arbitrary treatment, and that there is still potential for the pattern to continue.
Dr Campbell wrote to the NGO on 13 June 2019:
“ I have handed in my notice with the Trust. I reach the age of 60 on July 15th and my last day of service will be July 14th. My desire to leave not just HDFT but also medicine, and probably never return, is completely due to the maltreatment I have suffered. The ability of medical managers to behave badly without restraint seems to be complete.”
Reflecting on what happened to him, he comments:
“NHS safety is severely damaged by a culture of fear and the inappropriate promotion of those who are unsuitable to have power over others. With fear of reprisal by managers there is no freedom to speak up. In Harrogate the current national regulatory structures have protected those whose failings have led to poor patient outcomes and harmed those who have provided safe care.
Superficial initiatives are ineffective. Harrogate had a campaign of encouraging “kindness” in 2019. This will have limited effect on those who lack empathy.
I believe that the current national medical (and other) regulatory structures need to be changed, and that investigation of clinicians’ performance and conduct issues should be conducted independently, to avoid abuse of process by employers and managers with axes to grind.”
Dr Campbell’s wife Judith is a lawyer, who based on her professional experience commented:
“I really think we give more rights to our criminals than we do to our Drs”
The alleged serious mistreatment of NHS staff through overbearing HR process needs to be taken much more seriously. Staff are the NHS’ most precious resource. Doctors like Julian Campbell are trained and developed at great public expense. It is unacceptable and wasteful that there are insufficient checks against local management abuses. The NHS is a valuable public asset, not a private fiefdom, and Nolan principles of accountability should fully apply.
Alongside this, the ineffective National Guardian’s Office and NHS Freedom To Speak Up Guardian network should be replaced with genuine reform of UK whistleblowing law and related infrastructure.
The Deputy Governance Manager and former Freedom To Speak Up Guardian of Harrogate District NHS Foundation Trust, tweeting compliments to trust senior management in May 2019:
In another matter, based on reports received, I asked Harrogate if any concerns had been raised in the last five years about disrespectful or unlawful treatment of deceased trust patients’ bodies. On 21 February 2020, the Trust denied any such concerns:
“3. With respect to the reports that Savile was allowed to treat the bodies of deceased patients in a disrespectful manner at Leeds General Infirmary –
please advise if any concerns have been raised about any disrespectful, and or unlawful treatment, of deceased patients’ bodies at your trust in the last 5 years?No”
However, another roughly contemporaneous FOI request to the CQC revealed that the regulator had received a disclosure about the handling of a patient’s body:
“I can confirm that we hold one record from 2015 regarding one allegation of poor manual handling of a body and the staff concerned making inappropriate comments.”
The matter is inconclusive but a concern arises about whether the trust answered truthfully in February.
Unrelated to Julian Campbell’s case, I asked Harrogate under FOIA for data on trust grievances.
This too has since proved anomalous. The trust claimed to me that no individual grievances were upheld in 2017/18, but I now understand that Julian Campbell’s grievance was partially upheld.
Again, a concern arises about the truthfulness of the trust’s response.
2. In April 2020 Harrogate District NHS Foundation Trust staff whistleblew directly to the media over trust managers’ handling of PPE safety safety issues:
By Dr Minh Alexander, NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 11 June 2020
Summary: The Criminal Cases Review Commission which is responsible for scrutinising possible miscarriages of justice has determined that at least 47 and implicitly, possibly up to 900 private prosecutions by the Post Office, based on evidence from the flawed Post Office Horizon computer system, are unsafe. It has advised that those who have been prosecuted on the basis of Horizon evidence who have not appealed so far should consider doing so, and it has advised that there should be a review of the Post Office’s misused prosecution powers.
Related to this, the former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells’ fitness as a director has been further questioned by a government minister, who has asked the Care Quality Commission to review her fitness in her current role of Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. A problem is that she has been carefully protected by the powerful, including the leadership of the Church of England. Furthermore, Dido Harding the Chair of NHS Improvement was personally involved in Vennells’ selection for the Imperial Chair. NHS Improvement has admitted that it gave no ‘specific weight’ to the major litigation against the Post Office nor to MPs’ concerns about the Post Office’s leadership at the time that it appointed Vennells to the Imperial Chair. NHS Fit and Proper Person arrangements are not fit for purpose. They are also under the control of Dido Harding and NHS Improvement, who have delayed in acting properly upon the recommendations of a review by Tom Kark QC into these issues.
Justice has been brutally rough for the subpostmasters, and that deep wrong is rubbed in by impunity for those responsible. This injustice is also highly corrosive to NHS safety culture.
The Post Office Horizon mass miscarriage of justice scandal is one of the deepest stains in the history of British justice and governance.
In short, the Post Office has archaic powers of investigation and prosecution, from its days of pinching highwaymen.
It has used them unwisely and there is a long record of concern about its rough justice, as illustrated by this example from Hansard 1955, about the case of Frederick Turvey, Subpostmaster Worcester, who was subjected to bruising treatment by the Post Office investigation branch & ultimately dismissed:
In the last twenty years, there have been hundreds if not thousands of cases in which the Post Office abused its powers to intimidate and unjustly prosecute sub postmasters because of phantom financial shortfalls caused by the faulty Horizon computer system, an unfit DWP cast off.
Instead of fixing the root problem, of which it was aware for many years, the Post Office brazened it out and scapegoated sub postmasters. It accused them of theft, extorted money from them which they did not owe, and prosecuted them with some cases resulting in jail sentences.
The cover up continued despite pressure from parliament and campaigners over many years, during which time the Post Office continued to harass and unjustly prosecute yet more sub postmasters.
When faced with evidence it did not like, such as the finding of investigations by forensic accountants Second Sight, the Post Office buried it.
When sub postmasters finally launched a class action at the High Court, the Post Office went into suppression overdrive with the full panoply of dirty tricks, earning it censure by the trial judge and an appeal court judge for its disreputable conduct.
Alas for the sub postmasters, the Post Office’s dirty tricks were effective in halting litigation prematurely because their resources had been depleted. They were forced to accept a sub optimal settlement, which after payment of legal costs leaves them with heartbreakingly little for the losses and the deep pain that they and their loved ones have endured.
Nonsensically, those subpostmasters who bravely risked so much by litigating, and who thereby forced disclosure of evidence which revealed that the Post Office had known that Horizon was faulty all along, will receive less through settlement than those who did not litigate will receive in compensation.
Most recently, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) finally concluded its agonisingly lengthy review of complaints of unsafe prosecutions and convictions of subpostmasters by the Post Office.
CCRC has referred a total of 47 cases to the Court of Appeal for re-examination of unsafe convictions:
The CCRC has also advised that anyone else who has been prosecuted by the Post Office on the basis of Horizon evidence should consider an appeal:
“The CCRC’s position is that if anyone believes their criminal conviction may
be unsafe because of the impact on their case of performance issues with the Horizon computer system, they should consider challenging their conviction.
If they have not already appealed and were convicted in a Crown Court, or were convicted in a magistrates’ court after pleading not guilty, they can still appeal in the normal way (seeking leave from the court where necessary). Guidance and the necessary forms can be found here: www.gov.uk/appeal-against-sentence-conviction
If they have already tried to appeal and failed, or pleaded guilty in a
magistrates court (from where there is no right of appeal against conviction
following a guilty plea), they should consider applying to the CCRC for a
review of their Horizon-related conviction. Details of how to do so can be
found on the CCRC website at www.ccrc.gov.uk”
As the Post Office has admitted that there were approximately 900 such prosecutions, we may see a flood of appeals:
The above trail of destruction obviously requires a public inquiry. No liberal democracy should allow a public body to brutalise and lock people up based on insufficient evidence, and certainly not to do so when it knows its evidence is unreliable.
As ever, the UK government is resisting a public inquiry and currently offering only a toothless review.
This protects many of the politicians and senior Post Office managers who were responsible for the disaster and or for not stopping the harm.
Paula Vennells former Post Office CEO and CQC Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Persons
Paula Vennells left the Post Office last spring when the subpostmasters’ litigation against the Post Office gathered pace. She received a golden parachute onto the Cabinet Office board and the Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.
Yesterday, an exchange took place in parliament about the Post Office scandal in which she was mentioned:
During this debate, the responding minister Paul Scully, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, stated that he had written to the Care Quality Commission (CQC). He said he had asked the CQC to check if Paula Vennells, Post Office CEO 2012-2019, was a “Fit and Proper Person” to lead Imperial College Healthcare NHS trust:
However, the CQC’s discharge of its powers under Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Persons (FPPR) has been farcical in general.
Despite a government-triggered review by Tom Kark QC, former counsel to the Mid Staffs public inquiry, CQC’s FPPR response continues to be largely useless and is by design protective of senior wrongdoers.
Paul Scully’s claim that he has asked the CQC to assess Vennells’ fitness is flawed, because the CQC refuses to determine whether NHS trust directors are fit and proper persons. CQC will only superficially review whether a trust has followed an adequate procedure to check for fitness. CQC insist that it is the responsibility of trusts to check if their directors are fit and proper persons.
Of great concern, NHSI stated in its response that it gave no “specific weight” to either the commencement of the subpostmasters’ class action against the Post Office, nor to MPs’ criticisms of the Post Office’s leadership in the Horizon dispute.
NHSI is the regulator charged with the action plan from the Kark review of FPPR. So far, NHSI has dragged its feet and done its best to water down the recommendations. It is significant and particularly troubling that NHSI shows little commitment to FPP issues in its own recruitment behaviour.
Furthermore, Dido Harding has been tasked by Matt Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to lead the persistently shambolic UK coronavirus test and trace programme. This sits ill with the fact that she remains a member of the Jockey Club board of directors, which decided to go ahead with the Cheltenham Festival despite concerns about coronavirus transmission.
Dido Harding also sits on the government’s Health Honours Committee, along with David Behan former CQC CEO who embarrassingly walked through the revolving door onto the board of the care home giant HC-One. Harding thus helps pull the central strings that decide who rises and falls.
The close knit club which has for so long helped to recycle the unfit will not like the idea of acting against one of their own, such as Vennells.
BUT Vennells was quietly dumped by the Cabinet Office in response to heavy pressure from MPs. And the scandal and pressure on the government has since deepened because of the CCRC intervention and Court of Appeal cases. So who knows?
In the meantime, I have suggested to the minister that if he thinks the CQC should determine whether NHS trust directors are Fit and Proper Persons, he ought to ask his friend at the Department of Health and Social Care to amend CQC regulation 5, and excise CQC’s wriggle room.
Letter to Paul Scully, BEIS, 11 June 2020
Dear Mr Scully,
Paula Vennells and CQC Regulation 5, Fit and Proper Persons
I see that you reported in parliament yesterday that you have written to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) to the regulator to check whether Paula Vennells is a Fit and Proper Person to be an NHS Trust director.
I should point out that the CQC is at pains to claim that it has no power to do so, and that it only determines whether regulated bodies have followed an adequate process to ensure that their directors are Fit and Proper Persons.
If you think that the CQC should determine fitness per se, this would require a tightening up of CQC Regulation 5, to ensure that the CQC takes greater responsibility for ensuring NHS trust directors are Fit and Proper Persons. Obviously, you would need to liaise with Matt Hancock about this.
For completeness, I copy below correspondence from NHS Improvement, which is responsible for the appointment of Chairs and NEDs at non-Foundation NHS trusts such as Imperial. As you will see, Dido Harding NHSI Chair was personally involved in the decision to select Paula Vennells as Chair of Imperial.
Justin Welby Archbishop of Canterbury welcomed Vennells into the heart of his corporate schemes at the Church of England. He declined to get his hands dirty after the end of the Post Office trial, referring the thorny issue of Vennells’ continued ministry to her local bishop. Her bishop, St Albans, has refused to consider Safeguarding issues raised by her conduct at the Post Office, claiming wrongly that he must confine his considerations to her conduct at the Church. Efforts continue to hold the Church to account.
Update 19 July 2020: Dido Harding was appointed by the Secretary of State as national ‘test and trace’ tsar. Her claims that this much criticised programme is improving week on week has been formally debunked by BBC fact checking.
It is farcical for someone who behaves like this to be in charge of the Kark FPPR review implementation, as head of NHS Improvement, the regulatory body tasked with this work.
“On 16 March, ministers received advice from Imperial College modellers led by NERVTAG member Professor Neil Ferguson, who found that the Government’s stated approach at the time of simply ‘slowing’ the virus could result in as many as 250,000 deaths. The Imperial College paper had further warned that, in the absence of any control measures, an unmitigated epidemic in the UK would lead to 510,000 deaths in Britain.
It is widely believed that the formulation of these figures was the first time the Government had visibility of the catastrophic loss of life that could result from its own previous strategy. However, NERVTAG minutes dated 21 February reveal that, according to working assumptions at the time about the rate and deadliness of transmission provided to Government by its scientific advisors, anywhere between 833,313 and 1,333,330 Britons would potentially die.”
The source from which Byline Times’ figures of “833,313 to 1,333,330” potential deaths were derived was the minutes of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group meeting on 21 February 2020, which gave the following government assumptions at that time:
NERVTAG meetings are attended by members of the advisory group, representatives from the Department of Health and Social Care, representatives from Public Health England and Representatives from bodies such as NHS England.
The minutes of extraordinary NERVTAG meetings since 13 January 2020 in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak are a window into various aspects of advice given to the UK government and its pandemic response.
This is the link to all the government’s published NERVTAG meeting records:
In contrast, on 13 January 2020, NERVTAG deliberations include an argument that it was not worth screening at ports of entry because China was believed to be conducting exit screening, and a view that the benefits of screening arrivals was “very unlikely to outweigh the substantial effort, cost and disruption.”
A range of between 7 to 14 days for self isolation, with preference for a longer timescale initially
That more cautious timescales be given to vulnerable groups such as those with compromised immunity
“3.25 NERVTAG’s recommendation for the length of time in self-isolation should be between 7 and 14 days and this could come down as transmission reduces. In the current situation NERVTAG would prefer this period to be towards the longer end of the range. The caveat accompanying this recommendation is that those in immunocompromised groups and those on steroids (including those with lung disease) to be considered for longer periods of self-isolation due to the reports of increased shedding and vulnerability. NERVTAG would revisit this when more data is available.”
Patrick Vallance’s comments implied that the UK government expected people infected with the novel coronavirus would develop immunity.
However, NERVTAG held a meeting on the same day, 13 March 2020, at which members acknowledged there was uncertainty about immunity to the new coronavirus.
NERVTAG agreed that the possibility of re-infection should be further investigated, and also reflected in modelling of the pandemic.
“NERVTAG discussed the evidence around reinfection/short term sterilising immunity. Concerns were raised that the length of immunity is unclear. Evidence from endemic coronaviruses is that after a mild infection antibody response may wane and individuals can become re-infected and shed further virus.
Three months may be a reasonable point after which susceptibility due to waning immunity may occur in those who suffered a mild initial infection. Members agreed that the novel nature of SARS-CoV-2 means that immune response may be more robust than for seasonal coronaviruses.
Members agreed that although there is considerable uncertainty, reinfection is a possibility that should be considered in modelling and longitudinal studies to identify reinfections are recommended.”
Obviously, unreliable and weak immune responses and reinfections within a short period of time would undermine the government’s claims of being able to achieve herd immunity by infecting 60% of the population.
NERVTAG recommendations to UK Government on PPE for pandemics and use of respirators
NERVTAG archives show that during Jeremy Hunt’s tenure as Health Secretary, NERVTAG made recommendations to the government on preparing for pandemics in terms of stockpiling PPE, and the need for eye protection. Some of the government’s responses to the recommendations are included in these documents:
“Gowns are preferential to aprons (better coverage of uniform/clothes) where there is a risk of extensive splashing of blood or bodily fluid, and for aerosol generating procedures. Again, this is in line with HSE recommendations”
“The committee agreed that the addition of gowns to the pandemic stockpile for use during splash-prone or AGPs would be of benefit, as this would bring the stockpile in-line with standard infection control procedures for seasonal influenza.”
As we have since learned, the government failed to do so and healthcare workers have been put at risk due to acute shortage of gowns during the current coronavirus pandemic. The UK is on course for the highest number of healthcare worker deaths in Europe:
The Chair of the UK Statistics Authority has written to Matt Hancock UK Health Secretary, advising that UK government statistics on testing need to be more trustworthy. His letter of 11 May 2020 is reproduced below.
Sir David Norgrove letter to Matt Hancock regarding COVID-19 testing
Dear Secretary of State,
On 2 April the Government announced its goal to carry out 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day by the end of April and on 6 May announced its ambition for 200,000 tests a day by the end of May. There has been widespread media coverage of the Government’s progress.
I know you are a strong supporter of the proper use of statistics and data and that you will understand that for the sake of clarity and confidence it is important that the target and its context should be set out.
It should be clear whether the target is intended to reflect:
tests that have been administered;
test results received; or
the number of people tested.
Each of these is of interest of course, whether or not they are targets.
In reporting against this target, sole focus on the total national number of tests could mask helpful operational detail. The way the daily tests data have been broken down by the different ‘pillars’ to illustrate the changing purposes of the programme is useful. Further breakdowns would provide more context, for example through showing the levels of testing by geographical area.
The daily data for the UK are currently reported on the gov.uk coronavirus page and a time series is available through the slides and datasets to accompany the daily coronavirus press conferences. However, there is limited detail about the nature and types of testing and it is hard to navigate to the best source of information. It would support trustworthiness for the testing data to be more straightforward to find, with detailed breakdowns and richer commentary.
The data around COVID-19 are inevitably complex, which makes it the more important that publications should meet the standards set by the Code of Practice for Statistics. We urge Government to update the COVID-19 national testing strategy to show more clearly how targets are being defined, measured and reported. Measurements will no doubt need to change and develop as we move into new phases for tackling the pandemic.
Sir David Norgrove
4) Immunity Passports
The US and UK governments have given much emphasis to so-called “immunity passports” based on testing positive for antibodies. This is despite a lack of scientific evidence base. The human immune response to novel coronavirus has not been fully studied and the evidence so far suggests that some individuals produce low levels of antibodies in response to infection, which are not robustly protective and are unlikely to prevent reinfection. The World Health Organisation has rightly advised that the science does NOT currently support the use of “immunity passports” and that they may INCREASE virus transmission by giving false assurance. This is the relevant WHO scientific briefing of 24 April 2020:
“The decision to pursue an approach of initially concentrating testing in a limited number of laboratories and to expand them gradually, rather than an approach of surging capacity through a large number of available public sector, research institute, university and private sector labs is one of the most consequential made during this crisis.
From it followed the decision on 12 March to cease testing in the community and retreat to testing principally within hospitals.
Amongst other consequences, it meant that residents in care homes—even those displaying COVID-19 symptoms—and care home workers could not be tested at a time when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant.”
By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 2 May 2020
Some good news in the midst of the terrible devastation of the coronavirus emergency.
Mr Tristan Reuser was found by an Employment Tribunal (ET) to have been unfairly dismissed by his employer University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, with the added twist that his Medical Director was found to have misled the General Medical Council by referring him without disclosing that he had made public interest disclosures. This is against revised GMC rules, brought in after the Freedom To Speak Up Review was published in 2015, to deter the vexatious referral of whistleblowers as a grave form of reprisal. The ET was fulsome in it criticism of senior trust managers.
The trust followed a most unfortunate path of digging itself in deeper by punishing Mr Reuser with an appeal, echoing the disgraceful repeated appeals by Croydon Health Services NHS Trust in Dr Kevin Beatt’s case which were all to no avail.
However, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has comprehensively rejected all grounds of the Trust’s appeal against the ET finding in Mr Reuser’s favour, with an admonition from the judge that disliking criticism is not sufficient grounds of appeal:
Moreover, the EAT has partially accepted a cross appeal by Mr Reuser’s team and remitted a matter to the original ET for further consideration. This relates to the reasons for his unfair dismissal, which he contends is the fact that he made public interest disclosures:
The EAT has remitted this matter to the original ET for reconsideration:
Thus, the trust not only wasted precious public money on a meritless appeal, but it has also possibly shot itself in the foot.
Related GMC and FPPR referrals on senior trust managers have been spun out by the GMC and CQC, but this appeal judgment takes away their excuses for prevaricating, unless of course the trust abuses the public purse with yet another appeal.
Whistleblowing in the coronavirus emergency
I should like to stress that the risks of litigation for whistleblowers are horrendous at the best of times, the process being protracted and highly traumatic. Even ‘wins’ are not real wins, and involve many personal losses for the whistleblower. It is a scandal that whistleblowers must shoulder this burden alone, when performing a public duty that benefits us all.
Ordinarily, whistleblowers are advised to use internal and official external channels of whistleblowing for a number of reasons, including maintaining “protected” legal status, weak though that is under UK law.
At present, it seems to me from all the signs that official channels for whistleblowing are worthless and very unsafe for both whistleblowers and for the public. We have seen national bodies repeatedly colluding with the UK government’s misleading claims about its handling of the coronavirus emergency, and suppression is in overdrive.
The safest route, both for whistleblowers and the public, as far as I can see at present is to make direct disclosures to the media on an unnamed basis. Choose your media outlet wisely, based on careful assessment of their professionalism and adherence to facts.
(1)A qualifying disclosure is made in accordance with this section if—
(a)the worker makes the disclosure in good faith,
(b)he reasonably believes that the information disclosed, and any allegation contained in it, are substantially true,
(c)he does not make the disclosure for purposes of personal gain,
(d)any of the conditions in subsection (2) is met, and
(e)in all the circumstances of the case, it is reasonable for him to make the disclosure.
(2)The conditions referred to in subsection (1)(d) are—
(a)that, at the time he makes the disclosure, the worker reasonably believes that he will be subjected to a detriment by his employer if he makes a disclosure to his employer or in accordance with section 43F,
(b)that, in a case where no person is prescribed for the purposes of section 43F in relation to the relevant failure, the worker reasonably believes that it is likely that evidence relating to the relevant failure will be concealed or destroyed if he makes a disclosure to his employer, or
(c)that the worker has previously made a disclosure of substantially the same information—
(i)to his employer, or
(ii)in accordance with section 43F.
(3)In determining for the purposes of subsection (1)(e) whether it is reasonable for the worker to make the disclosure, regard shall be had, in particular, to—
(a)the identity of the person to whom the disclosure is made,
(b)the seriousness of the relevant failure,
(c)whether the relevant failure is continuing or is likely to occur in the future,
(d)whether the disclosure is made in breach of a duty of confidentiality owed by the employer to any other person,
(e)in a case falling within subsection (2)(c)(i) or (ii), any action which the employer or the person to whom the previous disclosure in accordance with section 43F was made has taken or might reasonably be expected to have taken as a result of the previous disclosure, and
(f)in a case falling within subsection (2)(c)(i), whether in making the disclosure to the employer the worker complied with any procedure whose use by him was authorised by the employer.
(4)For the purposes of this section a subsequent disclosure may be regarded as a disclosure of substantially the same information as that disclosed by a previous disclosure as mentioned in subsection (2)(c) even though the subsequent disclosure extends to information about action taken or not taken by any person as a result of the previous disclosure.
43H Disclosure of exceptionally serious failure.
(1)A qualifying disclosure is made in accordance with this section if—
(a)the worker makes the disclosure in good faith,
(b)he reasonably believes that the information disclosed, and any allegation contained in it, are substantially true,
(c)he does not make the disclosure for purposes of personal gain,
(d)the relevant failure is of an exceptionally serious nature, and
(e)in all the circumstances of the case, it is reasonable for him to make the disclosure.
(2)In determining for the purposes of subsection (1)(e) whether it is reasonable for the worker to make the disclosure, regard shall be had, in particular, to the identity of the person to whom the disclosure is made.
An additional option is to disclose to the media on a named basis but to ask for your anonymity to be maintained in reporting. There are understandable circumstances in which people might prefer this. But be aware that it introduces some risk of accidents, such as interception of the data about your identity. Equally, there is a precedent of a whistleblower being questioned under oath at ET about whether they were the source of a disclosure of privileged documents to a journalist (they were). But that is less of a consideration if you intend to stay under the radar and have no intention of any open legal dispute with your employer.
If the situation changes, the risk assessment may once again favour official channels, but I suspect that will be some time.
Beware any advice at present which points you in the direction of official channels of external reporting, such as to regulators and bodies such as NHS England, which are highly compromised and have a major conflict of interest in the UK coronavirus debacle. For example:
““When this is all over, the NHS England board should resign in their entirety.” So wrote one National Health Service (NHS) health worker last weekend. The scale of anger and frustration is unprecedented, and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is the cause.”
Avoid third parties on the whistleblowing scene who have vested interests, including financial motives, and who make repeated unsubstantiated or unattributable claims.
With judicious selection of trustworthy media, and pertaining to valuable disclosures that are truly of public interest, you can be self sufficient in your whistleblowing and can avoid introducing risk from unreliable actors.
If you do seek advice at present, seek it from a lawyer whom you have personally engaged and who has a duty of confidentiality to you. Lawyers instructed by unions are answerable to your union, despite protestations otherwise, and your best interest will not necessarily be the first consideration.
An excellent dissection by the Financial Times of the UK coronavirus PPE procurement disaster, the failures of the UK government and some of the senior officials who have enabled the government’s dissembling:
I have transcribed the data, as of 21 April 2020, to a spreadsheet so that it can be interrogated more easily by anyone who has an interest in these deaths, with a death of a Southwark social worker added.
Additional details have been added such as employing NHS trusts where relevant, and links to press reports of each death.
I will endeavour to update the spreadsheet periodically.
By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist 5 March 2020
This is a quick bulletin from the kitchen front. I am technically on a short break making marmalade, homemade aromatic bitters – mmm – and other matters domestic.
In a stable, liberal democracy, the State should not be able to rob innocents and throw them in jail. It should certainly not be able to do so with impunity.
Post Office Ltd unjustly extorted money from subpostmasters under threat of jail. It took precious capital that people had painstaking built up to buy their businesses, stole their nest eggs and long term security, and the product of their labour, sometimes from over many years.
One harmed subpostmaster has likened the relationship with Post Office Ltd to a form of “slave labour”.
Since 2015 the UK government has recognised modern slavery in law:
“The common factors are that a victim is, or is intended to be, used or exploited for someone else’s (usually financial) gain, without respect for their human rights. The perpetrators seeking to take advantage of them could be private individuals, running small businesses or part of a wider organised crime network.
“5. Types of modern slavery
Labour exploitation usually involves unacceptably low pay, poor working conditions or excessive wage deductions, but is not solely about this. In order to constitute modern slavery there will also be some form of coercion meaning that victims cannot freely leave for other employment or exercise choice over their own situation. Where the perpetrator is taking advantage of a child or vulnerable person, an offence can be committed without the element of coercion”
I see little difference in what the Post Office did compared to gangmasters. It held subpostmasters in the vice of a highly oppressive contract; they were forced to accept wholly unjustified deductions out of their own pockets for phantom shortfalls that never occurred. They lived with the terror of not knowing when another massive, ruinous financial shortfall might materialise or when Post Office Ltd might arbitrarily tax them again. They were roughed up with searches, interrogations, ready-made confessions to sign, and threatened with jail if they did not cooperate. Even when they paid, they were still prosecuted. Their human rights were abused.
There is an even more unsavoury suggestion in some of the subpostmasters’ accounts that some of the prosecutions and terminations of submostmasters just happened to be convenient to Post Office Ltd’s national closure, sorry, modernisation programme.=
“Throughout my case and indeed following its outcome, I received enormous support from friends, villagers and customers who refused to believe that I had made off with any money…in fact the consensus of opinion was that POL were deliberately fabricating a case for closing our branch without the cost of significant recompense to the Postmaster (this event had occurred in the middle of a national closure programme to find 2500 branches to close). Very soon after my sentencing, I was contacted by a fellow ex Postmaster who had experienced the same treatment and further enquiries uncovered a significant number of similar cases up and down the country”
The government’s conduct through its organ, Post Office Ltd, has been so scandalous that it has left subpostmaster claimants with almost nothing to show for the appalling trauma of being forced to litigate, because Post Office Ltd failed to engage fairly with a mediation.
Seema Misra, who trusted our justice system and pleaded not guilty but wassent to prison whilst pregnant and when her son was aged ten, does the maths:
Nevertheless, CPS does reveal that it received complaints about at least five of Post Office Ltd’s private prosecutions and that it exercised its prerogative to take over and put a halt to two of these prosecutions.
A public inquiry is so obviously required into this most grave matter, not least because Post Office Ltd was a wholly government owned company, and governments should not behave like hoodlums or robber barons. A detailed argument for public inquiry by Eleanor Shaikh who supports the subpostmasters can be found here:
The Johnson government gave an apparent, tentative agreement to an inquiry into Post Office Ltd but will not act without huge continuing pressure. The parliamentary select committee which overseas the government department responsible for Post Office Ltd has launched its own brief inquiry and is chasing Johnson about a public inquiry:
According to the BEIS select committee, Paula Vennells is due to give oral evidence as part of a second panel on 24th March 2020 (assuming parliament has not been shut down by the government as has been mooted, on grounds of coronavirus risk):
“On Tuesday 24th March (am), the Committee is expected to question the current PO Ltd CEO, Nick Read, the former CEO, Paula Vennells, Fujitsu, a BEIS Minister and a representative from UKGI (UK Government Investments).”
A Westminster Hall debate led by the MP of one of the victims, Tracy Felstead, who has jailed by Post Office Ltd at the age of nineteen, takes place today on how the unsafe convictions can be overturned:
And what of NHS Improvement, the NHS regulator which helped Paula Vennells Post Office Ltd CEO 2012-2019 find a new billet as a Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust?
More illegality of course. NHSI has defaulted on an FOI about its actions in appointing Vennells as Chair of Imperial. It initially apologised for delay and promised a reply, then went silent. It maintained this silence after a personal reminder to its Chair Dido Harding, another former captain of the communications industry and collaborator with Vennells in the digital venture ‘Go On UK’.
An unanswered FOI reminder to Dido Harding:
From: minh alexander <REDACTED>
Subject: FOI request Fit and Proper Person issues in the appointment of Paula Vennells as Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust
Date: 27 February 2020 at 14:35:37 GMT
To: Dido Harding <REDACTED>
I am rather concerned by a delay in NHSI’s response to the FOI request below about NHSI’s handling of Fit and Proper Person issues and Paula Vennells’ appointment by NHSI to the Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.
I first made my request on 16 January and was expecting a response by 13 February.
NHSI has apologised for going over this statutory deadline and last week indicated that I would be getting a reply this week. But I am concerned not to have heard anything now that we are nearing the end of the weekl.
As there is a massive weight of concern about Post Office Ltd’s actions, and as No 10 has apparently acquiesced to the growing calls for an inquiry, I would be grateful if NHSI would expedite its reply.
It does seem very important that patients are properly protected and that there is accountability for the Safeguarding process.
With best wishes,
A complaint has been filed with ICO to stop the delay from dragging on too long, but NHSI will doubtless do its best to resist transparency.
By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 1 March 2020
February has been an unexpectedly busy month and so forgive me if this is short and not so sweet.
The Tories made political hay with the MidStaffs disaster, but defaulted on safe staffing. Health Secretaries Hunt and Hancock have paid lip service to the value of whistleblowers, but have permitted their destruction, and allowed impunity for reprisal.
In the last six years, hardly any referrals of NHS directors to the Care Quality Commission under Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Persons have resulted in findings of serious breach.
Here are some FPPR referrals on individuals/ trust boards who have been proven by courts or formal investigations to have harmed whistleblowers, but in response to which the CQC has found no breach or no serious breach of Regulation 5:
The board of Mid Essex Hospital Services NHS Trust
These days, I make FPPR referrals less in expectation of an appropriate system response, but on a point of principle, to highlight failures and to maintain a proper record of concern and provide collective memory where the system fails.
A year ago Jo Williams the former Chair of the Care Quality Commission, whose leadership and treatment of whistleblowers was much criticised by the MidStaffs public inquiry and by MPs, was appointed as Chair of Alder Hey NHS Foundation Trust. Accordingly, I made an FPPR referral to CQC.
A year on, the CQC has predictably shut down the FPPR referral, declaring that Alder Hey’s FPPR process is “robust”. This is the trademark closure letter:
And who were Jo Williams’ referees for her appointment to the board of Alder Hey, first as a NED and then as Chair?
Dr Patricia Mills Consultant Anaesthetist West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust whistleblower
In a nutshell, Dr Mills has been horribly persecuted for doing her duty as doctor to ensure that there was learning from the avoidable death and catastrophic harm respectively to two patients, Daniel Parsons and Paul Farmer, under the care of West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust.
Classically, trust executives have reframed her patient advocacy as unacceptable behaviour and set a protracted disciplinary process in motion.
The Trust CEO Steve Dunn was revealed by the Sunday Times to have behaved unpleasantly and unprofessionally at a meeting with Patricia Mills, with the trust minimising this behaviour as merely “tough”.
“The chief executive is alleged to have angrily demanded to know why she had written the letter to the chairman of the board and accused her of undermining Dr Nick Jenkins, the medical director, on patient safety issues. Dunn is said to have asked: “You think I’m an arsehole, don’t you?” and Mills to have replied: “Yes, I do at this moment.”
It seems that trust executives were especially threatened by Dr Mills because as part of fulfilling her GMC obligations, she questioned the Medical Director’s response to the avoidable death and harm. For example:
“A source said Mills claimed to have raised the issue with Jenkins on five occasions and had been disappointed that there had only been a perfunctory investigation.”
Patricia Mills is one of the doctors who was placed under huge pressure by the trust to provide fingerprints and a handwriting sample during a later whistleblower witch hunt.
A former trust clinical director Dr Jon Cardy has told the Sunday Times that a number of doctors have informed him of oppressive trust management, to the point that two doctors have been suicidal. The reported mistreatment of staff according to Dr Cardy has included subjecting doctors to formal investigations after whistleblowing.
In the meantime, Matt Hancock Health Secretary and local MP told the local press that everything had been handled “entirely appropriately.”
And as if she has not suffered enough already, Dr Patricia Mills was run over two weeks ago whilst walking her dog down a country lane, requiring hospital treatment.
As a country we are sliding into very unpleasant political territory, with attacks on press freedom, other portents of authoritarianism and increasingly brazen unaccountability for the powerful.
There will be difficult times ahead for whistleblowers, and it may be wise to expect less of officialdom and already fragile official mechanisms for reporting and redress. This government is already openly attacking some whistleblowers:
By Dr Minh Alexander NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, 29 February 2020
The mass miscarriage of justice by Post Office Ltd against subpostmasters spanning two decades is a most extraordinary tragedy . It is a very British scandal of establishment cover up and careless, “patronising disposition of unaccountable power”, to borrow a phrase from a prominent son of the Church.
Although a decisive High Court victory by the subpostmasters shone a very large light on the nature of power, lives remain seriously wrecked, convictions are still in place, no senior officials or government ministers have yet been held to account and importantly, there are reports that Post Office Ltd seems not to have changed its behaviour towards subpostmasters.
In addition, multiple complaints have been made to the Church of England about Paula Vennells’ continuing ministry as a priest, under the Clergy Discipline Measure.
I have now raised a concern under the Church of England’s Safeguarding procedures, on the basis that Post Office Ltd continued to treat subpostmasters and their families abusively under Paula Vennells’ seven year tenure as CEO.
I have also asked the Church to disclose the number of complaints received about her so far, and to lend its political power to the call for a public inquiry and urgent suspension of Post Office Ltd’s prosecutorial functions.
The Safeguarding referral has been very, very kindly supported by testimony from subpostmasters, difficult and highly unpleasant though it is for them to revisit memories of the abuse by Post Office Ltd.
One former postmaster, and Church of England warden, Mr Tom Hedges has given permission for his impact statement to be published, so that people can understand what it has been like for the families. I am most grateful to him and deeply respect his courage and dignity in his efforts to see that things are put right and made safe for others.
Tom’s impact statement follows below. The main Safeguarding referral to Paula Vennells’ bishop, Alan Smith the Bishop of St Albans, is provided in the appendix.
POST OFFICE HORIZON SCANDAL
VICTIM IMPACT STATEMENT BY D T (TOM) HEDGES FEBRUARY 2020
Have you ever been accused of a crime you did not commit, taken to court on made up evidence, been advised that if you try and fight the charge, you will go to jail, so you plead guilty because you are terrified?
Well that is what happened to me at the hands of the Post Office under the control of its board of directors. Sure we took the legal entity Post Office Ltd to court, and obtained partial redress, but companies are run by people and it is their actions and decisions that caused this horrendous tragedy to engulf at least the 557 people in the group action and more cases are coming to light all the time.
I suffer from a disability that requires the use of a medical device to ensure I do not die. I had to almost fight to take this equipment into the dock when I was sentenced, as it would not have been possible to get this life saving equipment to me, if I had been “sent down”. This hugely heightened my stress and fear during my court appearance.
The whole experience has effected me and my family in a hugely detrimental way. Even after the few thousand we are to receive as our share of the settlement, we are hundreds of thousands out of pocket. We were forced to sell our PO, Retail Business and comfortable home at a distress price, about half of its value before that fateful day. We just about avoided bankruptcy and were forced to live on benefits ever since. I could not obtain a job with a criminal record. I did obtain two reasonably paid job offers, but but both were withdrawn, when my criminal conviction was revealed. This stigma sticks and hurts. If I wanted to visit the USA, I cannot, as they will not allow convicted criminals to enter, even for a holiday. Several people both individuals and whole families shunned us in the village, some even crossing the road to avoid us. These people had always been well disposed to us and was one of the reasons why we moved out of the village into a nearby town, that provided anonymity. That did and still does, hurt.
The mental toll from that fateful audit day onwards was crippling, as the full might of a huge company was unleashed on me and only the support of a wonderful wife, loving family, close friends and my faith, saw me through. I can well understand why others contemplated and even went through with, taking their own lives, if they had no support.
My wife and I have been forced to live in rented accommodation, with the high rents and uncertainty that this brings, renting from a private landlord. The waiting list for council or housing association property is over five years in our area.
As I am now 66 and in receipt of both my state and private pension. I had been looking forward to a reasonably comfortable retirement. We had planned to sell up when I was 64/5 and release the equity in our business and home and be able to buy a small property outright and put some money in the bank for rainy days. This has all been taken from me and our rent per month is more than my private pension, so we are living on what’s left of our state pensions.
However I count myself lucky compared to others who suffered in our group, but we all have one thing in common, this experience has scarred us for life and no one is being held to account for this.
People make and carry out policies within companies, but the law dictates that the legal entity is the company. We have settled with the company and it admitted its failings, but its directors and ex directors caused this situation in the first place and are free to do it all again.
“Is that right and just?”
The Church of England’s Safeguarding policies and procedures can be found here.
Key documents and judgments from the Post Office trial can be found here.
This is a brief account of the government’s inadequate handling and spin about NHS whistleblowing and safety, and how this PR machinery is helping to support Paula Vennells’ position at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust:
Information disclosed today by the Crown Prosecution Service adds to the general concern about the competence and probity with which Post Office Ltd wielded its prosecutorial functions.
The CPS can take over private prosecutions where concerns have been raised. CPS has disclosed that although its records may not be complete, it was referred five private prosecutions by Post Office Ltd. It decided to take over two of these and discontinued them. I will try to find out more.
Safeguarding referral regarding Paula Vennells to Alan Smith, Bishop of St. Albans
Bishop of St Albans
Church of England
29 February 2020
Dear Bishop Alan,
Safeguarding concern about Paula Vennells
I write to make raise a Safeguarding concern about Paula Vennell’s continuing ministry at Bromham Benefice, in your diocese.
Paula Vennells was centrally involved in highly abusive institutional actions against subpostmasters and their families when she was Post Office Ltd CEO in the period 2012 to 2019, in regards to the dispute over the Horizon IT system.
I believe that the relevant matters fall under the Church of England’s Safeguarding procedures, especially with regard to vulnerable people and children, but also more generally to all the adults who were affected, based on the Church’s policy statement:
“All adults, including vulnerable adults, have a fundamental human right to choose how and with whom they live, even if this appears to involve a degree of risk. They should be supported to make those choices, to live as independently as possible and treated with respect and dignity.” [my emphasis]
With regard to adults affected by the Post Office’s harmful actions, vulnerable or not, I believe that the following provisions under Church policy are especially relevant:
“Psychological abuse including emotional abuse, threats of harm or abandonment, deprivation of contact, humiliation, blaming, controlling, intimidation, coercion, harassment, verbal abuse, isolation or withdrawal from services or supportive networks.
Financial or material abuse including theft, fraud, exploitation, pressure in connection with wills, property or inheritance or financial transactions, or the misuse or misappropriation of property, possessions or benefits.”
With regards to the children of harmed subpostmasters, I believe that the policy provision on neglect is most relevant, and that the Post Office Ltd’s negligence and lack of duty of care to these families led to other forms of active harm to the children:
including failure to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter, to protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger, to provide adequate supervision and/or access to appropriate medical care or treatment. It may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance abuse.”
Post Office Ltd terrorised subpostmasters and their families with accusations based on unsafe evidence from its flawed Horizon IT system, despite holding knowledge that this system was flawed. This persecution started before Paula Vennells’ tenure but continued after she became Post Office Ltd CEO.
Post Office Ltd unsafely prosecuted many hundreds of subpostmasters, and sent some to jail knowing that its evidence was in doubt.
The full extent of the harm has yet to be revealed as many cases are still coming through the system and have yet to present at court.
Post Office Ltd lied to many subpostmasters, telling them they were the only person who had reported any problems with the Horizon IT system, when in reality it was in possession of many years’ evidence of glitches across its system.
Mr Tom Hedges
Mr Tom Hedges a Church of England warden and former postmaster was prosecuted by Post Office Ltd solely on the basis of Horizon evidence. Post Office Ltd told him he was the only person who had claimed computer error:
“During an audit in May 2010 I was accused of theft and false accounting, suspended, dismissed and then convicted at Lincoln Crown Court,” he said. “I was given a seven-month suspended prison sentence, ordered to do 120 hours community service and had to pay £1000 costs.
“The sole evidence against me was The Post Offices computer system known as Horizon.
“At the time I was told by Post Office that their system was infallible. I had not taken any money, but I was advised by my lawyer that the court would accept that a company the size of The Post Office would have a ‘bomb proof system’ and that if I pleaded ‘not guilty’ I had no hope of convincing the court otherwise. The consequences of making a not guilty plea and then being found guilty would have almost certainly been a custodial sentence.
“Faced with this prospect he advised a guilty plea and very likely a suspended sentence, was my best choice. I was petrified of the prospect of jail so chose to plead guilty.”
This falsehood was repeated across different cases, and Post Office Ltd repeatedly failed to disclose highly relevant information about Horizon bugs during its prosecutions; actions which cannot be seen as mere isolated errors of omission.
When subpostmasters found they were not alone, organised and challenged Post OfficeLtd’s false narrative, the Post Office still maintained ludicrous denial for many years, with a High Court finding in December 2019 that its denial was akin to a claim that the Earth was flat.
These are all the judgments and relevant key documents from the Post Office trial, collated on the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance website: documentation
It appears that amongst a number of possible reasons for Post Office Ltd’s entrenched and prolonged denial was the fact that government and the Paula Vennells pinned the organisation’s business plan on digitalisation and an increased range of business activities which required digitalisation. Admitting that the Post Office’s core digital accounting system was unreliable would have been highly prejudicial to these ambitions.
But Post Office Ltd’s abusive scapegoating of subpostmasters, blaming them for phantom financial shortfalls caused by glitches in the Horizon system and demanding ‘recompense’ with menaces, was monstrously callous and subjected many hundreds of families to profound, life changing and far reaching harms.
Post Office Ltd made people vulnerable from the stress it placed them under with grossly unfair contractual arrangements and wrongful prosecutions. Once they were made vulnerable, Post Office Ltd continued to mistreat them, reckless of the consequences of such mistreatment. The harms suffered by subpostmasters and their families included the following:
People lived with unbearable stress for years
They experienced traumatic, humiliating events such as having their homes searched and being handcuffed, which for law abiding people was completely alien and very frightening
Mental health and physical health suffered very seriously in some cases. For example, some people have had serious stress related illness such as strokes.
Pregnant subpostmistresses were exposed to risk of miscarriage from extreme stress
There was serious financial loss, to the extent of bankruptcy and long term economic insecurity and homelessness. For example, one couple ended up living in a van.
The financial abuse by Post Office Ltd in coercing payments from subpostmasters, for phantom shortfalls using a very oppressive contract and threats of prosecution has still not been rectified, in that the monies have not been repaid
Many have been left without adequate pensions or equivalent security for their old age, in an increasingly uncertain world and decreasing State pension provision
Family life was disrupted, marriages came under pressure and fell apart in some cases
The children of subpostmasters had childhoods shadowed by parental stress, frank mental illness, financial ruin, loss of family homes and much reduced life chances.
They experienced enforced separation where families broke up under strain, parents were forced to live apart due to economic consequences or a parent was wrongly jailed.
In one of the attached supporting documents, you will see that a young child had to be without her mother for 13 months because the family, as a result of Post Office actions, did not have the means to arrange a visa.
Children themselves were also subject to stigma and bullying during tender, formative years. This is one example:
There is especially serious harm to the children of parents who are jailed, which I cover in more detail below.
The above harms to the children of the subpostmasters should be seen as serious institutional child protection issues, because Post Office Ltd was cognisant for many years that its prosecutions were unsafe. Despite this, it was reckless as to the harm inflicted on the most vulnerable innocents.
Some subpostmasters experienced the unimaginable agony of being disbelieved by loved ones
Many experienced terrible stigma and were shunned by their communities, with the stigma extending to their families. Some people were even physically assaulted because of the stigma against them
Years were lost with the complex and very stressful litigation
Litigation costs, vexatiously drawn out by Post Office Ltd’s various aggressive and dishonourable tactics, described by a Court of Appeal judge as “attritional” and “extremely aggressive”, added to substantially to the financial loss
Employment prospects were very seriously damaged because of the unsafe convictions, feeding into the downward spiral of stigma, social isolation and poverty
Being forced to litigate and to appeal against unsafe convictions were an additional, re-traumatising harms
For those who faced the prospect of jail or were actually sent to jail, this was amongst some of the greatest cruelty by Post Office Ltd.
However, the fact that Post Office Ltd continued to prosecute subpostmasters over Horizon related shortfalls during Paula Vennell’s tenure as Chief Executive, and was willing to expose yet more people to the risk of prison, showed continuing, serious institutional irresponsibility and abusiveness.
As a former consultant psychiatrist who has cared for patients in our prison system, I am only too aware of how harsh and frightening an environment prison is, especially for those serving their first sentence.
Suicide risk is elevated for people on remand and any new arrivals, especially people in jail for the first time.
Self harm is common across the prison estate.
UK government safer custody statistics on numbers of prison self harm incidents 2012-2018:
Suicide risk is elevated in prisons compared to the general population.
Post Office Ltd cruelly exposed subpostmasters to these risks when it sent them to prison despite knowing they could be innocent.
The children of people who are jailed suffer very significantly:
The jailing of women in particular tears apart families and scars children.
The Corston Report 2007 by Baroness Jean Corston the then Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights was conducted on the special needs of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. It concluded firmly that women offenders had very different needs and that custodial measures should be applied much more sparingly:
“Custodial sentences for women must be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public.”
It is therefore especially poor that some female subpostmasters with children were so harshly pursued after 2007 and sent to prison for non-violent first offences.
The Corston reports sets out the following important observations on the imprisonment of women with respect to their families:
“3.25 For many women the prison experience is made worse because they are anxious all the time about their children’s well being, or even their whereabouts. Even a short absence from home can disrupt family life and lead to serious problems for children. Many women try to run their homes from prison. Visits with children can cause distress.
A lifer cited in one research paper I have read said; “I need those visits but I’ve also got some rather unpleasant scars through my children grabbing hold of me and screaming “Mum, mum, mum – I don’t want to leave you mum”…I’ve come upstairs and just couldn’t handle it, so I’ve picked up a razor…”
“Custodial experience affects women differently and disproportionately from men. For example, they are located further from their homes and families because of the small number and geographical spread of women’s prisons, which makes visiting difficult. Women in prison are less likely than men to have someone on the outside looking after their home and family and they are more likely to lose their home and children as a result of imprisonment.”
2.17 Women prisoners are far more likely than men to be primary carers of young children and this factor makes the prison experience significantly different for women than men. As Baroness Hale, the only woman Law Lord, has put it, “Many women still define themselves and are defined by others by their role in the family. It is an important component in our sense of identity and self esteem. To become a prisoner is almost by definition to become a bad mother. If she has a husband or partner then again almost by definition she will become a bad wife or partner. Separating her from her family is for many the equivalent of separating a man from his job.” A Home Office study in 1997 showed that for 85% of mothers, prison was the first time they had been separated from their children for any significant length of time.
2.19 Only 5% of women prisoners’ children remain in their home once their mother has been sentenced to custody. As many as 25% are cared for by grandmothers; 29% by other family members or friends; 12% are in care or with foster parents or adopted. The case study of 50 self-harmers showed that a third of the women had been in care as children themselves and the Social Services were currently in contact with nearly half of the women. One of the most alarming statistics that I have seen reported appears in the Revolving Doors Agency’s survey in which 1,400 women serving their first sentence in Holloway were interviewed. 42 women had no idea who was looking after their children. Quite apart from the dreadful possibility that these children might not be in a safe environment, this must cause mothers great distress and have deleterious consequences for their mental health.”
Post Office Ltd thus recklessly and seriously harmed the children of subpostmasters when it sent their parents to prison knowing that they could be innocent.
“Trusting the legal system would deliver justice, she refused to plead guilty. She was two months pregnant with her second son when she was sentenced to 15 months in jail. It was her first son’s 10th birthday. She doesn’t remember what happened in court: she woke up in hospital. Her tears fall as she remembers how she begged a police officer not to handcuff her, begged him to let her leave the hospital by a back door and, when he refused, begged for his jacket to cover her wrists. “It was my local hospital,” she says, “I didn’t want people to see me going out with handcuffs on.”
Post Office Ltd is supposed to be a business with a social purpose, but it showed no conscience whatsoever in its institutionally sociopathic victimisation of the subpostmasters and their families.
Not only did it harm people who became vulnerable due to mental ill health and massive duress such as prosecution and financial ruin, but it actively worked to create that vulnerability with its tactics of intimidation, isolation and threatening litigation strategy. The fact that Post Office Ltd continued its abusive denial and resistance years after serious harm was obvious, and many subpostmasters had been rendered vulnerable by mental ill health and chronic serious stress from intolerable circumstances, showed grave institutional irresponsibility and recklessness if not malice.
Paula Vennells was at the helm of Post Office Ltd for seven years in which denial and unsafe prosecutions continued, and further abuse took place in the form of Post Office Ltd’s abusive handling of the Post Office mediation scheme and cover up of unfavourable findings by its own appointed investigator, Second Sight, which it gagged.
Paula Vennells misled parliament in 2015by maintaining Post Office Ltd denials about flaws in the Horizon IT system and the possibility of unsafe prosecutions.
“It is important to put to bed any implication that we are not accounting properly.”
“We are a business that genuinely cares about the people who work for us. If there had been any miscarriages of justice, it would have been really important to me and the Post Office that we surfaced those. As the investigations have gone through, so far we have no evidence of that.”
Later, during the Post Office trial, evidence emerged that Paula Vennells had sought to solicit a favourable response from her staff to present in evidence to the 2015 BIS select committee. She told her staff that she “needed” to tell the Committee that there was no remote access to the Horizons system. The effect of such an assertion would be to help remove the element of reasonable doubt about Post Office Ltd’ charges of criminality against subpostmasters. Judge Fraser described the events thus in his judgment:
“545….The statement in the Defence was misleading too. It ought also to be noted that the truth did not emerge internally within the Post Office in the email answers provided to internal inquiries in 2015 by senior Post Office personnel, such as the Chief Executive, who posed the specific question in preparation for providing evidence to a Select Committee and asked: “What is the true answer?”
“546. She also said in the same email “I hope it is that we know this is not possible and that we are able to explain why that is”. The true answer is that, contrary to her aspiration, it was possible.”
“547. She also stated “I need to say no it is not possible and that we are sure of this because of xxx and that we know this because we have had the system assured.” The true answer to that was also “yes, it is possible”.
Paula Vennells’ 2015 comments to parliament in oral evidence had the effect of minimisation and subtle victim blaming, claiming that there were only a “small number” of unhappy and vocal subpostmasters:
“…the vast majority of people have no issue with the system, and they are actually quite satisfied with the training and support around it. We are dealing with a very small number of people who have had some really difficult things happen to them”
“Inevitably, because of their distress, the people who have gone through this are very vocal and very challenging about what they have been through—quite rightly so.”
In my view, there is a lack of anything approaching appropriate acknowledgment in her public statements to date, of the depth of suffering by the subpostmasters and their families.
Post Office Ltd previously maintained under FOIA that no internal whistleblowing disclosures were raised between 2012 to 2019 about Horizon:
It admitted to only a tiny handful of other whistleblowing incidents in those years. This lacked credibility given the size of the organisation. Also the Post Office whistleblowing policy requires annual reports on numbers of incidents, and there were dedicated reporting systems in place including an online service, suggesting that a certain volume of reports was expected.
A BBC File on Four broadcast on 11 February 2020 revealed that there were at some point, Post Office whistleblowers who raised concerns about the Horizon system. They too received an intimidating system response, which included suggestions that their jobs and careers were at risk if they did not “’move on and let it go’. This adds to the evidence of poor, unsafe Post Office Ltd culture.
Please see below the Fit and Proper Person referral to the Care Quality Commission which I sent you previously, which gives some more detailed facts. Following at least two FPPR referrals, one from myself and one from Tom Hedges, the CQC has raised a challenge with the employing NHS trust.
Please note that Paula Vennells accepted in the oral evidence to parliament in 2015 that she was responsible for how Post Office Ltd conducted itself:
“Q100 Nadhim Zahawi: You are the chief executive, so the buck stops with you.
Paula Vennells: It does stop with me. Also, therefore, as chief executive, I am responsible for the reputation of and what happens for the Post Office.”
I am concerned from the above pattern of events that Paula Vennells raises has a capacity for abusing power, which makes her unsuitable for any position of trust and exposure to people at vulnerable points in their lives, and to any ordinarily vulnerable adult and to children. I am concerned that her past behaviour is incompatible with the position of trust that comes with her role as Church of England priest, bringing her into contact with vulnerable people and people in crisis or at critical points of their lives, such as bereavement and other loss.
“I have little doubt that the reason for my termination is that I had not only uncovered limitations and potential errors with the Horizon system, but that I continued to question Post Office on the contractual relationship between subpostmasters and Post Office.”
Paula Vennells’ leadership of the Post Office represented a continuance of this aggressive institutional denial.
In all the circumstances, I am very concerned in particular that she may cover up any matters which affect reputation. For example, I am very troubled as to how she might approach any reports of abuse that she receives from or relating to vulnerable people, if such reports happen to stand between her and her goals and ambitions. I see she is tipped to be a Bishop and I am very concerned if she is again given power over others.
Her lack of appropriate acknowledgment of the devastating harm caused and her recent scant apology which only caused more distress and was made at a very late stage, suggested a lack of learning.
“It was and remains a source of great regret to me that these colleagues and their families were affected over so many years. I am truly sorry we were unable to find both a solution and a resolution outside of litigation and for the distress this caused.”
Paula Vennells quoted by the Daily Mail 23 December 2019
It therefore implied a capacity for repetition.
The Church of England should recognise the grave injustice of minimising the misery inflicted on hundreds of families by Post Office Ltd under Paula Vennells leadership, which is de facto what is happening through her continuing ministry.
I attach, and will forward under separate cover, testimony from subpostmasters which includes information about some of the experiences of their close family members.
Additionally, these are links to some of the accounts in the public domain of the harmed subpostmasters’ experiences:
I would be grateful if the Church of England would conduct a thorough evaluation and investigation of all the relevant Safeguarding issues raised by the Post Office trial, including by contacting the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, the Communications Workers Union and the forensic accountants Second Sight, for all relevant and also emerging evidence. I ask that you act on the Safeguarding evidence and protect parishioners and wider members of the public with whom Paula Vennells may come into contact through her various roles in the Church, including business and corporate support to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In particular I ask that you treat the testimony from harmed former subpostmasters which accompanies this Safeguarding referral with the greatest respect and sensitivity, and not add to their trauma. It has taken great courage and strength by the victims of the Post Office to continue with their struggle all these years in the face of bitter institutional resistance. Their struggle is not over, nor are the consequences of Post Office Ltd’s abuse.
I make this point as I am aware that the Diocese has written to at least one harmed subpostmaster who complained about Paula Vennells, stating that it will make deliberations about whether he is a person who has a “proper interest” in raising complaints about her. This may be the Church’s standard administrative procedure, but I found it very shocking that such words could be used to people who have suffered so much.
In the interests of transparency, I would also be grateful if the Church of England would disclose how many complaints it has now received about Paula Vennells’ continuing ministry. I appreciate that the Church is not subject to FOIA. However, some other important bodies which have a public function and which are not subject to FOIA nevertheless attempt to provide open access in a similar spirit to FOIA. I hope the Church will adopt the same principle.
Indeed I will go one step further and ask the Church of England to use its considerable political power to support the victims of Post Office Ltd by backing the call for a public inquiry and for urgent suspension of Post Office Ltd’s prosecutorial functions, given the weight of evidence of serious incompetence and misconduct.