Under pressure from campaigners, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust is seeking external legal advice in relation to the processes it went through when appointing former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells as chair.
After reading about the treatment of subpostmasters by the Post Office under Vennells’ leadership, former consultant psychiatrist Minh Alexander referred her appointment to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) under an NHS regulation that aims to ensure executives are appropriate.
Alexander asked the CQC, in the case of Vennells’ appointment, to “exercise its powers under CQC Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Persons (FPPR), and to review Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust’s FPPR arrangements”.
As revealed by Computer Weekly in 2009, subpostmasters, who run branches, were blamed for accounting shortfalls that were unexplained and caused by the computer system they use, known as Horizon. They were forced to pay back money that in fact was never taken. Hundreds were prosecuted and some sent to prison. Many more lost their livelihoods when made bankrupt, and others suffered stress-related ill health (see timeline of Computer Weekly’s coverage below).
The Post Office always denied that Horizon could be to blame for unexplained shortfalls, but in December 2019, a multimillion-pound group litigation, which had begun in the High Court over a year earlier, ended with the Post Office conceding that it was wrong, apologising and paying £57.5m in damages.
No current or former Post Office executive has been held to account. During her seven years at the Post Office helm from 2012, Vennells earned millions of pounds and in 2019 was awarded a CBE for services to the Post Office and charity. That same year, just before the court case ended, Vennells left the Post Office to take up the role of chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, one of the biggest trusts in the NHS.
Faced with questions over its Fit and Proper Persons requirements earlier this year, the trust defended its decision and said the developments in the Horizon scandal at the time were in line with what was understood at the time of Vennells’ appointment, which it said provided no further insight for the board to consider.
But since then, the scandal has deepened. In June this year, the Criminal Cases Review Commission sent 47 cases, in which subpostmasters were prosecuted as criminals based on Horizon data, to the Court of Appeal to be reviewed as potential miscarriages of justice. The Post Office said it would not contest 44 of these, making it highly likely that the subpostmasters will have their criminal records quashed.
Imperial College Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust is now seeking external legal advice to ensure it carried out tests on Vennells’ fitness for the role comprehensively enough. It said this was due to Vennells’ role at the Post Office while miscarriages of justice occurred and because of the complexity of the Horizon scandal.
A spokesperson for the trust said: “Given our chair’s previous role at the Post Office and the complexity of the situation with the Horizon computer system, we have taken external legal advice to ensure our processes are sufficiently comprehensive. We continue to take into consideration developments in the Horizons legal action and related inquiries since our chair’s appointment.”
Details of the external review are not yet available. The spokesperson added: “We are currently working up a process to provide an additional level of independent scrutiny. We will publish details of this process once established.”
Alexander said: “It is welcome at least that Imperial College Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust has effectively conceded that it failed to do a thorough job in assessing Paula Vennells’ fitness, despite its previous claims that it was careful and thorough.
“However, external reviews controlled by the organisation being reviewed can easily be marred by conflicts of interest.”
Alexander has asked the CQC to “ensure that an external review is properly commissioned in consultation with those harmed during Vennells’ tenure at the Post Office, and that all individuals affected are allowed to contribute evidence if they wish”.
In June, peer James Arbuthnot, previously Conservative MP for Hampshire East, who for years has campaigned for justice for the subpostmasters, described the Post Office’s behaviour under Vennells’ leadership as “both cruel and incompetent”.
In a recent Horizon scandal debate in the House of Commons, Gavin Newlands, SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, said the life of one of his constituents was in tatters and asked: “Who is going to be held responsible?”
During the debate, postal affairs minister Paul Scully was asked by Julian Lewis, independent MP for New Forest East, whether he accepted “that those present or former Post Office officials who perpetrated this disaster and perpetuated the agony of the victims must be punished, not promoted, and shamed, rather than rewarded with honours”.