Tuesday 27 October 2020

EXCLUSIVE: Business minister asks Dept for Health why Paula Vennells is still running an NHS Trust

Paula Vennells, CBE

Last year, Paula Vennells slipped from office into the warm embrace of the NHS at the exact time the Post Office, under her leadership, was asserting its legal right to treat its own Subpostmasters “arbitrarily, irrationally or capriciously.”*

On 24 December 2019, eight days after the second damning High Court judgment into her organisation's behaviour, a complaint was made to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) by Dr Minh Alexander about Ms Vennells' fitness to chair a large NHS Trust because: 

"The Post Office’s behaviour under Paula Vennells’ leadership was not accountable nor open about its computer problems, and the Post Office instead caused serious suffering to scapegoated subpostmasters, some of whom had been prosecuted and jailed. 

It would be very unsafe for such a corporate culture to be replicated in the NHS, where vulnerable patients would take the brunt of any cover ups."

Now it seems the government has similar qualms. In a letter to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), Lord Callanan (the business minister in the Lords) writes:

"The decisions and conduct of POL [Post Office Ltd] while Paula was CEO were heavily criticised in the Horizon Litigation judgments from last year. This includes:

• attempts to confuse and obscure true facts regarding issues with the Horizon system, specifically during an attempt to mediate issues between the company and postmasters;

• haphazard practices and procedures in the organisation;

• an oppressive culture, behaving with impunity towards postmasters;

• fostering a culture of secrecy and excessive confidentiality, failing to be transparent, when necessary."

Lord Callanan of Low Fell

He concludes:

"I recognise that due process relating to the CQC referral must be followed, but I felt it was important that I made you aware of the background and the level of Parliamentary disquiet on POL’s conduct as set out above, most of which was under the leadership of Paula Vennells and I ask that DHSC considers whether Paula Vennells a fit and proper person to be the Imperial College NHS Trust chair in light of those criticisms."

You can read the original letter in full at the bottom of this blog post. 

I asked the DHSC to send me their response to Lord Callanan and a comment. They replied:

"This matter has been referred to the CQC. We are unable to comment until their investigation is complete."

Earlier this month Dr Alexander chased the CQC to see why she hadn't received any meaningful response to her request for a Fit and Proper Person referral made nearly nine months previously. The CQCs Deputy Chief Inspector of Hospitals Nigel Acheson, wrote back to tell her:

"we have not concluded the FPPR referral and we are making further enquiries with the trust...

I am unable to confirm when the processes will be completed but will keep you updated as and when I have further information to share."

Dr Minh Alexander

I asked Dr Alexander what she thought of this. She replied:
"The Fit and Proper Person process in the NHS is a farce, excessively protracted and exposes staff and patients to serious potential harm. We all depend on the NHS and it needs excellent leaders to safeguard service quality and patient safety. The NHS should not be abused for political favours nor be a dumping ground for recycled executives who have failed elsewhere, and who have a track record of denying serious errors and leading abusive organisations. It is disrespectful to NHS staff and patients that Paula Vennells remains in her NHS position at Imperial, almost a year on from the original referral to the Care Quality Commission."
Dr Alexander doesn't mince her words. Last week, Computer Weekly reported that Imperial College NHS Trust had commissioned its own review into Ms Vennells' appointment. A trust spokesman told Computer Weekly:
"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.”
The trust hasn't quite yet managed to sort out how it's going to conduct its review, telling Computer Weekly:
"We are currently working up a process to provide an additional level of independent scrutiny. We will publish details of this process once established.”
Dr Alexander notes: 
"It is a failure that an external review is only now being reluctantly commissioned, causing expense and further delay. There can be limited confidence in the external review given that Imperial control the terms of reference. Imperial staff and patients should not be further exposed to potential harm. Dido Harding helped appoint Paula Vennells to Imperial and should show leadership by seeking her resignation in light of all the adverse court judgments, CCRC findings of multiple unsafe convictions of postmasters and the ministerial concerns about Paula Vennells' fitness."

I asked Ms Vennells about Lord Callanan's letter. She told me, through her lawyers, that it would not be appropriate for her to comment.


* Reasons for Refusing Permission to Appeal the Common Issues judgment: par 26 "The challenge in paragraphs 35 and 38 of the Grounds to the findings that the Post Office was not entitled to suspend and/or terminate SPMs’ [Subpostmasters] engagements “arbitrarily, irrationally or capriciously” can only logically amount to an argument by the Post Office that it was contractually entitled to act arbitrarily, irrationally and capriciously in suspending or terminating the engagement of the SPMs. Such points are not reasonably arguable."


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Letter follows:

Lord Callanan Letter to Lor... by Nick Wallis