Monday 7 December 2020

Vennells steps down from NHS Trust

Rev Paula Vennells, CBE

Paula Vennells, who was managing director of the Post Office from 2010 to 2012, and its chief executive from 2012 to 2019, has decided to step down from her current job as Chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.

Ms Vennells will stay in post until next April. It was, we are told, a personal decision. It comes three months after it was revealed a government minister had written to the Department of Health questioning Vennells' fitness for office.

In a short statement, quietly slipped out on Thursday 3 December, when most people following the Post Office Horizon IT scandal were watching events at the Court of Appeal, Ms Vennells said:

“By the time I leave, I will have been in the position for two years. While I will be very sad to go, it is a personal decision at the right time."

The Trust's chief executive, Professor Tim Orchard said: 

“Paula has made an enormous contribution... Her continued focus on our vision and values, as well as diversity and inclusion, has supported real progress with our organisational culture... We are very grateful for her commitment and expertise and will make the most of her remaining time at the Trust.”

This is the third job Vennells has lost by resigning in the space of twelve months. In March this year she stepped down as a non-executive director of the Cabinet Office.

In June Ms Vennells' left her position on the Church of England's Ethical Investments Advisory Group. An email to a Post Office campaigner from the EIAG stated she had "taken a leave of absence as she engages with the BEIS Select Committee Review." 

The founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, Alan Bates, said of Ms Vennells' latest announcement:

"I was utterly amazed they appointed her in the first place, don't they read newspapers or undertake due diligence when they appoint someone?  Her departure seems to be yet another case of her jumping ship before being pushed."

The timing is curious. Lord Arbuthnot, who has long campaigned for Subpostmasters, speculates:

“Can it be a coincidence that shortly after it became clear that the Post Office lied to Parliament, Paula Venells announced she was stepping down from the Health job?”

Lord Arbuthnot
Lord Arbuthnot is referring to the Clarke advice, written in 2013, which was recently revealed at a hearing of the Court of Appeal

The Clarke advice seems to contradict assurances given in 2015 by Ms Vennells and the Post Office to parliament that they had fully investigated all the the Post Office's prosecutions and had so far found no evidence of any miscarriages of justice. 

Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor, described the Clarke advice as a likely "smoking gun" and Andrew Bridgen, an MP who has also campaigned to help Subpostmasters for years said:

"it appears that the post office did knowingly mislead MPs in 2015. It also appears that they were confident hiding behind their lawyers."

I asked Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust for Ms Vennells resignation letter and more information as to why she stepped down. The trust responded saying they did not wish to add anything to the statement of their website.

I asked Ms Vennells via her lawyers why she stepped down, and whether or not she, or the Post Office, did lie to parliament in 2015. I have so far not received a response.

On 24 December last year, Dr Minh Alexander asked the Care Quality Commission to start a Fit and Proper Person investigation into Paula Vennells' appointment as Chair of the Imperial NHS Trust. At the time Dr Alexander said:

"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."

Dr Minh Alexander
Today Dr Alexander reacted to Ms Vennells' announcement by telling me:

"It is a relief that Paula Vennells will no longer be a part of a safety critical public service where transparency is vital. But it would not be acceptable for the matter to end simply with Paula Vennells riding into the sunset. Those who appointed her, helped to protect her, turned a blind eye and failed to act expeditiously and effectively on the ongoing governance risk posed by her position as Imperial trust chair need to confront what they did. The government needs to ensure a systemic response to reduce the risk of such future abuses of the NHS. Patients and NHS staff should not be treated so disrespectfully again.”

Ms Vennells  remains a non-exec director on the board of Dunelms and Morrisons, and she also holds a position within the Church of England as a non-stipendiary priest within the Bromham Benefice, where she is protected by the Bishop of St Albans.

No one should be rewarded for failure, and no one should be scapegoated for things which aren't their fault. The only inside explanation of what was happening at the Post Office in 2013 after Second Sight completed their interim report comes via evidence submitted by Paula Vennells to the 2020 BEIS inquiry. It was this inquiry the EIAG said she had stepped down to focus on.

Ms Vennells' heavily-lawyered evidence points the finger at Fujitsu for failing to disclose errors with Horizon. On the issue of the Post Office's prosecution mania, she says:

"the Board and I were assured by in-house and external lawyers that the Code for Crown Prosecutors was being followed... Whether the specific evidence was sound in any one case was a matter for their judgment and not mine: it would have been wrong for me to become involved unless of course I became aware of a systemic problem, which I did not."

Cryptically she adds:

"Post Office was also mindful of its disclosure obligations in relation to convictions. When we went through the Scheme [the Post Office's 2013 Complaint and Mediation Scheme], Post Office lawyers considered each and every case in the Scheme where there had been a conviction in order to assess whether there was anything that had emerged from the Scheme which Post Office was obliged to disclose."

Nowhere in her submission does Ms Vennells mention the Clarke advice, or the subsequent Altman General Review or the CK Sift Review, which looked at all the Post Office prosecutions since 2010, not just the ones accepted onto the mediation scheme [for more information on the CK sift review - see my oral submission to the Court of Appeal]. 

Either Ms Vennells was not aware of the Clarke advice, the Altman General Review and the CK Sift Review, or she was aware of them and chose not to tell parliament.

Janet Skinner
Janet Skinner was sent to prison for nine months in 2007 after being prosecuted by the Post Office (see BBC Panorama's Scandal at the Post Office). Janet has been fighting to clear her name for 13 years, and last month the Post Office admitted her prosecution was an abuse of process. Ms Skinner reacted to the NHS announcement by saying:


"It is quite a shame that Paula Vennells didn’t provide the same kind of care and support in her previous employment. Is it a case of ‘jump before pushed’ again? No doubt she will profit again with a good pension/severance package; something that us postmasters did not receive."

Tracy Felstead was sent to prison aged just 19 after being prosecuted by the Post Office. She has suffered mental health battles for many years and is still fighting to clear her name. Like Ms Skinner, last month the Post Office admitted her prosecution was an abuse of process. Ms Felstead told me:

"I’m delighted to hear this news, it’s a shame it’s taken so long, I don’t believe Paula Vennells has ever felt any genuine remorse towards those of us who have been affected! If she had she would have done the right thing from the start, I’d like to think the other roles she holds will now go the same way."


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