Paula Vennells has stepped down from her role at an NHS trust as public and political scrutiny grows following revelations around the Post Office’s treatment of subpostmasters under her leadership.
The former Post Office chief executive said in a statement that stepping down from her role as chair at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust was a personal decision. She will leave in April 2021.
Vennells led the Post Office during a scandal that saw hundreds of subpostmasters wrongly prosecuted for financial crimes after experiencing unexplained accounting shortfalls in branches. It is described as being the biggest miscarriage of justice in modern English legal history.
In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation revealed that subpostmasters, who run branches, were blamed for these shortfalls which they suspected were 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, she 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.
Vennells’ resignation comes at a time when, following pressure, Imperial asked for an independent review of the process it went through when recruiting her.
In February, after reading about the treatment of subpostmasters by the Post Office under Vennells’ leadership, a healthcare professional referred her appointment at the trust to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) under an NHS regulation that aims to ensure executives are appropriate.
At the time, 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 the scandal has since deepened. In June this year, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) 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.
In October, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust said it was seeking external legal advice in relation to the processes it went through when appointing former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells as chair.
A spokesperson for the trust said at the time: “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 Horizon legal action and related inquiries since our chair’s appointment.”
In March, after subpostmaster prosecutions were sent to the Court of Appeal for review, Helen Pitcher, chairman at the CCRC, said: “If you are getting so many cases which all relate to an IT system that has been put in, somebody somewhere should have been asking if this is the fault of the individual or the system?
She said that presupposes the matter went to the board and was highlighted to them, and that senior executives at the Post Office were aware of it. “The former CEO Paula Vennells spoke quite openly about these cases in the press,” said Pitcher.
In her leaving statement, 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. I am so proud of what we achieve across our hospitals – from the fantastic care and treatment to the outstanding research and education. I continue to be amazed every day by the dedication and expertise of our people, not least during the pandemic when so much has been asked of everyone.”
Former NHS consultant psychiatrist Minh Alexander, who made the original referral to the CQC, said it would not surprise her if there had been pressure on Vennells to resign.
“She struck me as defiant at the trust AGM in July, and she was content for her deputy chair to publicly claim that the trust had carefully and thoroughly considered her fitness, when this was not the case. The trust annual report issued in June did not contain any hint of her departure. The trust reluctantly agreed to commission an external report on her fitness only at a late stage,” said Alexander.
Campaigners and some MPs want to see Vennells stripped of her CBE, which she was awarded just before a High Court judge delivered a court judgment damning of the Post Office.
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”.
In his judgment, High Court judge, Peter Fraser, slammed the business practices of the Post Office Vennells led, describing its denial that Horizon could be to blame for accounting shortfalls as amounting “to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat”.
Late last month, during a hearing of subpostmaster cases in the Court of Appeal, the existence of a document emerged, which allegedly proves the Post Office was advised by one of its own barristers that its expert witnesses, in the prosecutions of subpostmasters, failed to give information that could have undermined prosecutions The disclosure, which has not been made public, is from a barrister, Simon Clarke, to the Post Office about evidence given by an expert witness in the trials.
Conservative peer James Arbuthnot recently said the document could reveal that the Post Office “lied to, and was in contempt of, Parliament” during a previous inquiry into the scandal.
Following Vennells’ resignation, he said: “Can it be a coincidence that shortly after it became clear that the Post Office lied to Parliament, Paula Vennells announced she was stepping down from the NHS job?”
Alexander said: “It seems, from the sequence of events, that the current Court of Appeal proceedings, revelations of a barrister’s advice previously undisclosed by the Post Office and Lord Arbuthnot’s related contention that the Post Office lied and misled Parliament may have been important in the announcement of Paula Vennells’ departure.”
Separately, a former Post Office executive criticised by Fraser was director Angela van den Bogerd, who faced detailed questioning during the trial. When Fraser handed down his 300-page judgment on 15 March 2019, he said: “There were two specific matters where [Van den Bogerd] did not give me frank evidence, and sought to obfuscate matters, and mislead me.”
Van den Bogerd left the Post Office quietly and, according to BBC Wales, was last week named “head of people” by the Football Association of Wales.
Meanwhile, subpostmaster victims of the scandal are still trying to rebuild their lives and are still fighting for justice on many fronts. They were awarded £57.5m in damages, but after legal costs were taken out, they were left with just £11m between them. The JFSA is demanding that the government pay the legal costs to leave victims with a fairer settlement, but the government has refused. One claimant who was wrongly sent to prison, which left her life in tatters, received just £9,000 compensation.