Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:22 pm on 21st March 2011.
I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for responding to the debate and for being present at this late hour. My hon. Friend Miss Smith and I would like to raise with the House and the Solicitor-General the experiences of Mr Andrew Breeze, a former NHS worker and founding clinician of an independent and innovative psychiatric hospital, Cawston Park.
Mr Breeze’s experiences have been documented in both the regional and the national press, notably by my hon. Friend in an article in The Mail on Sunday on 2l November 2009. Although Mr Breeze is not one of my own constituents, his brother Paul is, and I have agreed to support this important matter, as it has wide-ranging consequences for independent health care and, indeed, many entrepreneurial projects requiring major capital investment.
In late 2003, Mr Breeze set up Cawston Park. He and the other founding clinicians had all previously worked within the NHS and had felt constrained in seeking to provide high-quality, effective care that provided value for money. They therefore seized the opportunity to move into the independent sector to achieve their vision.
The purpose of Cawston Park hospital was to provide specialist psychiatric care and treatment to severely mentally ill patients, many of whom could not be properly treated within the existing NHS structures. In November 2006, the hospital was recognised as having achieved outstanding clinical successes owing to its unique approach to patient care and treatment. Patients who had previously been in other hospitals for lengthy periods of time were being successfully discharged from Cawston Park hospital and it had become apparent that it was saving the NHS hundreds of thousands of pounds annually. Feedback from NHS primary care trusts was extremely positive and referrals extended across the whole of the UK.
However, that period of great accomplishment and acclaim quickly turned sour because of internal difficulties with a senior member of staff. I do not wish to inform the House of every sordid detail I have been shown, but the allegations range from theft to an extra-marital affair with another staff member, together with a range of other grievous matters. As a result there was an internal investigation, followed by disciplinary proceedings, which took place on
During this time, the staff member in question had decided to leave Chancellor Care to set up a rival facility to Cawston Park hospital. He had been found to be removing hospital property and recruiting Cawston Park staff to his new venture. A disciplinary hearing was duly set up by Mr Breeze, but the gentleman telephoned one hour before the hearing was due to take place to inform Mr Breeze that he was resigning without notice as he did not want a dismissal on his record when he applied to the Healthcare Commission for a licence to operate a rival facility.
Six weeks later, the Nursing and Midwifery Council wrote to the ex-employee to notify him that it was going to investigate the reasons surrounding his departure from Cawston Park. However, by not re-registering as a psychiatric nurse, which I understand he still has not done, he was able to prevent the NMC investigating further. Later that day he contacted the NHS Counter Fraud Service through its hotline to make what turned out to be malicious allegations.
A subsequent statement was made to NHS Counter Fraud by the female nurse who purportedly had personal relations with the ex-employee, which was considered to be an independent corroboration of the initial allegations. Contemporaneously, a patient had reported the ex-employee to the protection of vulnerable adults scheme, which is now under the auspices of the Independent Safeguarding Authority, for abusive behaviour towards patients. This might have served to illustrate further the character of the accuser.
What followed was a three-year investigation primarily involving three Government agencies and one private company, Lloyds Development Capital. More than 50 police officers were involved in a high-profile dawn raid, which I have learned today was leaked to the press. Some of them were drafted in from outside Norfolk. The defendants were interviewed three times for more than 20 hours. More than 80 witnesses were interviewed, some more than once, concluding in the commissioning of four expert witnesses and the production of four lengthy reports, most notably the Badcock report, whose author admitted that he was not an expert in the field.
NHS Counter Fraud worked on the case for six months before handing it over to the local police in July 2006. During that time, NHS Counter Fraud had concluded that fraud had occurred and Mr Breeze was subsequently charged with conspiracy to defraud the NHS of £2.3 million. The case alleged that the directors had charged the NHS for additional care that had never been provided.
Mr Breeze’s contention is that the police were misled by NHS Counter Fraud convincing them that a fraud had in fact taken place. His argument was as follows. First, in his meeting with NHS Counter Fraud on
As a result of those events, Mr Breeze and his solicitor, Richard Smyth, came to the conclusion that the police were constructing a case from poor evidence rather than trying to detect whether a crime had been committed. I must ask the Solicitor-General if that is how the system should function.
When Andrew Breeze met NHS Counter Fraud on
In the light of those connections, perhaps the police investigations might have discerned something amiss in the accusations at an early stage. When asked by Andrew Breeze why the NHS Counter Fraud team had not carried out basic and obvious lines of inquiry that would have clearly showed fraud was not taking place, its response was that it did not have the resources in place to do that. Mr Breeze had that meeting taped and is having it transcribed.
The police then investigated from July 2006 to February 2008, at which point Andrew Breeze was charged with conspiracy to defraud the NHS. The police now refuse to disclose their case summary, which was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service prior to the decision to charge Mr Breeze. His freedom of information request has been rejected.
What is of significant interest is the
“Computers relating to”
Mr. Breeze’s accuser
“appear not to have been examined…Norfolk Constabulary Computer Crime Unit have lost digital evidence from exhibits, which cannot be replaced. Norfolk Constabulary Computer Crime Unit supplied defective and incomplete digital evidence to the defence without verifying the integrity of the evidence on more than one occasion. The lack of key exhibits in this case makes it impossible for the defence to effectively investigate the claims of document falsification by BREEZE and WILSON.”
Does the Solicitor-General share my concern about the implications of those events?
The result was that Cawston Park’s financial backers, Lloyds Development Capital, exercised its increased rights under the terms of the management buy-out, which stated that, if allegations of fraud were brought to its attention, it then had the power to dismiss Andrew Breeze from his post of chief executive. It subsequently did so and brought in Lesley Reardon-Denton, someone who had no clinical experience in psychiatry, to run the business in Mr Breeze’s absence.
On the instructions of Lloyds Development Capital, Ms Reardon-Denton instigated an internal inquiry by bringing in what she described as an “independent” expert, Christopher Hird, to produce a report, which heavily criticised Mr Breeze’s management of Cawston Park and was used to dismiss him. It later transpired that Mr Hird was not independent, having been a long-standing employee of Lesley Reardon-Denton in a business of which she was chief executive in London. The prosecution subsequently ditched the report, when its independence was questioned, during the trial.
Lloyds’ resulting decision meant that Mr Breeze went on to lose his entire investment, which the police valued at £9.4m. That seems to me a grotesque injustice which is bound to deter other entrepreneurs.
A further point of note is the conduct of Zurich Insurance. Cawston Park had directors’ and officers’ liability insurance when it carried out the management buy-out. This was meant to cover all the legal costs if any member was accused of fraud. However, in a letter dated
“Given that the criminal wrong doing appears on any view to pre-date the retro date in the policy, our clients do not feel able to continue indemnifying defence costs.”
Mr Breeze was unable to fight this decision privately, as the police had frozen all his assets, thus not allowing him to pay for legal advice. Legal aid eventually took over, but at an estimated cost of £2 million. Should not legal aid be persuading Zurich to honour its policy and pay what is due? Should the taxpayer even be liable?
Trial proceedings began in April 2009, but before the prosecution could complete outlining their case, the judge brought the trial to a close because they could not offer sufficient evidence. In his closing speech, the judge made complimentary comments about Mr Breeze, including:
“You entered this courtroom on the 20th April as a clinician of exemplary character. You leave it vindicated with your good name intact and your head held high”,
“I hope that no professional or other obstacle will remain to hinder your early return to work in the field of psychiatric healthcare, should you wish to do so. You are a talented man with much still to offer your peers and patients.”
Regrettably, Cawston Park hospital never recovered from the investigations by NHS Counter Fraud and Norfolk constabulary. It finally went into administration, with the investigation process being cited as the reason for its closure. Despite the judge’s comments, Andrew Breeze has had obstacles put in his way that have prevented him returning to the field of psychiatric health care.
This tragic story touches on numerous legal, social and political issues that need to be addressed. They have potentially far-reaching implications for entrepreneurs, particularly with respect to the Government’s programme of health reform. The first issue is the role of the three organisations, which, although independent of each other, failed to carry out basic lines of inquiry. Although the CPS clearly stated that there was no evidence to support the allegations and that the case should never have reached the stage that it did, it continued to assert that there were five indications of dishonesty. A letter from the CPS to Mr Breeze concluded:
“1. There are some factors that indicate dishonesty, which include a body of witness evidence to show a lack of understanding or knowledge of extra care by staff that one would expect to be involved in administering that type of care;
2. Evidence of low staffing levels to give enhanced care;
3. No clear audit trail to show what a patient received to justify the extra charges made;
4. There doesn’t appear to be file notes on the patients' files to cover the extra care aspect of their treatment;
5. In addition, some patients were charged extra care premiums whilst away from Cawston Park.”
Mr Breeze argues that those assertions are based on inaccurate and incomplete information that was provided to the CPS by NHS Counter Fraud and subsequently to the police. The CPS refused to meet Mr Breeze to discuss the matter any further, and Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, stated that any further debate would not progress the matter, having written:
“Further correspondence from you which fails to raise fresh issues will be filed without response.”
Because of these rebuffs, regrettably, Mr Breeze’s reputation remains tarnished.
Furthermore, Norfolk constabulary and the Independent Police Complaints Commission have denied any wrongdoing, even though the judge ruled that the allegations against Mr Breeze and his hospital’s finance director were unfounded, and even though the judge said that they left court
“exonerated and as innocent men”.
Both public bodies appear to have failed to take into account the very significant losses, both financial and reputational, suffered by Mr Breeze. Contrary to the judgment, the two men have not been exonerated and remain condemned in the eyes of the bureaucracy.
The next organisation is NHS Counter Fraud. A Parliamentary question tabled by my hon. Friend Norman Lamb revealed that over the previous three-year period, NHS Counter Fraud cost £32.4 million to operate and uncovered £10.1 million of fraud. The operation of NHS Counter Fraud had cost the NHS £22.3 million net over three years, which seems ridiculous.
NHS Counter Fraud has met Andrew Breeze and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North, but has not satisfied either of them that it carried out a competent and comprehensive investigation into the allegations of fraud. Additionally, the NHS Counter Fraud investigation has placed another burden on the taxpayer indirectly, due to the savings that Cawston Park hospital was providing to the NHS year by year. Considering that NHS Counter Fraud was set up in 1998 to save the NHS money, it is ironic that its actions through the course of this case have cost the NHS millions of pounds.
I dread to hear the total amount that this debacle has cost the taxpayer. It is clear that the cost to Mr Breeze, his family and the other individuals arrested or brought to trial goes far beyond quantitative description. What should be noted is that Mr Breeze does not want taxpayer-funded compensation. Despite losing a fortune, he wishes simply to see his name restored and to prevent future travesties of justice. The only reason Mr Breeze would contemplate legal action is to obtain the documents he has consistently been refused in his attempt to clear his name.
The second key issue is that a disgruntled ex-employee, masquerading as a whistleblower, was able to destroy a business and a facility for severely mentally ill patients that had become recognised as a flagship hospital for their treatment. He did so with a financial interest in that outcome. Such episodes are likely to discourage and inhibit entrepreneurial individuals, partnerships, and businesses from embarking on new ventures. This is critical at a time of NHS reform and increasing need. Good entrepreneurs should be encouraged by the state, not permanently condemned and ruined on false charges.
I am deeply concerned that there is still the possibility that exactly the same thing could happen to other entrepreneurs. There have been no external reviews across the organisations concerned, so no lessons have been learned. The state has ruined a thriving business, along with the lives of several committed individuals who have been financially encumbered. There seems to be no mechanism to hold any of the relevant public bodies to account. Each organisation has held its own internal review. The police and NHS Counter Fraud stated that all protocol was followed correctly. The CPS admitted that mistakes were made and that this should never have happened.
For Andrew Breeze to clear his name, it must be acknowledged that the allegations against him were based on inaccurate and incomplete information. The court judgment that fraudulent behaviour was not occurring within Cawston Park must be affirmed. Indeed, it should be stated that dishonesty was never a factor in any of the business dealings within the organisation. My hon. Friends the Members for North Norfolk and for Norwich North and I wholeheartedly want Mr Breeze’s name to be cleared by the relevant public bodies. That is the bare minimum he deserves after this pantomime. It would perhaps at least enable him to start again.
I finish with some questions for the Solicitor-General. Will he establish an independent inquiry into the actions in concert of the CPS, NHS Counter Fraud and Norfolk constabulary? Will he further investigate the questionable actions of Lloyds Development Capital, which was directly responsible for the sacking of Mr Breeze and the demise of Cawston Park’s outstanding service to the community? Such an inquiry could create far safer conditions for the entrepreneurs we so desperately need today.
Will the Solicitor-General give an assurance that, after nearly four years, Mr Breeze will receive clarification, along with the documentation he has requested, from NHS Counter Fraud on its role in the fiasco? Will he convene with the CPS to establish Mr Breeze’s innocence in the matter? Will he ensure that any independent inquiry that is set up allows access to all the documentation that Mr Breeze has been requesting for the past two years, particularly the police case summary? Mr Breeze is still waiting for a report from the senior fraud lawyer at the CPS who carried out a review of its decision to charge him initially. He is concerned that, like the recently rejected police case summary, the CPS report will not be made available.
Finally, will the Solicitor-General work to eliminate this Kafkaesque tangle of bungling bureaucracy? The state has ruined a great business, along with its founder, and that should be remedied. More broadly, the state continues to threaten honest entrepreneurs. The instruments of the state should not be allowed to do that in future.