Two respected mental health professionals have been spared jail after pleading guilty to fraudulently obtaining NHS funds for their charity, which provided training to primary care staff.
Lisa Hill, 55, of Stourbridge Road, Hagley, and Dr Ian Walton, 59, of Stourbridge Road, Wombourne, were investigated by NHS Protect after a tip-off from a colleague.
“Both their peers and the public will be dismayed”
They pleaded guilty in November to defrauding their former employer, Sandwell and West Birmingham Clinical Commissioning Group, of £153,600.
At the time of the offence, Ms Hill was a senior commissioning manager for mental health and a registered nurse, while Dr Walton was a GP and the CCG’s clinical lead for mental health.
Earlier this week, they were each given a suspended prison sentence and ordered to do 200 hours of unpaid work by a judge at Birmingham Crown Court.
In addition, they were told they must pay back the full amount of £153,600 in compensation – half each – within three months plus £7,500 each in prosecution costs.
The case involved the link between their posts at the CCG and their external roles. Both were trustees of a charity called Primary Care Mental Health and Education (PRIMHE), for which they delivered training in a private capacity.
In 2012, the former Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Primary Care Trust was in the process of being wound down ahead of the creation of the CCG that replaced it.
For a time, NHS Protect noted that commissioners could apply for special “innovations” funding for schemes that improved quality of service to the public, by submitting business cases.
“Patients and the public can be assured that we responded swiftly”
But in December 2012 – when the PCT was in effect the new CCG in shadow form – it was made known the innovations funding was no longer available as it was needed to ease winter pressures.
Despite knowing the funding had already been withdrawn, Ms Hill and Dr Walton falsely submitted an invoice for £153,600 to the CCG in the name of their PRIMHE charity, said NHS Protect.
The money was signed off in error by a senior member of the CCG’s finance department and arrived in the charity’s bank account.
Ms Hill and Dr Walton then transferred 95% of it to a bank account under their control, held by a company registered to them called Walton Hill Associates. But a colleague of Ms Hill suspected fraud and raised the alarm with senior staff.
NHS Protect’s subsequent investigation revealed the high professional reputation and good connections of Dr Walton and Ms Hill. The pair had negotiated contracts with Staffordshire University and Birmingham City University to get their training programmes accredited.
They had also sought accreditation from the Royal College of General Practitioners and were receiving payment as lecturers from Birmingham City because of their expertise in mental health.
Meanwhile, in 2012, while chair of the Black Country Local Commissioning Group, Dr Walton was named “clinical leader of the year” at the National Association of Primary Care Commissioning Visions Awards, presented by Practical Commissioning Magazine.
The awards “recognised the hard work of clinical commissioners, and what they have achieved through service redesign”.
Passing sentence on 20 December, judge Paul Farrer noted that the pair had used most of the money to train more than 50 GPs, but described their actions as “misguided” and “arrogant”.
“You allowed your passion for mental health services to override both your judgment and honesty,” he told them.
Sue Frith, managing director of NHS Protect, said: “Both their peers and the public will be dismayed by the criminality of Hill and Walton, who abused the high level of trust and respect they were once held in.
“The argument that some of the stolen money was constructively spent can never justify defrauding the NHS,” she said.
Respected nurse and GP fined after admitting fraud
Andy Williams, accountable officer for Sandwell and West Birmingham CCG, said: “We welcome the sentencing of former team members Lisa Hill and Dr Ian Walton.
“Patients and the public can be assured that we responded swiftly as soon as were made aware of the matter by an internal whistleblower,” he said.
“We undertook an immediate and exhaustive investigation with independent auditors and NHS Protect,” he said. “Both individuals were suspended during the investigation and their ability to influence public funds ceased.
“The CCG has taken the strongest action possible to prevent such fraudulent activity from ever happening again,” he added.