Isabel Oakeshott: Vicky Pryce double-crossed me

The Sunday Times journalist reveals her side of the discussions which led to the conviction of Chris Huhne and his ex-wife for perverting the course of justice.

Isabel Oakeshott, the Sunday Times journalist who convinced Vicky Pryce to go on the record about taking Chris Huhne's speeding points, has today published her side of the story. 

Oakeshott advised Pryce to record her ex-husband discussing the points, and their lengthy email correspondence was revealed in the trial which saw Pryce convicted of perverting the course of justice. 

The email trail (which can be read in full here) is a must-read for press commentators and journalism students. It provides a rare real-life example of a senior journalist negotiating with a reluctant source to agree to publication.

Oakeshott's piece in the News Review (£) adds some fascinating detail. She was clearly well aware of Pryce's motivation in speaking to her:

It was now clear to me that Vicky had an agenda: she was out to get Chris Huhne. She didn’t need to spell it out: her willingness to show me confidential documents that mighthave revealed something compromising showed she wanted to do him damage. The more he compounded her misery by trying to pare down her divorce settlement, the more dangerous to him she was becoming.

In the emails, Pryce writes: "I just want the story out there so he has to resign." Both she and Oakeshott refer regularly to the story bringing Huhne down, or proving "fatal".

Initially, Oakeshott had convinced Pryce not to go to the Mail on Sunday, which had been chasing the story. In the emails, she refers to it as a "fairly downmarket" newspaper, and says it would seem "tawdry" to go there. She argues it would look mercenary for Pryce to accept money for the story: a reason to go with the Sunday Times, which would not pay her.

After the first story Oakeshott had negotiated with Pryce appeared in the Sunday Times - a piece which referred only to "someone" taking Huhne's points - Pryce suddenly drops out of contact with the journalist. 

That weekend I found out why: she had double-crossed me. While I was busy protecting her identity, she had been busy revealing all to a rival newspaper, The Mail on Sunday.

In Oakeshott's view, dallying with both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers was part of what led to Pryce's downfall. She had tried to get Pryce to agree to a follow-up in the Sunday Times, telling her: "I need your help. Please don't tell me what I can't write. Tell me what I CAN write."

The other controversial aspect of the case tackled by Oakeshott in her piece is News International's decision to hand over the "confidential" agreement Pryce had signed to the court, along with copies of their emails.

Handing over lengthy private email correspondence between myself and Vicky was an entirely different matter, however. I was horrified when it was requested by the police. While I do not believe those messages contained anything unprofessional, I would have chosen every word carefully if I’d known it would be for public consumption. The Sunday Times put up a vigorous fight in court. But eventually we were forced by a judge to give up the correspondence, along with copies of our written agreement with Vicky.

That decision will keep journalism ethics classes in material for years. Should Oakeshott and the Sunday Times have refused to reveal their source? Or was the public interest greater in them revealing it, and both Huhne and Pryce being convicted of their crime?

Vicky Pryce. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
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The NHS's sustainability is under threat if more isn't done to look after its staff

More work is needed to develop the health service's most precious resource.

As the NHS nears its 70th anniversary, the time is ripe for a workforce rescue plan. Staffing worries, even more than funding pressures, are the biggest cause of concern for NHS trust leaders. There are not enough trained health workers in the UK to meet today’s needs, let alone those of the future.

Demands on hospitals, mental health and community trusts, and ambulance services are growing. More patients need treatment. Increasingly, they require complex care, with specialist expertise. This is not just about numbers. We need a clinical workforce that is skilled and equipped to work in new ways to deal with the changing needs of the population it serves. 

That means improving the supply of people coming to work for the NHS, and doing more to develop and motivate them so they want to stay. These problems are not new but the scale of the challenge has reached a tipping point which threatens the future sustainability of the NHS.

Ministers rightly point out that the NHS in England has more clinical staff than ever before, but numbers have not kept pace with rising demand. The official "shortfall rate" for nurses and midwives across England is close to 10 per cent, and in some places significantly higher. Part of this is down to the recognition, after the events at troubled health trust Mid Staffordshire, of the importance of safe staffing levels. Yet for successive years during the coalition government, the number of nurse training recruits fell.

Far from being a problem just for hospitals, there are major nursing shortages in mental health and community trusts. Between 2009 and 2016 the number of district nurses employed by the NHS in England fell by more than 40 per cent. Just as the health service tries to accelerate plans for more treatment closer to home, in key parts of the workforce the necessary resources are shrinking.

There are also worrying gaps in the supply of doctors. Even as the NHS gears up for what may prove to be its toughest winter yet, we see worrying shortfalls in A&E consultants. The health service is rightly committed to putting mental health on an equal footing with physical health. But many trusts are struggling to fill psychiatry posts. And we do not have enough GPs.

A key part of the problem is retention. Since 2010/11 there has been a worrying rise in “leaver rates” among nurses, midwives, ambulance staff and scientific technical staff. Many blame the pressures of workload, low staffing levels and disillusionment with the quality of care. Seventy per cent of NHS staff stay on for extra hours. Well over a third say they have felt unwell in the past year because of work-related stress.

Add in cuts to real basic pay, year after year, and it is hardly surprising that some are looking to other opportunities and careers outside the public sector. We need a strategy to end pay restraint in the NHS.

There is also a worrying demographic challenge. Almost one in three qualified nurses, midwives and health visitors is aged 50 or older. One in five GPs is at least 55. We have to give them reasons to stay.

NHS trusts have made important strides in engaging with their workforce. Staff ratings on being able to report concerns, feeling trusted to do their jobs, and being able to suggest improvements are encouraging. But there are still cultural problems – for example around discrimination and bullying – which must be addressed locally and nationally.

The NHS can no longer be sure that overseas recruits will step in to fill workforce gaps. In the early 2000s many trusts looked beyond Europe to meet nursing shortages. More recently, as tougher immigration and language rules took hold, a growing proportion came from the EU – though not enough to plug the gap.

Now we have all the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. We need urgent clarity on the status of current EU nationals working in the health and care systems. And we must recognise that for the foreseeable future, NHS trusts will need support to recruit and retain staff from overseas. The government says it will improve the home-grown supply, but that will clearly take time.

These problems have developed in plain sight. But leadership on this has been muddled or trumped by worries over funding. Responsibility for NHS workforce strategy is disjointed. We need a co-ordinated, realistic, long-term strategy to ensure that frontline organisations have the right number of staff with the right skills in the right place to deliver high quality care.

We must act now. This year's long-delayed workforce plan – to be published soon by Health Education England – could be a good place to start. But what we need is a more fundamental approach – with a clear vision of how the NHS must develop its workforce to meet these challenges, and a commitment to make it happen. 

Saffron Cordery is the director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers