UK

Police To Investigate Health Regulator 'Cover-Up' Allegations In Morecambe Bay NHS

19/06/2013 20:39 BST
PA
File photo dated 23/04/12 of an NHS logo as hospitals, care homes and GPs could be judged against a new set of patient rights following a radical overhaul of standards to be announced by the health watchdog.

Police have been asked to launch an investigation into the allegations of a cover-up at the health regulator, it has emerged.

MP Tim Farron has written to the Metropolitan Police asking them to examine whether an offence has been committed.

The news comes after a damning report concluded that the Care Quality Commission (CQC) might have deliberately suppressed an internal review which highlighted weaknesses in its inspections of University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust.

In a letter to Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, wrote: "I believe this information that has come to light today could be prima facie evidence that an offence has been committed.

"I urge you to proceed with an investigation using the evidence available."

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the "whole truth" must come out about the incident.

The regulator has faced criticism for redacting the name of a senior manager who ordered the deletion of the internal review. The manager, known only as "Mr G", is accused of ordering an employee to suppress the report because it was "potentially damaging to the CQC's reputation", according to an independent review into the regulator's actions.

Earlier today the CQC said that it did not publish the name because it may breach the Data Protection Act.

But the data watchdog warned against hiding behind the Act to keep information out of the public domain.

Information Commissioner's Office deputy commissioner David Smith said: "The Data Protection Act does not specifically prevent people being named publicly, but instead talks about using information fairly and considering what expectations of confidentiality people may have had when providing their personal information.

"Put simply, patients would not expect sensitive information about their health to be disclosed in a public document, but there is no blanket ban preventing senior managers being held to account.

"The Care Quality Commission is well-placed to make a decision based on these factors, but it is important the Data Protection Act is not used as a barrier to keep information out of the public domain where there is an overriding public interest in disclosure."

Speaking in the House of Commons, Hunt said that the CQC had received legal advice that it would be against the law for them to release the names of the individuals held responsible for the cover-up.

"They are keen to have maximum transparency as soon as possible and they are looking in to how they can make sure that happens," he told MPs.

"There should be no anonymity, no hiding place, no opportunity to get off Scot free for anyone at all who was responsible for this."

Hunt said: "The whole truth must now come out and individuals must be held to account."

He said that David Prior, chairman of the CQC, will now consider whether individuals involved will face disciplinary action and other sanctions.

Concerns about the maternity unit at Furness General Hospital in Cumbria came to light in 2008, but the CQC gave the Morecambe Bay trust which runs the hospital a clean bill of health in 2010.

In March 2011, Cumbria Police launched an investigation into a cluster of maternity deaths at the trust.

Later that year an official at the CQC was tasked with reviewing the organisation's regulatory decisions for the trust.

But last year the official was ordered to delete the report of his findings by a senior manager because it was ''potentially damaging to the CQC's reputation'', according to the latest independent report.

The manager denies ordering his employee to suppress the information. But the authors of the report, from management consultants Grant Thornton, conclude that there is ''corroborative evidence'' there was an instruction to delete the internal review.

The authors wrote: "We have asked ourselves whether such an instruction to delete the report could be characterised as a 'cover-up' and we believe that it could."

The revelations were branded "deeply disturbing and appalling" by Downing Street.

Hunt said that the CQC failed in its fundamental duty and issued an apology on behalf of the Government and NHS to the families of those who died, including Joshua Titcombe who died at just nine days old at Furness General Hospital in 2008 after staff failed to spot and treat an infection.

"What happened at Morecambe Bay Hospital is, above all, a terrible personal tragedy for all of the families involved," he said.

"I want to apologise on behalf of the Government and the NHS for all the appalling suffering they have endured."

The families of those affected had to "work tirelessly to expose the truth" in the face of a culture of "defensiveness and secrecy" similar to that seen in the separate Mid-Staffordshire scandal, said the Health Secretary.

He added: "The whole truth must now come out and individuals must be held accountable for their actions."

The CQC admitted that the latest report revealed "just how poor" its oversight of the trust was in 2010.

"This is not the way things should have happened. It is not the way things will happen in the future," a spokesman said.

"The report shows how CQC provided false assurances to the public and to Monitor in 2010. We were slow to identify failings at the trust and then slow to take action. We should not have registered UHMB without conditions.

"We let people down, and we apologise for that."

The spokesman said that there was "no evidence of a systematic cover up" but said the alleged deletion of the report is "evidence of a failure of leadership within CQC and a dysfunctional relationship between the executive and the board".

He added: "There is evidence of a defensive, reactive and insular culture that resulted in behaviour that should never have happened."

Prior said: ''CQC's chief executive David Behan was absolutely right to commission an independent report into CQC's handling of the registration and subsequent monitoring of UHMB - and absolutely right to publish it in full.

''The publication draws a line in the sand for us. What happened in the past was wholly unacceptable. The report confirms our view that at a senior level the organisation was dysfunctional. The board and the senior executive team have been radically changed."

Prior said lawyers had blocked the release of the names but said the organisation would now "press that advice further".

Pressed on whether the people involved had committed a criminal offence, he told Channel 4 News: "I don't believe they have done a criminal act."

Prior said the board had "nearly completely changed" but admitted he could not give a "100% assurance" that there was no one left in the CQC who had been involved in bullying the whistle-blower.

He added: "When you have an organisation as dysfunctional as this one, where the culture was so rotten at the top, where the relationship between the top executive team and the board is so poisonous bad things happen, good people behave in a way that they would not normally behave in.

"Frankly, the responsibility for this lies right at the top of the organisation with the board, the chairman, the chief executive."