The health watchdog's cover-up over a failure to investigate a series of baby deaths stretched all the way to the top of the organisation, it was revealed, as a former chief executive admitted "the buck stops with me".
The Care Quality Commission's former chief executive Cynthia Bower was present during a discussion of the deletion of an internal review which criticised the regulator's inspections of University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust, where a number of mothers and babies died, according to an independent review.
Bower, who today resigned from her current post as a non-executive trustee of the Skills for Health lobbying body, said that she "gave no instruction to delete" the internal review, but added that as the former boss of the healthcare watchdog: "The buck stops with me."
Bower's deputy, Jill Finney, and media manager Anna Jefferson were both also present when the deletion was discussed, a CQC spokesman said.
The women were named by CQC officials following pressure to identify those involved with the cover-up.
When the report was published yesterday, the names of those involved had been redacted - a move made after the CQC received legal advice suggesting that publishing the names could breach data protection laws.
But after receiving fresh advice, the watchdog decided to name those involved, a spokesman said.
Louise Dineley, the author of the internal review, told independent investigators that Finney had ordered the deletion of the report and Ms Bower and Jefferson had "verbally agreed".
Dineley, head of regulatory and risk quality at the CQC, claimed that Ms Finney said to her "read my lips" when she gave the instruction.
When Finney was interviewed by the authors of the latest report, she told them that Jefferson, who is a current employee at the regulator, said: "Are you kidding me? This can never be in a public domain nor subject to FoI (a Freedom of Information request)!"
Bower said: "As chief executive of CQC the buck stops with me so I deeply regret any failings in the regulation of UHMB (University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust) during my time in charge and any distress this has caused to relatives.
"We took steps to change our processes when these failings were identified and, although lessons were learned, I am not complacent and have no doubt that there is further room for improvement in the regulatory process.
"As to the finding that there may have been a cover-up of a negative report; I gave no instruction to delete any such report.
"I have no note or recollection of such instruction being given. Had I heard any such instruction I would have countermanded it.
"The report was, in fact, never deleted and indeed a copy was provided to Grant Thornton (the consultancy firm which undertook the independent review)."
Jefferson, who is still employed by the organisation, added: "This quote is completely untrue. I cannot imagine why my manager would have put these words in my mouth - and in fact she has since said she did not attribute this quote to me.
"On the basis that the quote is false, uncorroborated and has since been retracted, I am appalled that it appears in the report.
"The thought of what the families who have lost babies at this hospital have gone through is heartbreaking. I would never have conspired to cover up anything which could have led to a better understanding of what went wrong in the regulation of this hospital and I am devastated that I have been implicated in this way."