The fallout from a cover-up by the health watchdog following a failure to investigate a series of baby deaths has continued as one official involved was sacked from her new job and another resigned. Cynthia Bower, former chief executive of the Care Quality Commission (CQC), resigned on Thursday from her post as a non-executive trustee of the Skills for Health lobbying body.
Her deputy, Jill Finney, was last night sacked as chief commercial officer by her employer Nominet, the internet organisation which runs the infrastructure for .uk internet domain names. Both women were 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.
Media manager Anna Jefferson was 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. Bower 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."
The names of those involved were redacted when the report was published on Wednesday, after the CQC received legal advice suggesting publishing the names could breach data protection laws. But following fresh advice the health regulator decided to name them, a spokesman said. Louise Dineley, the author of the internal review, told independent investigators that Finney ordered the deletion of the report and Bower and Jefferson "verbally agreed".
Dineley, head of regulatory and risk quality at the CQC, claimed that 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 Ms 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 on Thursday: "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."
But she denied giving any instruction to delete a negative report, and said a copy was provided to Grant Thornton, the consultancy firm which undertook the independent review. Jefferson, who is still employed by the CQC, said the quote attributed to her was "completely untrue", and that Ms Finney had since said she did not attribute it to her.
She said: "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." Finney also denied ordering the deletion of the review regarding University Hospital Morecambe Bay, saying: "I informed the Grant Thornton review team of the existence of the internal report at the time of their appointment to conduct their independent review - and ensured they had access to it from a member of my team, at the outset of the review - it is therefore disappointing that this appears to have been overlooked in their report."
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, including the death of Joshua Titcombe, who died at nine days old at Furness General Hospital in 2008 after staff failed to spot and treat an infection.
A tweet from a man claiming to be Joshua's father James said: "I feel utter disgust that Cynthia Bower has been implicated in the cover up. #shameful." In a letter to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, CQC leaders David Prior and David Behan said they had taken the decision to publish the names following fresh legal advice and consideration of comments from the Information Commissioner.
"In light of this further consideration we have come to the view that the overriding public interest in transparency and accountability gives us sufficient grounds to disclose the names of the individuals who were anonymised in the report," they wrote. There were four members of staff present when the discussion about deletion occurred: Cynthia Bower, former chief executive, Anna Jefferson, media manager, Jill Finney, former deputy chief executive, and Louise Dineley, head of regulatory risk and quality.
"Since the publication of the report we are seeking advice on whether there is any appropriate action that might be taken in relation to the named individuals and will keep you advised of this." Hunt said: "I'm very pleased the CQC has decided to publish the names of the people involved in this. It's a sign that the NHS is changing. There has been a history of cover-ups for many years but there has to be accountability within the NHS for people's actions when something goes wrong."
Behan apologised for initially withholding the names and admitted the organisation had got it wrong. He told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "There's a big debate about accountability in public services and no doubt ... some members of the public are disappointed, frustrated, perhaps even angry with the decision we took not to put people's names into the public domain. We did get it wrong and I apologise for that."
Finney's employer Nominet said in a statement last night: "The increasing public scrutiny over our CCO's former role at CQC has made it impossible for her to continue with her role and responsibilities at Nominet. With regret, we felt it necessary to terminate Jill Finney's employment with immediate effect. Finney will be paid one month's salary in lieu of notice."