The bosses of the Care Quality Commission watchdog are to be summoned to Parliament to explain an alleged cover-up over a hospital where as many as 16 babies died.
The Commons health committee head Stephen Dorrell wants the CQC chief executive David Behan and the chairman David Prior to explain to MPs the watchdog's handling of the case.
Meanwhile the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt stressed today that the CQC must follow "due process" in determining what sanctions can be imposed, but said he would back the regulator "absolutely to the hilt" if it chose to take action against individuals, including some who have left the organisation.
He described the CQC's suppression of a report into its handling of a cluster of maternity deaths at a Cumbria hospital as "utterly shocking" and said that the way the regulator was set up in 2009 had been "a big mistake".
The Government is putting £40 million into reforming the Commission, to ensure that its inspections are conducted by experts and result in Ofsted-style reports which give confidence to the public about the standards at their local hospital, he said.
The news came today after it was revealed that two most senior members of the NHS regulator were at the centre of the alleged cover-up.
The former CQC chief executive, Cynthia Bower, and her deputy, Jill Finney, were at a meeting where the deletion of a damning internal report was discussed, the CQC admitted.
The report, which criticised the CQC's investigation of deaths on the maternity ward at the Furness General Hospital in Cumbria, was later suppressed within the organisation.
An independent inquiry had said that the suppression of the report “may constitute a broader and ongoing cover-up” within the CQC. However, the names of the individuals involved were initially redacted because the regulator had received legal advice that to name them would be in breach of the Data Protection Act.
Last night, the CQC revealed it had received correspondence from the solicitors of some of those referred to in Grant Thornton's report, in advance of its publication. The detail of that correspondence has not been disclosed. But earlier, Barrow and Furness MP John Woodcock said that the Government should consider covering the CQC's legal costs if those named as linked to the cover-up attempt to sue over the publication of the report.
The CQC dramatically reversed its decision after the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said there should be “no hiding place” for those involved and the Information Commissioner said that people could not hide behind the Act when there was an “overriding public interest”. In a letter to Mr Hunt, the current chief executive of the CQC, David Behan, and chairman David Prior, revealed that four people had attended the meeting in March 2012, where the so-called “Mr J Report” was discussed: Ms Bower, Ms Finney, CQC media manager Anna Jefferson, and head of regulatory risk and quality Louise Dineley - who compiled the critical report. In the meeting, Ms Dineley was “instructed” by Finney “to delete” her critical report, according to the independent review, commissioned by the CQC and released by management consultants Grant Thornton on Wednesday.
That instruction was “verbally supported” by Ms Bower and Ms Jefferson, Grant Thornton said. Ms Bower, who departed as chief executive of the CQC in September with a £1.35m pension pot, issued a statement. It read: “As Chief Executive of CQC the buck stops with me so I deeply regret any failings in the regulation of UHMB 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… As to finding that there may have been a cover-up of a negative report, I gave no instruction to delete any such report.
“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.” Following the revelations Ms Bower resigned from her current post as a non-executive trustee of the Skills for Health body.
Her deputy, Jill Finney, earned £145,000 a year before leaving in March. Tonight she was sacked from her new role at Nominet - the UK's internet structure body. The firm said the public scrutiny made it “impossible for her to continue”. She could not be reached for comment last night.
Ms Jefferson, who still works for the CQC as media manager, but is on maternity leave, is alleged to have said of the Mr J Report: “Are you kidding me? This can never be in a public domain nor subject to FoI [a Freedom of Information request].”
She denied making the statement and said she would “never have conspired to cover anything up”. Grant Thornton said they stood by “the validity and accuracy” of their report. Those involved may now face disciplinary action.
In their letter to Mr Hunt, Mr Prior and Mr Behan said: “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.”
The Health Secretary welcomed the publication of the names of those involved. “It's a sign that the NHS is changing,” Mr Hunt said. “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.”
However, his department faced questions about how much they knew about problems within the CQC. A whistleblower within the organisation, board member Kay Sheldon, said on Wednesday that she had taken her concerns to the then-Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, shortly before the report was allegedly suppressed in March 2012.
Labour MP John Woodcock, who has supported the families of patients who died at the University Hospitals Morecambe Bay Trust, said that the officials should never work in the health service again. “People found guilty of a cover-up that may have cost lives should never work in or around the NHS again and may be criminally liable,” he said. “Now public pressure has dragged the names out of the CQC we need a thorough but swift independent process to get to the bottom of whether they are indeed guilty of these appalling allegations.”
He also said that questions needed to be asked over how much the former Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, knew about wrongdoing at the CQC.
The shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham told The Independent: “This is a cover-up that happened on this government's watch. It has got serious questions to answer.”
A spokesman for Mr Lansley, now leader of the Commons, said he could not comment because health was no longer his -portfolio and “by custom” the Leader of the House did not comment on departmental matters.
A Department of Health spokesman said: “In March 2012 Kay Sheldon shared with the department correspondence she had sent to the CQC chair and senior management about their handling of her concerns on Morecambe Bay, to which the CQC chair responded and offered a discussion at the next board meeting. The CQC board was the appropriate forum to allow all members of the board to consider the issues and hold the organisation to account. In addition, Department of Health officials raised the issue with the CQC through our usual channels. The department again discussed Morecambe Bay with the CQC at a formal meeting in July 2012. At that meeting the new chief executive confirmed that the CQC had commissioned the report that was published yesterday.”
Profiles: CQC main players
Caroline Bower The former chief executive of the Care Quality Commission, Cynthia Bower announced her resignation from the regulator in February last year after a Department of Health report criticised the CQC. She received a £1.35m pension pot, having been in the post for four-and-a-half years on a salary of £204,000. She is alleged to have “verbally supported” the instruction to delete the damning internal report.
Jill Finney The former deputy chief executive of the CQC, is alleged to have to have made the instruction to delete the critical internal report, allegedly saying it was “an FoI risk”.
Anna Jefferson Media manager at the CQC, allegedly said of the report: “Are you kidding me? This can never be in a public domain nor subject to FoI [a Freedom of Information request]!”
Louise Dineley Head of regulatory risk and quality, who wrote the critical report, said she was put in “a very difficult position” by Ms Bower and Ms Finney and said they were asking her to do something she thought was “clearly wrong”.
Case study: ‘It embodies all that’s wrong with the NHS’
James Titcombe and his wife, Hoa, arrived at the Furness General Hospital at Morecambe Bay, Cumbria, on 27 October 2008. Their son, Joshua, was born that morning.
Nine days later, Mr Titcombe, a nuclear engineer from Barrow-in-Furness, watched his son die. Midwives and medical staff at Furness General failed to detect and monitor an infection, which became so serious that Joshua had to be transferred for intensive care at two different hospitals.
He died on 5 November. “We repeatedly asked why he didn’t need antibiotics and were reassured that he seemed fine and there was no reason to give them to him,” Mr Titcombe said.
He has led the campaign for a public inquiry into “serious systemic failures” at the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay Trust which manages Furness General. Today he called reports of a cover-up at the Care Quality Commission “shocking”. “It embodies everything wrong with the culture in the NHS,” he said.