NHS chief 'should quit' over Morecambe Bay baby deaths

Health trusts boss, Mike Farrar, now under investigation for role in scandal as bereaved families demand he step down pending final report

One of the most senior officials in the NHS is under pressure to resign today after it emerged he is under investigation over his role in the Morecambe Bay baby deaths scandal.

Mike Farrar, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, was head of the North West Strategic Health Authority when a number of babies and mothers died at Morecambe Bay hospitals.

The Independent on Sunday can reveal the health service watchdog, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), is investigating a number of complaints by families against the NWSHA, known as NHS North West when Mr Farrar was in charge.

It is examining the way the authority under Mr Farrar responded to the deaths, how they were investigated, and the supervision of midwives at University Hospitals Morecambe Bay (UHMB), including Furness General Hospital in Barrow. The probe will look at Mr Farrar's own role in the response, prompting families to express concern that he remains in such a high-profile NHS post.

Last night, a spokesman for the NHS Confederation, which represents all NHS trusts, said: "The PHSO conducts over 400 investigations every year, including how complaints are handled by all NHS organisations. It is not standard practice for a chief executive to step down while the ombudsman is looking in to the handling of complaints."

However, in a Commons statement last week the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, called for a new climate of accountability following a damning report into Morecambe Bay, saying: "The whole truth must come out and individuals held to account."

James Titcombe, who has led the campaign to expose the truth of Morecambe Bay after the death of his nine-day-old son Joshua in 2008, said Mr Farrar should consider his position while the investigation was continuing, so that patients could have confidence in the NHS. Mr Titcombe said: "There was a failure, in my opinion, of the NWSHA in its duty with midwifery supervision. That was a serious failure that is being investigated [by the ombudsman]. The whole role of the SHA has been highlighted as dysfunctional. I think [Mr Farrar] should consider his position. He has always said the buck must stop with managers. But he has never taken responsibility for his role at the SHA."

The independent report by Grant Thornton, released last week, that exposed a cover-up by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) over the Morecambe Bay deaths, described how the SHA under Mr Farrar "allayed concerns" about an apparent pattern of "serious untoward incidents", or SUIs, including excess mortalities. The report said the SHA had told the CQC on 3 June 2009: "There were no clinical commonalities between the five maternity SUIs." The report also highlighted evidence the UHMB and the SHA had been "'economical' in sharing information with the CQC". It quoted a CQC memo saying: "SUI rates, trends or concerns are not routinely reported to [CQC] assessors within the North West."

Mr Farrar was SHA chief executive between 2006 and 2011, encompassing the scandal. He was appointed chief executive of the NHS Confederation in October 2011 on a salary thought to be about £200,000.

The formal ombudsman probe began last September. It is looking at four complaints from families about the SHA's role, including that it "failed to carry out adequately its functions … in relation to open and effective supervisory investigations of midwives following infant and in some cases maternal deaths".

A source said that Mr Farrar had already welcomed the announcement of a separate independent inquiry in to the failings of care at UHMB and would ensure all information from the SHA was made available. The source insisted the North West SHA carried out three reviews into failings of care over Joshua's death, adding: "As failings were identified in the initial investigation, Mike Farrar commissioned a root-and-branch review of this case in July 2010. In November 2010, the findings of that review were shared with the Titcombe family."

Professor John Ashton, former director of public health for Cumbria, said Mr Farrar and Sir David Henshaw, chairman of the North West SHA at the time of the scandal, both had questions to answer about their roles. He said: "When it came to the Morecambe Bay situation where there were increasing concerns about the weak management and failure to act, in the PCT we were increasingly pressing the SHA to intervene. But they wouldn't. We wasted several months because they wouldn't intervene. I think [Farrar and Henshaw] do have questions to answer about why they didn't support the PCT."

A Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman spokesman said last night: "We can confirm that we are investigating complaints about the North West Strategic Health Authority."

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