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UK Politics

Andy Burnham denies pressuring CQC to tone down Morecambe Bay criticism

Former Labour health secretary says he 'was actively working to identify' problems at hospitals

Ex-ministers may be grilled by MPs over claims they put political pressure on the NHS watchdog to play down hospital scandals, it has emerged, as former health secretaries Andy Burnham and Andrew Lansley denied acting improperly in dealings with the regulator.

Health select committee member Dr Sarah Wollaston said that suggestions that officials in the CQC had been “leant on” by politicians was something that the Committee should explore.

“A number of people within the organisation like [former CQC chair] Lady Young do talk about feeling they’ve been leant on to not criticise hospitals,” she told The Independent. “I know Andy Burnham has denied that’s the case, but there are people that say that was the case…That is something that needs to be explored.”

Mr Burnham denied on Sunday that he had pressured the CQC to tone down negative reports in the run up to the 2010 election, and that he had “no recollection of discussions about Morecambe Bay” – the NHS Trust at the centre of CQC cover-up allegations, where as many as 16 babies died due to sub-standard care.

Meanwhile, former Conservative health secretary Andrew Lansley said he had not threatened to sack Kay Sheldon, a CQC board member who had come to him with concerns that the regulator was failing patients.

CQC chief executive David Behan and chair David Prior are due to appear before the health select committee this week or next, but there are growing calls for a wider inquiry into whether links between the NHS watchdog, senior NHS executives and politicians could have contributed to a culture of cover-up.

An independent report into the CQC’s handling of serious concerns about the University Hospitals Morecambe Bay NHS Trust said that the suppression of a damning internal report raised fears of a “broader on-going cover-up.”

The Sunday Telegraph said it had seen a cache of documents which revealed the CQC was intent on suppressing negative publicity and was under pressure from Labour ministers in the run-up to the 2010 election.

But Mr Burnham, who was health secretary in the Labour government between 2009 and 2010, said yesterday that he had “never said to the CQC: ‘don’t say that, do say the other.”

In further evidence of political involvement at the heart of CQC, it was also revealed that Andrew Lansley, the Conservative health secretary from 2010 to 2012, wrote to board member and whistleblower Kay Sheldon in March last year, warning that he was “considering her dismissal” from the CQC board.

Mr Lansley said on Sunday: "In relation to Kay Sheldon, the chair of the CQC wrote to me and requested that she should be suspended from the board. I invited a very senior personnel professional to inquire into those matters and she did that and reported back to me.

“Contrary to what she recommended I said that I would see Kay Sheldon, and I did, that I would give her an opportunity to comment, and she did, and I didn't remove her from the board.” He said his letter had not been a “threat”.

Dr Wollaston, Conservative MP for Totnes, said that she wanted to challenge the CQC’s leaders on their treatment of whistle-blowers like Kay Sheldon, and their over-reliance on performance data over thorough inspections and consultations with hospital staff.

“It’s in the nature of all organisations and certainly in the nature of government to preserve reputation,” she said. “When you are publishing data, the risk is people start gaming the system and the way that data is collected and presented.”