Andrew Lansley and Andy Burnham deny CQC mishandling

  • 23 June 2013
  • From the section Health

Two former health secretaries have denied mishandling issues relating to scandal-hit English healthcare watchdog the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

Tory Andrew Lansley has denied Sunday Times claims he threatened to sack a CQC whistleblower who raised concerns.

Labour's Andy Burnham has denied claims he pressured the CQC to tone down its reports ahead of the 2010 election.

It comes after the CQC was accused of a cover-up over its response to deaths at Furness General Hospital in Cumbria.

The controversy stems from the deaths of babies and mothers from 2008 at the Morecambe Bay NHS Trust-run hospital and how they were investigated.

More than 30 families have now taken legal action against the hospital.

The trust was given a clean bill of health in 2010 by the CQC.

But an investigation by consultants Grant Thornton into how deaths and injuries had gone unnoticed found a CQC report into the trust remained unpublished because it was decided it was too critical of the regulator.

Grant Thornton concluded that "might well have constituted a deliberate cover-up" by the CQC employees who deemed it should not be made public.

'Appalling treatment'

The Sunday Times has accused Mr Lansley - health secretary from May 2010 to September 2012 - of threatening to fire whistleblower Kay Sheldon from the CQC board in March 2012 "despite specific laws to protect whistleblowers".

Last week non-executive director Ms Sheldon told a CQC meeting she had been treated in an "appalling" manner when she had previously tried to raise the alarm about the regulator's failings in dealing with problems at Furness.

House of Commons leader Mr Lansley told Sky News the chair of the board had written to him as health secretary last year and "requested that she should be suspended from the board".

"What was represented to me by the CQC was that... her position was one of not meeting the requirements of a member of the board and that the board itself was unable to do its work," he added.

He said he had "looked at it very carefully and the conclusion I reached was I shouldn't dismiss her from the board and I didn't do that and she had the protection under the Public Interest Disclosure Act and I recognised that".

Pushed on whether he threatened to dismiss Ms Sheldon, he said: "I said I was considering the question of her dismissal - it wasn't a threat."

The Sunday Telegraph, meanwhile, said it had seen a cache of documents "which detail a regulator apparently intent on suppressing negative publicity about the NHS, amid political pressure from then-Labour ministers and their advisers" ahead of the 2010 General Election.

And, on Saturday, Morecambe and Lunesdale's Tory MP David Morris wrote an open letter to Mr Burnham saying there were "serious questions" for Mr Burnham and Labour to answer over the cover-up scandal including "how much pressure did you put on the CQC to tone down its criticism of hospitals?"

'No recollection'

Mr Burnham, health secretary from June 2009 until Labour's general election defeat in May 2010, told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend it was significant that he sped up the introduction of a system for assessing and registering NHS hospitals while he was health secretary.

"That was intended to flush out any problems that there were in the hospital system," he said.

He added: "In that very clear way, it disproves the allegation I was trying to push away any bad news."

He earlier told Sky News' Murnaghan programme he had "no immediate recollection" of having conversations about the Morecambe Bay NHS Trust.

"I don't know whether concerns were raised as part of a more general meeting and I would have to review all the paperwork to provide that reassurance," he added.

"But I'm prepared to do that."

He said it was important to stress that "this cover-up, the deletion of the report, happened on this government's watch - not on our watch."

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