5 Apr 2012

NHS watchdog attacks abortion clinic checks

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s demand that abortion clinics be inspected at short notice cost £1m and led to hospital and care home inspections being cancelled, says the CQC.

In a letter to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) chairwoman said that demanding an investigation of abortion clinics at such short notice had a detrimental effect on the rest of the organisation’s work.

Because of the short notice inspections, 580 other inspections were not carried out and the total cost was £1m, said Dame Jo Williams.

Mr Lansley is reportedly “shocked” by the letter and said the CQC could have asked for more money from the government, but had not done so.

The government ordered an investigation at short notice in March into whether doctors at abortion clinics were breaking the law. Information obtained through a BBC freedom of information request shows that the CQC investigated around 300 clinics over three days, and found that around 50 may have been breaking the law.

The demand for abortion clinic checks followed a Daily Telegraph investigation into whether doctors were adhering to the law when signing off women’s abortions.

CQC’s resources diverted

“Such a request at short notice entails operation’s management time in planning the visits, cancelling pre-planned inspections as well as the compliance inspector’s time in carrying out the visits and drafting the reports,” wrote Ms Williams. The CQC, the NHS watchdog, inspects standards at hospitals, care homes, dentists and domestic care.

“Add to this the anticipated enforcement activity that will inevitably arise and it is clear that this has a considerable impact on our capacity to deliver our annual targets,” she added.

The CQC has been criticised for failing to flag up serious risks to patient care in a number of care homes and for failing to act on the concerns of a whistleblower in Bristol. The CQC’s former chief executive, Cynthia Bower, resigned in February after four years.

‘Chasing headlines’

The shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, said that Mr Lansley had acted disproportionately and that calling for spot checks at short notice gave the impression that the health secretary was “chasing headlines”.

He added that calling for an investigation was right, but that the way the health secretary did so raised questions about his motives.

“Just four days later [after ordering an immediate inspection]… the secretary of state communicated his – the – early findings to a newspaper before the inspection programme was complete and indeed before any statement had been made before parliament,” Mr Burnham told the BBC.

“And that gives the clear impression that Mr Lansley was chasing headlines rather than following due process, and indeed compromised the independence of the regulator.”

A Department of Health spokeswoman said that it was the CQC’s duty to uphold the law.

“The CQC was one of the organisations who warned us of this issue at the time, and agreed with us that a programme of inspections should take place as a proportionate response to the serious allegations being made,” she added.

“We would expect the CQC, like any good regulator, to be able to prioritise its inspections and are told that in this case they did so, so that no patients were placed at risk.”