21 Jun 2013

CQC cover-up scandal: ‘It couldn’t be any worse’

The father of baby Joshua Titcombe, who died in hospital, tells Channel 4 News he felt physically sick on learning that Cynthia Bower ordered the CQC failings cover-up and calls for a wider inquiry.

It has taken five years for the truth to come out – five years since nine-day old baby Joshua died from a treatable infection at Furness hospital, part of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust.

But despite the recent report, questions still remain about what ministers and senior Department of Health officials knew about the failings and the cover-up, Joshua’s father, James Titcombe, told Channel 4 News.

“Without forensic examination of who knew what, and when, can we really have confidence that the culture has changed?” he said.

“That’s my concern. What about the wider [web of] people who had influence at the time, including ministers, including David Nicholson (NHS chief)?”

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) was on Wednesday found to have deliberately suppressed an internal review that highlighted weaknesses in its 2010 inspection of University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust.

CQC chief executive at the time, Cynthia Bower (below left), and her former deputy Jill Finney (below right), were eventually named as two of the three officials alleged to have ordered that the damning report be deleted, along with current media manager Anna Jefferson. All three deny they ordered the suppression of the report. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has since suggested that Ms Bower and Ms Finney, who have now left the CQC, could be stripped of their ample pensions if found to have been behind the cover-up.

It also emerged on Friday that Ms Bower and two officials had refused to take part in a police investigation into deaths at the hospital: up to 16 babies and two mothers are feared to have died because of poor care at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay Foundation Trust between 2001 and 2012.

Mid Staffs connection

Mr Titcombe told Channel 4 News: “I think it’s just disgraceful that the head of the organisation knew about failures and allowed it to be buried.

“It couldn’t be any worse. It physically made me ill.”

Ms Bower was formerly head of the West Midlands health authority, which was in charge of the now infamous Mid Staffordshire trust, and she was criticised for her failure to pick up on the trust’s high mortality rates in 2006.

Every organisation I contacted, it was always someone else’s response, right up to the secretary of state, who fired it back to the regulators. James Titcombe

The Grant Thornton report published this week claimed that Ms Finney ordered the author of the internal report – which was highly criticial of the CQC’s 2010 inspection that gave Morecambe Bay a clean bill of health – to delete it, adding “read my lips”. Ms Bower reportedly agreed with the instruction at a key private meeting in March 2012.

Ms Jefferson is quoted as saying: “Are you kidding me? This can never be in the public domain nor subject to FOI [a freedom of information request].”

Mr Hunt has praised the new CQC leadership for commissioning the Grant Thornton report, and has pledged £4m to help the CQC expand its remit.

Whistleblower Kay Sheldon was the first to raise concerns about failings at Furness maternity hospital. But when she lifted the lid on decision, she said she was herself investigated and another CQC board member, Dame Jo Williams, made her take a mental health assessment.

“From all the officials I’ve met in the past five years, she has actually done what the public would expect officials to do,” James Titcombe told Channel 4 News. “Everyone who sits on a board for these tax-paying organisations, needs to look in a mirror and ask themselves – would I have done what she had done?”

Ms Sheldon said she was subjected to “appalling” treatment, but has had no apology.

Mr Titcombe said this was “alarming” and added: “It calls into question what they’re saying publicly.”

‘Rotten system’

But Mr Titcombe said that the full truth has to come out before the regulatory body can move forward. In 2010, he wrote a letter to Andrew Lansley, who was health secretary at the time, but says that he heard nothing back.

“It felt like the system in place was deliberately set up to block people like me establishing the truth – to block accountability, and to block learning. [It was] a rotten system, ” he told Channel 4 News.

“Every organisation I contacted, it was always someone else’s response, right up to the secretary of state, who fired it back to the regulators.”

The CQC was established by Labour in 2008 under the health and social care act. It took over from three regulatory bodies, but with a smaller budget than was allocated to the three former bodies, and critics said it was given too broad a remit.

The Francis inquiry into the Mid-Staffordshire scandal was told by two whistleblowers in 2011, including Kay Sheldon, that there was a “culture of bullying” within the CQC and that inspectors were not trained to do the right job.

Mr Hunt told MPs this week that “it was fundamentally wrong [of Labour] to set up inspection regimes not being done by specialists: where the same person is inspecting a dental clinic, a slimming clinic, a hospital or a GP practice, perhaps in the same month.”

Among the many recommendations in the Francis report, was that insepctions are from now on carried out by officials who are specialists.