Report “lends weight” to Morecambe Bay health trust cover-up claims, MPs say

Furness General Hospital, Barrow.
Furness General Hospital, Barrow.

An investigation into an alleged cover-up by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) at Morecambe Bay health trust did more than “raise issues”, MPs said today.

The Commons Health Committee said it was “regrettable” that a study by management consultants Grant Thornton gave weight to allegations that the CQC’s media manager had ordered a report into baby deaths not to be made public.

It did not agree with David Prior, chairman of the CQC, that the Grant Thornton report simply “raised issues” but said it agreed that the thrust of the study was that the CQC had been “unfit for purpose”.

The scandal over Morecambe Bay led to accusations that the CQC presided over a cover-up.

An independent report it commissioned from Grant Thornton concluded there was “persuasive evidence” that senior officials ordered an internal review into what happened at the trust - being investigated over deaths at Furness General Hospital’s maternity unit - to be deleted.

Former CQC boss Cynthia Bower, her former deputy Jill Finney and CQC media manager Anna Jefferson were named as the officials accused of covering up inspection failures at the Barrow hospital.

The CQC has admitted it was slow to identify failings at the trust but has said there was no evidence of a cover-up.

An internal investigation cleared Ms Jefferson of any wrongdoing.

The Grant Thornton report alleged that Ms Jefferson had been involved with the decision to cover up the report, claiming that she said “this can never be in the public domain nor subject to Freedom of Information (requests)”.

Today’s Health Committee report said: “Ms Jefferson, who was a media manager at that time, contested ever having made the remarks, arguing that her concern was that the internal report was not of a good enough standard and that an external party should review the registration of (the trust).

“In written evidence submitted to the committee in June 2013 she said that Grant Thornton had never put the quote to her in interview despite saying otherwise.

“Commenting on the implications of this sequence of events, David Prior told the committee that the CQC’s internal findings had not challenged the overall conclusions of the Grant Thornton report.

“Mr Prior said: ‘They (Grant Thornton) raised issues about the behaviour of certain individuals, which we looked at very carefully. They raised issues but did not come to a conclusion that anyone was guilty of this, that or the other. They raised issues. We checked those issues out very thoroughly through a disciplinary process and found that, in the case of Anna Jefferson, the allegations raised were not valid.’

“The committee does not find this argument convincing. The Grant Thornton report concluded that any attempt to withhold the internal report, even on the grounds that it was not of sufficient quality, could not be justified. As a result Grant Thornton concluded that there may have been an attempt to ‘cover up’ the internal report and that the evidence was persuasive.

“The Grant Thornton report, therefore, did more than simply raise issues: it sought to form conclusions based on the behaviour and actions of CQC staff.”

The committee said, however, it agreed with Mr Prior that the report’s thrust was that the whole organisation “and the regulatory system that (the CQC) was implementing, was completely unfit for purpose”.

It also noted there was no contemporaneous evidence in relation to the allegation against Ms Jefferson.

The MPs said: “In the light of this observation the committee regards it as regrettable that the Grant Thornton report appeared to lend weight to the allegation.”