The BBC reported today that England’s NHS regulator is to review a decision not to name those behind a possible “cover-up” after a series of baby deaths at a Cumbria hospital.
A review of the Care Quality Commission (CQC) response to complaints about the Furness General Hospital deaths found a manager may have ordered the deletion of a report critical of the regulator.
The individual denies the allegations.
CQC chief executive David Behan said it was reviewing legal advice not to reveal the names of those involved.
He said the CQC would now see if they could be “put into the public domain”.
It follows growing pressure to publicly name those involved.
Information Commissioner Christopher Graham told the BBC that senior managers could not “hide behind the Data Protection Act”.
More than 30 families have taken legal action against the hospital in relation to baby and maternal deaths and injuries from 2008.
Consultants Grant Thornton were asked by the health regulator to investigate its own failure to spot the problems: in 2010, Morecambe Bay NHS Trust, which ran the hospital, had been given a clean bill of health.
Grant Thornton found that, a year after this, with more concerns emerging, an internal review had been ordered into how the problems had gone unnoticed.
In March 2012 it was decided the findings should not be made public because the review was highly critical of the regulator.
That order is said to have come from a senior manager who has not been named and who denies the allegations.
The latest report said this “might well have constituted a deliberate cover-up”.
On Thursday, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that was “completely unacceptable” and that there should be “no anonymity, no hiding place, no opportunity to get off Scot-free for anyone at all who was responsible for this”.
Information Commissioner Mr Graham told BBC Breakfast: “What appeared to be going on yesterday was a sort of general duck-out saying ‘oh, data protection, sorry can’t help you’ – that’s all too common and in this case it certainly looked as if data protection really wasn’t the issue.”
He said he could not order the CQC to reverse its decision but said he was glad it was looking at the issue.
“So far as the Data Protection Act is concerned, we all have a right to the protection of our personal privacy but if you are a senior official then there are issues about the point at which your privacy is set aside because of over-riding public interest. That’s really the issue at stake here,” he said.
Its chief executive, Mr Behan, said he had been advised that “to put people’s personal data [into the report] would be a breach of their rights”.
“I was acting on the legal advice I was given, I acted in good faith,” he told Newsnight.
He said he had “listened to what the information commissioner has said”.
He added: “We’ve decided today that we will review that legal advice and we’ve commissioned a review of that legal advice to see if we can put this information into the public domain.”
Meanwhile, a former director of public health at NHS Cumbria, Dr John Ashton, he had “seen a letter from someone at the CQC encouraging police not to pursue [the activity of the CQC]” and that “it didn’t merit investigation”.
He added the names should be made public, saying: “the public has a right to know what goes on in public funded services.”
He also suggested if wrongdoing was proved there should be prosecutions.
In a statement to the House of Commons on Wednesday, Jeremy Hunt said the CQC was already introducing a tougher inspection regime and had just appointed a chief inspector of hospitals.
He added: “What happened at Morecambe Bay is, above, all a terrible personal tragedy for all the families involved.
“I want to apologise on behalf of the government and the NHS for all the appalling suffering they have endured.”
The CQC has said it is “desperately sorry this has happened” and said publication “draws a line in the sand for us”.
The publication of Wednesday’s report comes four months after a public inquiry into the failings at another hospital – Stafford – criticised the culture of the NHS as more concerned with protecting “corporate self-interest” than patient care.
Mr Hunt told MPs the government was introducing measures to make the NHS more transparent, including a duty of candour to compel the health service to be open and honest about mistakes.