INTERNAL emails from the Care Quality Commission show that Labour tried to stop the watchdog from informing the public about failings at Basildon University Hospital, where patients were dying needlessly on filthy wards.
The dossier of emails, released under Freedom of Information, state that Andy Burnham, the then Health Secretary, was “furious” when “graphic details” of the care failings became public.
Separate emails suggest that Mike O’Brien, the former Labour minister of state for health, told the NHS watchdog that “anything you do is political” in the run up to the General Election.
Executives at the watchdog decided that “given the political environment” a report into standards of care across the country should be “largely positive”.
The emails were obtained by Stephen Barclay, a Conservative MP, after a four months of repeated requests.
He said: “Andy Burnham’s position is untenable. Labour was playing politics with an organisation which is supposed to be overseeing patient safety and he CQC’s failure to intervene meant that patients suffered appalling care.
“You cannot muzzle an independent regulator so that bad news is either not made public or presented in a more favourable light.”
Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, there was evidence of a “cover up” by Labour. Last week he announced that Care Quality Commission will be given full independence to protect it from political interference.
He said: ‘There is now a strong body of evidence that Labour Ministers leant on the hospital watchdog to cover up poor care, leaving hundreds of patients to suffer under a system that put political priorities first.
“The care of NHS patients is too important for political meddling, and our new legislation will make sure that ministers always put patients first.”
Labour was under intense pressure in 2009 after Gordon Brown abandoned plans to call an early election.
Damian McBride, Mr Brown’s spin doctor, has disclosed how he used spin, smears and lies to destroy the Prime Minister’s rivals.The NHS was one of the key battlegrounds.
In November 2009, an investigation by the Care Quality Commission found that dozens of patients died needlessly in filthy conditions at Basildon University Hospital.
However, at the time the watchdog’s website rated the trust as “good”, despite the fact managers had been concerned about safety issues at the hospital for more than six months.
Jill Finney, the then director of engagement at the Care Quality Commission, said in one of the emails: “We arguably sat on a highly sensitive safety issue for six months before informing patients and the public who believe they ‘have a right to know’.
“We knew that the Commission [the healthcare commission] had been looking at trust for a long time and that we had had concerns about poor care since May.”
The watchdog became aware that Dr Foster, an organisation which collates and analyses healthcare data, was due to publish figures in a national newspapers revealing persistently high death rates at Basildon.
The CQC prepared a press release to brief newspapers about care failings at the hospital, but was contacted by the Department of Health and told not to publish the information. The email states: “DH emailed the press team just after 1pm and asked us to stop the press release.”
By that stage, however, the regulator had already briefed three newspapers about the problems at the hospital.
When a report on the “graphic detail” of the appalling standards at the hospital was broadcast, Mr Burnham was said to be “furious”.
A Labour spokesman claimed that the emails were “the latest stage of an on-going Conservative Party smear campaign”.
He said: “These old, unfounded allegations have already been answered in full. No evidence has ever been produced to suggest anything other than that ministers acted properly at all times.
“The facts show that ministers did the precise opposite of what is alleged. When problems at Basildon and Thurrock hospital first emerged, Andy Burnham made a full statement to Parliament and ordered an in-depth investigation of every hospital in England to be completed before the General Election.
“Action was also taken to improve the internal running of the CQC. On Basildon, a CQC press officer briefed the media without authorisation and before the Department of Health was officially notified.
“This was a breach of established practice and left the Department unable to respond properly to the many enquiries it was receiving, from public and press, following reports on rolling news programmes.”
A CQC spokesperson said: “We welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of changes to the Care Bill that will assert CQC’s authority and independence. CQC is changing the way we inspect hospitals, with our new programme beginning last month. We can’t comment on emails sent some years ago between people who are no longer involved with CQC.”