The Care Quality Commission asked health secretary Andrew Lansley to sack CQC board member Kay Sheldon on the day she gave highly critical evidence about the regulator’s leadership to a public inquiry, a Labour peer has claimed.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath said he understood CQC chair Jo Williams had written to Lansley to “invite him to use his powers under the Health and Social Care Act 2008 to remove Ms Sheldon from the CQC board on the basis that there was an irretrievable breakdown of trust and working relationships”.
Hunt said that there “has to be a suspicion” that Williams’ alleged call to remove Sheldon was “because she had the courage to give evidence” to the public inquiry into the monitoring of Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust in relation to excessive mortality rates at Stafford Hospital. Williams’ alleged letter coincided with Sheldon’s appearance before the inquiry, Hunt told the House of Lords yesterday
The Department of Health and the CQC have declined to comment on the claims.
In her evidence to the inquiry in November 2011, Sheldon said CQC’s board was unable to perform its role in holding chief executive Cynthia Bower and other executives to account because board members’ concerns were “sidestepped”, and they received “little useful information” on CQC performance. She called for Bower to go, was highly critical of Williams’ role as chair and said she had raised concerns internally but “to no avail”. In its response to Sheldon’s evidence, the CQC rejected her claims.
Lansley then appointed former senior civil Gill Rider to conduct a review into Sheldon’s claims. Though it has not been published, Hunt said he understood that the Rider review concluded that “the public airing of concerns by Ms Sheldon caused a fundamental breakdown of trusting relationships between Ms Sheldon and the other members of the board”. She concluded that Lansley should accede to Williams’ request to remove Sheldon.
However, Sheldon remains on the board, and Hunt said he understood that Lansley had written to her, asking her to respond to the Rider review.
Hunt pointed to the fact that a DH performance and capability into the CQC, published in February 2012, had gone some way to endorsing Sheldon’s criticisms, saying accountabilities were unclear and that the board had only recently started taking on a “stronger role in constructively challenging the executive team”. Bower resigned on the day of the DH’s review publication.
“My argument would be that, in those circumstances, surely Ms Sheldon should not be penalised for taking her concerns to the [Mid-Staffordshire] inquiry, having already raised them at the CQC, the department and the National Audit Office and feeling that they were not dealt with effectively,” said Hunt.
“It is very important that whistleblowing should be supported. I use this opportunity to make it clear to the minister that the decision of the secretary of state in relation to Ms Sheldon will have a profound effect on whistleblowing generally within the National Health Service. I urge a great deal of sensitivity when it comes to making any such decision.”
Responding to Hunt yesterday, health minister Earl Howe said: “I hope that he will understand that I do not want to comment on the position of individual members of the board, but I assure him that the department is committed to ensuring that the board of the CQC functions well and is effective.”