Former executives responsible for a cover-up at the health watchdog could be stripped of their pensions, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested today.
Mr Hunt stressed that the Care Quality Commission must follow "due process" in determining what sanctions can be imposed, but said he would back the regulator "absolutely to the hilt" if it chose to take action against individuals, including some who have left the organisation.
The Health Secretary described the CQC's suppression of a report into its handling of a cluster of maternity deaths at a Cumbria hospital as "utterly shocking" and said that the way the regulator was set up in 2009 had been "a big mistake".
The Government is putting £40 million into reforming the Commission, to ensure that its inspections are conducted by experts and result in Ofsted-style reports which give confidence to the public about the standards at their local hospital, he said.
The former chief executive of the CQC Cynthia Bower, her then deputy Jill Finney were named yesterday as having been present during a discussion of the deletion of an internal review which criticised the regulator's inspections of University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust, as well as media manager Anna Jefferson, who is still at the Commission. Ms Bower and Ms Jefferson have denied being involved in a cover-up.
Asked what action should be taken against those responsible, Mr Hunt told a national radio station: "These are very, very serious allegations and they should have very, very serious consequences if they are proved.
"I know the CQC are looking into disciplinary procedures and what can be done, what sanctions are available, whether you can have forfeiture of pensions, all those things.
"There has to be due process, but... it is totally appalling that this kind of thing should happen. It's exactly what shouldn't be happening in our NHS. It lets down the millions of doctors and nurses who do an amazing job day in, day out, and we have to root it out."
Asked if he would back the current CQC in taking action which was legally justified against former employees, Mr Hunt replied: "Absolutely to the hilt."