Boards of organisations providing NHS care which breach the government’s proposed new statutory duty of candour could face criminal prosecution.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced plans for the duty as part of his response to the Francis report on Tuesday, along with potential legal sanctions for organisations which “massage figures”.

The statutory duty of candour will require health and care providers registered by the Care Quality Commission to inform people “if they believe treatment or care has caused death or serious injury, and to provide an explanation”.

Mr Hunt said the government did not currently plan to create a duty of candour for individual staff because of concerns it could create a “culture of fear”. However, he said the issue would be revisited once a review on patient safety by US patient safety expert Don Berwick is completed in the summer. Professor Berwick is thought likely to oppose legal duties on staff.

Mr Hunt said: “We’re not letting managers off the hook, we’re bringing in criminal sanctions at board level. We’re not ruling out criminal sanctions below board level but we need to understand what the knock-on effects are and we need to get it right.”

Mr Hunt said the duty would be in place within two years. Introduced through the Care and Support Bill, it will be considered in Parliament later this year.

Speaking at a press conference to launch the response, Mr Hunt confirmed the intention was for breach of the duty to lead to criminal sanctions.

HSJ understands details of how the duty will be policed and enforced are still being considered, but the CQC is likely to play a leading role. Sanctions under the system are also still under discussion.

Corinne Slingo, healthcare regulatory partner at law firm DAC Beachcroft, told HSJ the announcement was an important step, but highlighted the lack of detail from the government about how it will operate in practice.

The government’s response to the Francis report also sets out plans for the chief inspector of hospitals to be able to identify “criminally negligent practice” in providers, and refer them for prosecution.

Ms Slingo told HSJ this was not “a major change in principal” from the current ability of the CQC and other regulators to make referrals for prosecution to the Health and Safety Executive. However, she said, in practice, the chief inspector would need to actively consider whether to make a criminal referral, which the CQC had previously not.

The government said it was also considering “additional legal sanctions at a corporate level” for trusts found to be manipulating information or concealing the truth about their performance or patient safety.

The report of Robert Francis QC’s public inquiry into failings at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust was published last month.

The introduction of the statutory duty of candour was widely welcomed.