PERFORMANCE: NHS North West is facing formal investigation over allegations that it failed to respond adequately to a series of infant and maternal deaths at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay Foundation Trust, HSJ understands.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s investigation is expected to consider collectively three separate but similar complaints about the strategic health authority’s work as a local supervisory authority for midwives.

A letter to one of the complainants from the watchdog’s office last month states that it proposes to formally investigate their “complaints that the SHA failed to carry out adequately its functions… in relation to open and effective supervisory investigations of midwives following infant and in some cases maternal deaths” at UHMB’s Furness General Hospital.

These deaths occurred in February 2004 and during 2008. Last year Morecambe Bay became embroiled in scandal when regulators the Care Quality Commission and Monitor discovered there were still major problems its maternity services, despite their having granted it a clean bill of health and foundation trust status in 2010.

The ombudsman’s letter, seen by HSJ, adds: “You have each told us that as a result of [the SHA’s alleged failures] you have each suffered distress that lessons have not been learnt and that opportunities were missed to improve the midwifery service at the trust.”

During much of the period covered by the proposed investigation Sir David Henshaw was chairman of the SHA. This year he was installed as chairman of Morecambe Bay by FT regulator Monitor, as part of its effort to improve leadership at the trust.

Responding to the ombudsman’s move, Sir David told HSJ: “I welcome any further investigation into the reasons why Morecambe Bay got into the problems it did.”

The CQC this week announced that its August 2012 inspections of Morecambe Bay’s maternity services had found they were now meeting all the essential quality and safety standards inspected.

One complainant whose case will be considered in the ombudsman’s investigation is James Titcombe, whose son died after birth at the trust in 2008. It had previously declined to investigate his complaints against NHS North West, but an external review concluded earlier this year that the watchdog’s justification did not “stand up to scrutiny”.

However, Mr Titcombe told HSJ that this latest reversal underlined the case for a public inquiry into the Morecambe Bay scandal. Monitor has already published an external review of its decision to grant the trust FT status, and the CQC has commissioned a review of its own role. Mr Titcombe said: “Surely what’s needed is an overall investigation to look at how all these different bodies worked together – or didn’t work together.”

A spokeswoman for NHS North West said it was “aware of these complaints” and was “working with the ombudsman office”.