Hospital-level mortality rates were “around at that time” when Sir David Nicholson was chief executive of the heath authority overseeing the Mid Staffordshire Trust, the Department of Health has accepted to HSJ.

However, the DH said in a statement that hospital standardised mortality ratios were “not part of the set of indicators made available to Sir David as a [strategic health authority] chief executive in the routine performance management of trusts”.

During questioning at the Commons health committee last week Sir David, the NHS chief executive, told MPs he was not aware of and had never received information about hospital-level mortality rates during his tenure as chief executive in the West Midlands.

Sir David was chief executive of Shropshire and Staffordshire Strategic Health Authority, as well as two other neighbouring authorities, from 2005 to 2006, a time when the trust’s problems were beginning to emerge.

Asked by Valerie Vaz MP when he first became aware of the figures Sir David replied it was when he was appointed as chief executive of the NHS in 2006. He told the committee: “I had not come across Hospital Standardised Mortality Rates during my period at Shropshire and Staffordshire Health Authority, nor before that.

“I didn’t have access to that information when I was at Shropshire and Staffordshire.” Sir David later told MPs HSMRs were “not freely available” to strategic health authorities or the NHS during that period.

His comments were subequently challenged by Sir Brian Jarman, who led the development of HSMRs. He pointed out that the company Dr Foster, which we helped establish, first published HSMRs in its Good Hospital Guide since 2001. Sir Brian said the information was available to SHAs on the internet from 2004, and that West Midlands health authorities had accessed it many times from 2005.

HSJ asked the Department of Health for clarification on Sir David’s comments.

In a statement a spokesman said: “HSMRs were not part of the set of indicators made available to Sir David as an SHA chief executive in the routine performance management of trusts.

“Although around at that time, they were not yet established as an indicator of quality, as their usefulness or otherwise was still widely questioned within the clinical community.”