A row erupted last night when the former chair of the Care Quality Commission rebutted Jeremy Hunt’s claim that she had been put under pressure to keep quiet about poor care by a Labour minister.
In his centrepiece Conservative party conference speech yesterday afternoon, the health secretary lambasted his Labour shadow Andy Burnham for “covering up” poor care during his time as health secretary.
In a passage about former CQC chair Baroness Young, Mr Hunt said: “Indeed the chair of the CQC talked of the pressure she was put under by a minister in that government not to speak out.
“That person, Barbara Young, is no Conservative – in fact she is a Labour peer. So even their own people felt desperately uncomfortable.
“To those Labour people who hated what was happening on their watch, I have this to say: you were right.”
However, Baroness Young, who is now chief executive of Diabetes UK, was in Manchester for the conference and responded to Mr Hunt’s claim at a debate held by the think tank Reform that evening.
What follows is a transcript of her argument with the health secretary.
Barbara Young: “I just want to put the record straight because within your speech today, Jeremy, particularly the press release that accompanied it, you continued to misrepresent my evidence to the Francis inquiry and to misrepresent that the situation the letter from Andy Burnham to me and I really am very angry about it.
“I have already written to you and the prime minister previously to point out the fact that the way that you are abusing my evidence to the Francis inquiry in a partial manner misrepresents entirely the situation that existed at that time.
“I think it’s unfortunate that you’ve used a partial quote from me to imply that the CQC was pressurised into concealing this because it simply was not the case. If I was pressurised at all either politicians or by civil servants it was about the process by which CQC went about its regulatory work. At no point was I ever asked to or indeed did tone down the evidence. I really do find it very unsatisfactory on a number of counts that this continues to be pedalled in public and in newspapers. I’m not sure what it is that you don’t understand about me saying I was never put under pressure to subdue the findings of the CQC as a regulator.
“The most distressing part of this is that we are constantly harking back to what the political classes were doing rather than looking forward and giving CQC and others involved in healthcare as much support as possible in improving and building on the problems of health systems rather than constantly undermining the work that was done in the past.”
Jeremy Hunt: “I really do need to respond to that. Do you have the words that you said under oath to the Francis inquiry?”
BY: “I have a full copy of the Francis inquiry.”
JH: “Will you read out the words you said to Francis inquiry.”
BY: “It will take me 10 minutes… This was a letter I wrote…”
JH: “No - the words you said to the Francis inquiry. What you said, if I recall, and I’m paraphrasing as I don’t have the exact transcript in front of me, is that the government was uncomfortable about us speaking out and the politics became more difficult when Andy Burnham became health secretary.”
BY: “I’m afraid you’ve been misled as to the context to my evidence…”
JH: “You wrote a letter to David Cameron afterwards when…”
BY: “My evidence went on to say that any pressure was more often from the civil service and NHS management rather than ministers and was primarily and I here quote…”
JH: “So you’re talking about how you explain your evidence to the Francis inquiry, aren’t you…”
BY: “This is a quote from my Francis inquiry evidence. This is a real quote…”
JH: “So was there pressure from civil servants…”
BY: [raised voice] “Because…”
[Inaudible due to both speaking at once]
BY: “I was paraphrasing the best bit about the pressure coming from civil servants rather than ministers and I’m now quoting ‘it was primarily because what we wanted to do (ie our regulatory processes) not so much what we wanted to say because I don’t think we were really under a lot of pressure not to say things’. That cannot be clearer, that was from my Francis evidence a long, long time before this hoo-ha arose.”
JH: “First of all I think it was deeply wrong that you should have been under pressure from civil servants, who are under the orders of ministers, in terms of what you do in connection to the whistleblowing issue.
“Secondly, I would just say this this. It wasn’t just what you said - it was what Roger Davidson, who was the head of media at the CQC, said, that the department felt uncomfortable with any bad news coming out. It was what Heather Wood [a former investigations manager] at the Healthcare Commission said, that the Healthcare Commission essentially danced the tune of the Department of Health. The picture you get is of a culture where everyone was considered to be part of the same gallery with the same objectives and was expected to walk in step together. What I say is we need to give CQC independence to speak out without fear of failure without any sense that they are going to need to make sure that ministers are happy about what they are saying even if what they are saying ends up being very embarrassing for ministers because that’s the way we avoid problems like Mid Staffs where people didn’t speak out and pass it on.” [Applause]
BY: “I have to say that is absolutely the way the CQC behaved at the time under my stewardship and I take great exception if anybody implies that was not the case.”
Shortly after this Baroness Young left the room saying she was likely to suffer an aneurysm if she stayed any longer.