NHS managers who publish false or misleading information could face up to two years in prison under new laws set to be confirmed by ministers this week, HSJ has learned.

The Department of Health has revealed it plans to lay regulations for the criminal offence as part of its response to the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust inquiry report.

The government is also set to reveal plans to fine hospitals £10,000 for each clinical negligence claim where they fail to be open and honest about significant clinical failings.

A new offence of providing false or misleading information was a key recommendation of Sir Robert Francis QC following the scandal at Stafford Hospital, where misleading and dishonest information was given to regulators and the public about the trust’s poor performance.

From April the government will make it a criminal offence for providers of NHS funded care to publish or submit to regulators false or misleading information. New fundamental standards of care will also come into force at that time.

Where an organisation is prosecuted under this offence, directors or other senior staff who may be found to have consented or conspired in the provision of false or misleading information can also be prosecuted, the DH has said.

Individual offenders will face unlimited fines or, in the most serious cases, up to two years in prison, or both.

Provider organisations will face unlimited fines and could be subject to a court order specifying a remedy, a publicity order or both.

The government said the new criminal offence will only be applied to the most serious cases where lives have been put at risk, and organisations will not be affected if they can demonstrate they took all reasonable steps and exercised due diligence.

It will only apply to information that is specified in the regulations and which the provider is under a legal obligation to supply.

Information specified in the regulations will include:

  • mortality data;
  • data submitted to the Health and Social Care Information Centre;
  • quality accounts;
  • complaints data;
  • cancer outcomes data as well as national cancer waiting times; and
  • a number of national audits including diabetes and maternity services.

Under plans to fine hospitals in relation to clinical negligence claims, the government said it will ensure trusts that have not been transparent will have to pay up to £10,000 to the NHS Litigation Authority.

It is part of the government’s aim to force NHS providers to be open and transparent about poor care and follows the duty of candour law that came into effect in November.

Under that legislation, providers must admit when a mistake that causes significant harm has occurred, investigate it and issue a written apology and report to the patient or their family. It will be extended to all CQC registered organisations in April and hospitals can be fined up to £2,500 for failing to meet the duty.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “Being open and learning from mistakes is crucial to improving patient care. The NHS is a world class health service, but when mistakes happen it is vital that we face them head on and learn so they are never repeated.

“This sends a strong message that covering up mistakes will not be tolerated.”