A Labour MP has written to Jeremy Hunt asking him to ensure the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman gives evidence to the investigation into the failings at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay.
The ombudsman has cited a “statutory bar” as preventing them from sharing information requested by the inquiry.
John Woodcock, MP for Barrow and Furness, sent a letter to the health secretary yesterday urging him to find a means to “allow the ombudsman to give evidence”.
The letter adds: “You will understand, I am sure, why the decision of the ombudsman not to provide evidence has caused significant distress to the families who lost loved ones.”
The chair of the inquiry, Bill Kirkup, previously told HSJ he wanted the freedom to investigate all bodies involved in the events at the trust, including the ombudsman.
The Morecambe Bay inquiry was launched by the government last year to investigate maternal and infant deaths at the trust between 2004 and 2008. These were highlighted in a campaign by James Titcombe, whose son Joshua died at the trust in 2008.
Mr Titcombe discovered the watchdog was refusing to share information with the investigation after submitting a freedom of information request to see correspondence between the inquiry and the ombudsman.
This brought to light a note summarising a telephone conversation between a PHSO casework manager and Oonagh McIntosh, secretary to the Morecambe Bay investigation.
According to the note, Ms McIntosh was told the ombudsman “would not be able to provide a lot of the information [the inquiry] had asked [for]… because of our statutory bar”.
The inquiry had requested all the correspondence held by the ombudsman regarding the standard of maternity and neonatal care at Morecambe Bay.
The information is significant because the watchdog initially declined to investigate complaints against NHS North West, the strategic health authority responsible for the trust.
An internal review by the PHSO later found the decision not to fully investigate the case did not “stand up to scrutiny”. Speaking to HSJ, Mr Titcombe said the ombudsman’s refusal to share the information was “disgusting”.
“They’re a public body, and this is an inquiry that wants to get to the truth. They’ve got a moral obligation I would have thought to cooperate with it fully.”
Mr Titcombe said he still had “every confidence” in Dr Kirkup’s inquiry, but that the participation of the ombudsman in the investigation needed to be “sorted out”.
A PHSO spokesperson said: “We have met with Dr Kirkup and have always said we will provide as much information as we possibly can within our legal constraints.
“The statutory bar exists to allow us to carry out thorough investigations in private, and to obtain information which can often be protected personal information such as individual medical records. We are required to protect the information we obtain and legislation places strict restrictions on further disclosure.”
The spokesman said the PHSO had “no discretion” to override the statutory bar.
In response to a question about whether the ombudsman would appear at the inquiry, the spokesman said it had not yet been asked to attend and was not “prepared to speculate”.