Jeremy Hunt has today ordered an investigation into the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s handling of the Morecambe Bay care scandal.
The NMC’s investigations are ongoing more than eight years after the first complaints.
HSJ has learned the Department of Health has, with the NMC’s agreement, asked the Professional Standards Authority, which oversees the work of professional regulators, to carry out an independent investigation following months of criticism of the watchdog.
It is understood the investigation will look at how the NMC has responded to concerns raised about midwives at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay Foundation Trust and the processes it has followed since.
A letter to the PSA chief executive Harry Cayton from Claire Armstrong, the DH’s deputy director for professional regulation, said: “In order to convey the greatest assurance of independence in such sensitive matter, the department and the NMC believe that the Professional Standards Authority, with its established role in legislation, is best placed to carry out such a review.
“I am therefore writing to you on behalf of the secretary of state to ask whether the authority would be willing to exercise its discretion under the NHS Reform and Health Care Professions Act 2002 and carry out an independent lessons learned review into the NMC’s handling of the Morecambe Bay midwife cases.”
Terms of reference for the review will be agreed with the PSA at a later date.
The NMC has still not completed all of the investigations into midwives linked to poor care at the trust, which was at the centre of an inquiry by Bill Kirkup in 2015. His report found failings at the trust led to the avoidable deaths of at least 11 babies and one mother at Furness General Hospital.
NMC chief executive Jackie Smith has acknowledged the regulator took too long to deal with the cases after it delayed decisions while other investigations took place.
However, the health secretary has stepped in to request the PSA carries out an independent investigation.
In a statement Mr Hunt said: “Given the NMC’s importance in ensuring high standards of care in nursing, health visiting and midwifery, this review will provide the public and the NMC itself with independent assurance that all the lessons from its handling of the events at Morecambe Bay have been learned and acted upon.”
The NMC has been criticised in recent months after it spent almost £240,000 employing a law firm to redact information after a routine Data Protection Act request from James Titcombe, whose son Joshua died as a result of failings at the trust in 2008.
The watchdog has also chosen not to release a report it commissioned examining its decisions over the fitness to practise of midwife Lindsey Biggs, who was involved in Joshua’s care but was allowed to continue working. She was sacked by the trust last year after another baby died. She was later struck off after an NMC panel found her conduct fell well below expected standards.
Last year the PSA called the NMC’s decision making “deficient” after two midwives were cleared of alleged misconduct linked to Joshua’s death. The panel was not presented with relevant evidence, which prompted Dr Kirkup to write to the DH criticising “lamentable failures” by the NMC.
The NMC has also faced rebuke for refusing to reveal allegations against registrants before they appear at fitness to practise panels. Critics said this approach was putting registrant’s reputation above the public interest in such cases.
Mr Titcombe said: “The NMC have badly failed families at Morecambe Bay and I firmly believe that had they acted appropriately, lives would have been saved. Sadly, over the past few years a pattern has emerged that shows an organisation with a poor culture, acting defensively to hide information and protect their own reputation, rather than being open and honest and showing a commitment to learn.
“The recent revelation that they spent £239,000 responding to a routine data protection request by instructing a top city law firm to redact the documents, demonstrates the crisis in leadership and culture that exists.
“I now hope that a full and comprehensive investigation will be carried out to get to the bottom of why the NMC have failed mothers and babies at Morecambe Bay so badly and to diagnose the cultural problems in the organisation that have allowed these recent events to happen.”
The NMC has been approached for comment.