UK hospitals watchdog faces credibility crisis after scandal suppression

David Prior, the new chairman of the Care Quality Commission (CQC), yesterday said the public would have little confidence in the work of the hospitals watchdog with the force secretary being forced to apologise for a cover-up over a scandal-hit hospital where mothers and babies died because of poor care.

Prior was forced to make the sorry admission as an independent review revealed senior officials at the health watchdog suppressed a report that highlighted failings at the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust.

Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, apologised to the involved patients and families on behalf of the government. The trust is under investigation by the police over the deaths of eight mothers and babies.

Prior also admitted to the BBC that the CQC was ''not set up then, and we're not fully set up now, to investigate hospitals''.

Hunt told the Commons that the failings at Morecambe Bay had been ''a terrible personal tragedy for all the families involved''.

''A culture in the NHS had been allowed to develop where defensiveness and secrecy were put ahead of patient safety and care,'' he said. ''I want to... ensure this kind of cover-up never happens again.''

The Care Quality Commission stands accused in a report published yesterday of suppressing an internal review that pointed to critical weaknesses in its inspections, which may have cost the lives of mothers and babies.

Regulators deleted the review of their failure to act over concerns about University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust (UHMB), where the deaths of at least eight mothers and babies are under investigation by the police.

There had been accusations of the collusion of midwives to hide errors. Meanwhile, the trust, against which at least 30 civil negligence claims have been brought, would also be subject to an independent inquiry in public.

According to Prior, it was a ''shocking state of affairs'' and told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: ''I'm desperately sorry that this happened.''

Members of the CQC's board, appointed following the scandal coming to light, said they were shocked and angry at the findings of the report. They described the suppression of the internal review as an ''unacceptable'' and ''disgraceful'' cover-up.