Patients have been left at risk as the country’s main health watchdog quango carried out 70 per cent fewer inspections in order to focus on bureaucracy MPs find.The Care Quality Commission was guilty of a “significant distortion” in its priorities as it concentrated on red tape rather than checking that hospitals and care homes were safe, according to the Health Select Committee.
The situation was made worse by the fact that almost 300 posts were unfilled at the regulator and it failed to make Government understand the difficulties it was facing in adding dentists to the professions it monitors.
A damning report accuses the CQC of responding “woefully” to a whistleblower who uncovered abuse of people with learning disabilities at a private hospital, and of only offering “out of date and unhelpful” information to the public.
The MPs also call on the watchdog to focus on the broader culture at hospitals and care homes, rather than individual failings in treatment, to make sure that complaints are not being suppressed.
Stephen Dorrell, the Health Secretary under John Major who now chairs the select committee, said: “In its review of the CQC, the Committee concluded that the organisation’s priorities became distorted by a statutory deadline for the registration of dentists and that this distortion led directly to a drop of 70 per cent in inspection activity during the second half of 2010-11 compared with the same period in the previous year.
“The primary causes of this distortion, which resulted in increased risk to patients, were the unrealistic statutory obligations imposed on the CQC.”
Rosie Cooper, a Labour member of the committee, said: “I was really disappointed that the CQC allowed itself to get trapped in the regulatory profess and that restricted its ability to carry out inspections, which left vulnerable people at risk.”
The CQC, which has a budget of more than £160 million, was formed in 2009 in a merger of three separate watchdogs for healthcare, mental health and social care, and set about registering thousands of NHS hospitals and care homes.
But it missed its target of registering 8,000 dentists by April because of its complex process and the deadline for putting GP practices on its books has been postponed for a year so it can catch up.
As a result of this focus on administration, the select committee says that CQC inspections to see if patients are being looked after safely fell by 70 per cent, from 6,840 between October 2009 and March 2010 to 2,008 in the following six months.
Meanwhile its number of job vacancies rose from 148 in June 2010 to 297 a year later, “a further cause for concern”, almost half of whom were the inspectors and registration assessors it needed the most.
The MPs said the watchdog should have argued its case to Government more persuasively and far sooner.
Caseloads for the CQC’s inspectors have risen from 50 to 62 organisations over the past year, and so many assessments are mere “box-ticking” exercises carried out from its offices.
After a nurse contacted the CQC to complain about abuse at Winterbourne View, its response was “woefully inadequate”. Calls from whistleblowers elsewhere increased after the scandal was exposed by Panorama but this could be “only the tip of the iceberg”.
The CQC has a website where patients and relatives can read reports on hospitals and care homes but in many cases they are “several years old” and contain “limited” information.