Health secretary attacked over move to call in regulator of NHS trusts

Andy Burnham was yesterday accused of undermining the principle of the government’s health service reforms – by the NHS itself.

The health secretary wants powers formally to ask Monitor, which regulates foundation trusts, to intervene when one of the hospitals hits the headlines for the wrong reasons. NHS bodies said that would threaten the regulator’s independence.

The move follows the discovery that mistakes in emergency care at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital had caused hundreds of unnecessary deaths.

Mr Burnham is proposing that the health secretary should be able legally to ask the regulator to act where there is “demonstrable poor quality, demonstrable poor governance or a failure of leadership”.

But Sue Slipman, director of the Foundation Trust Network, said the issues on which ministers could intervene were far too widely drawn. They threatened an important settlement of the NHS reforms, she said – that foundation trusts would be free-standing organisations, regulated independently, and no longer subject to direction by the secretary of state.

The proposals were “second guessing Monitor”, she said, and could mean the health secretary intervening “every time there was a negative story in the newspapers”.

Yesterday, the NHS Confederation, which represents all health authorities and trusts, reinforced her argument, saying the proposals were “unnecessary” and threatened a repeat of the 1990s, when similar freedoms given to ordinary NHS trusts were steadily clawed back by the Department of Health.

Nigel Edwards, the confederation’s director of policy, said: “It is not clear that this is necessary.” If the quality of care were at issue, the new healthcare inspector, the Care Quality Commission, had the power to close services, which would trigger action by Monitor, he said. He also pointed out that Mid-Staffordshire had been dealt with effectively by Monitor, which replaced the trust’s leadership.

“This can be seen as a symbolic first step to reclaiming the freedoms and independence that were bestowed on foundation trusts,” he said. It was “against the whole spirit of the existing legislation”.

The health department insisted the new powers would be used “rarely” and in “exceptional circumstances”. But Mr Edwards said having them would put ministers under pressure to act “and the definition of exceptional will become looser and broader”.

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