Motion to Consider
My Lords, before I go into the detail of the regulations, I will briefly set out the background for why this offence was set in statute and why the regulations are required.
The report of the Francis inquiry into the events at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust made clear the need for clear and reliable information about the quality of care and organisational performance. The inquiry found that inaccurate statistics about mortality rates obscure the true picture of care and can allow poor care to continue unchecked. The creation of a culture of openness and honesty is vital in improving care in the NHS and in empowering staff to challenge poor care where and when it occurs, and this Government have taken great strides to ensure that this is the case.
The provision of accurate information is central to the safe functioning of the NHS. It provides the intelligence on which commissioners and regulators form judgments about the quality of care. Where that information is wrong, it can result in delays in taking action to protect patients and service users. Deliberately falsifying such information is a serious matter that can frustrate attempts to provide safe care for patients and service users.
Care providers, which are directly responsible for the standard of services, have a clear responsibility to ensure that the information they supply is accurate and gives a true picture of the standards of care that they provide. The Care Act 2014 put in place a new criminal offence that will apply to care providers that supply, publish or otherwise make available false or misleading information. The offence will apply to the misreporting of information that is required to comply with a legal obligation. I wish to emphasise that last point: this offence applies only to providers of care, not regulators or commissioners of care.
Where a provider is found to have committed the offence, which could be as a result of deliberately supplying false or misleading information or as a result of neglect, the provider can be fined by the courts. In addition, the courts can require the provider to take action to address the failings which led to the offence occurring and make publicly known the action it is taking.
The FOMI offence can also apply to senior individuals within a care provider but only when the care provider has been found guilty of the offence. Senior individuals can also be found guilty of the offence where they have consented or connived in the publication or submission of false or misleading information, or have been sufficiently neglectful in their duties to allow false or misleading information to be published. An individual found guilty of the offence could face imprisonment of up to two years, a fine or both.
Of course, misreporting of information can be the result of genuine error and it is essential that such mistakes do not result in a criminal conviction. The Care Act 2014 therefore allows for a defence against the offence where a care provider is able to demonstrate that it took all reasonable steps and exercised due diligence to avoid the misreporting of information.
The primary legislation contains a regulation-making power that allows the types of care providers and the types of information to which the offence applies to be specified in regulations. The regulations before the Committee specify that the offence will apply to NHS trusts in England, NHS foundation trusts and other persons who provide health services from a non-NHS hospital,
“pursuant to arrangements made with a public body”.
For clarification, this means that the offence can apply to independent providers delivering services under an NHS contract, but only if they are also required to submit or publish the information included in the regulations.
The information to which the FOMI offence applies is focused on the issues raised by Robert Francis, such as mortality figures, and is supplied by providers of NHS secondary care. This is a short list, but one that represents a significant quantity of data provided by the NHS and forms the foundation of the information used to assess NHS performance.
The regulations include other key information supplied by providers of NHS secondary care, including cancer waiting times, maternity data sets, many of the core commissioning data sets and NHS quality accounts. The latter is an important inclusion, as Sir Robert Francis specifically recommended that:
“It should be a criminal offence for a director to sign a declaration of belief that the contents of a quality account are true if it contains a misstatement of fact concerning an item of prescribed information which he/she does not have reason to believe is true at the time of making the declaration”.
All the information listed in the regulations is that which providers are or will be required to publish or submit because of a statutory or other legal obligation. This is a requirement of the primary legislation of the Care Act 2014 and an important part of the legislation for a few reasons.
First, it means that a provider cannot opt out of submitting or publishing information just because it wants to circumvent the false or misleading information offence. Secondly, as this is information that is already required to be published or submitted, we are not requiring providers of NHS secondary care services to undertake any additional work—only that they should ensure the information they provide is accurate and not misleading. Finally, providers of NHS secondary care services publish or submit on a voluntary basis a great deal of information which is incredibly valuable to improving the delivery of services and developing a greater understanding of the nation’s health. We do not want to dissuade providers from submitting or publishing such information, which is why the offence cannot be applied to information of that type.
In summary, the offence will apply only to the providers listed in the regulations and only where the offence occurs in relation to the provision or publication of the information listed. When the Department of Health consulted on the regulations in 2014, it was noted that the application of the offence was quite complicated. We have addressed this concern through guidance on the application of the FOMI offence which sets out how this law works.
The FOMI offence puts in place an important new sanction against providers of NHS-funded secondary care that mislead others about the performance of their services. As this offence is new, the regulations have been developed to focus the application of the offence so that it covers important data sets and data that can be robustly interrogated to determine if a provider has committed the offence. Designing the regulations this way will enable us to better understand how the offence operates in practice and allow us to make changes to the regulations in a targeted way in the future. I hope that noble Lords will support this rationale and will therefore agree to these regulations being commended to the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Earl for introducing these important regulations, which the Opposition are very happy to support. It is clearly unacceptable for anyone or any organisation in the NHS to knowingly publish false or misleading information. We are fully behind the Government on this. The noble Earl will probably remember that during the passage of the Care Act we tried to strengthen the clause that the regulations emanate from by tabling an amendment which would have made it an offence to withhold information with the intention to mislead or misdirect. That was not accepted by the Government.
I come back to the point that the Minister ended with. He emphasised that this applies only to NHS trusts, foundation trusts and those providing services. He will know from our discussions on the Bill that we wanted to expand this to cover other organisations, including local authorities and clinical commissioning groups. I would be grateful if he could respond on why the Government still think this should be confined to those who provide services.
I put to him that the Francis report into Mid Staffordshire, and indeed the more recent report by Bill Kirkup looking at the very worrying incidents that happened in Morecambe Bay, do not just put responsibility for what happened at the door of the providers, though I fully accept that in the end the board of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust and the board of the trust that ran Morecambe Bay must take primary responsibility. However, a number of other organisations were listed—organisations that would not be defined as providers. There are circumstances in which clinical commissioning groups, or part of NHS England, ought to be covered by the same rules and law because one depends on honesty and openness throughout the system. I would be interested in the Minister’s comments on that.
This is part of wishing to develop a culture of openness and transparency. People in the health service are very cynical about these proposals because they do not see the same transparency and openness and, to be frank, honesty emanating from the Minister’s own department. If my noble friend Lord Brooke were here, he would remind the Minister about the lack of publication of the interim risk register. I point to the report by the noble Lord, Lord Rose, on management capacity. It is one thing to have a legal provision, but it is another to ensure that everyone in the system actually operates according to the spirit of what the Government intend. I myself believe that that should apply as much to the Minister’s department and NHS England as it does to the providers in the health service.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support for these regulations. He returned us to an issue that we debated during the passage of the Care Act: the question of why this offence is restricted to providers and does not extend further to either NHS or local authority commissioners. We took the view that, in determining the scope of the offence, the focus should be on information that is closest to patient care, where inaccurate statements can allow poor and dangerous care to continue. This type of information is required by law from providers of NHS secondary care, such as hospital trusts, and to be frank we have not yet identified information that would warrant extending this offence to commissioners or other providers of information. The scope of the offence is therefore determined by the information to which it applies.
The noble Lord referred to the need for openness throughout and across the system. I agree with him, of course, and I contend that over the past five years this Government have done more than any other to promote transparency in the health service and indeed from the department itself. The particular case of the risk register is one that we have debated on a number of occasions. He may recall that while the decision was taken by the Cabinet not to publish the transition risk register, nevertheless I laid before the House the essential elements contained within the register to enable noble Lords to understand the broad content of the risks that the transition addressed. The approach to risk registers in general is one that was taken under the previous Administration in a number of departments.
The report prepared by the noble Lord, Lord Rose, on NHS leadership is being looked at in the light of NHS England’s five-year review. The five-year review was published during the time that the noble Lord, Lord Rose, was preparing his report and the possibility of extending the report to take account of the review is being considered. We look forward to seeing the conclusions of the report once it is ready.