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Questions for Lansley on abortion inspections

Did the Health Secretary put his political interests before patient care?

New Statesman
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. Photograph: Getty Images.

With the NHS bill finally making it onto the statute book and the media focused on the Budget, the past two weeks have been unusually peaceful for Andrew Lansley. But that's all changed this morning. The Health Secretary stands accused of diverting resources away from patient care by ordering the Care Quality Commission [CQC] to carry out unannounced inspections of more than 300 abortion clinics. The CQC has revealed that the £1m four-day inspection of clinics meant 580 inspections on other parts of the health service had to be "forgone".

In a sternly-worded letter to the Department of Health, Dame Jo Williams, chair of the health regulator, said: "Such a request at short notice entails operation’s management time in planning the visits, cancelling pre-planned inspections as well as the compliance inspector’s time in carrying out the visits and drafting the reports.

"Add to this the anticipated enforcement activity that will inevitably arise and it is clear that this has a considerable impact on our capacity to deliver our annual targets."

The suspicion among some is that the inspections were ordered by Lansley in a bid to placate the Conservatives' pro-life wing and to generate positive headlines.

The shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, commented on the Today programme this morning:

It's hard not to draw the conclusion that the health secretary was desperately trying to get on the front foot. Nothing else explains why he gve the findings to a newspaper midway through this programme of visits that he ordered, and you may remember that this was the day when the home secretary had been brought to the Commons to make a statement on alcohol.

More strikingly, Stephen Dorrell, the Conservative chairman of the health select committee and the man often touted as a possible replacement for Lansley, warned that the "independence" of the CQC was in doubt:

I think we need to be clear whether the priorities of the regulator are genuinely determined independently by the CQC itself, or whether the priorities are determined by the secretary of state. Is it independent or is it not? I would argue it's very strongly in the public interest, as well actually as it being in the secretary of state's interest for it to be clearly established that the CQC is an independent regulator.

Shortly afterwards, Dorrell was attacked by Nadine Dorries, the leading Conservative pro-lifer, who accused him of putting "his own personal ambition above proffessional (sic) morality".

But it is Lansley who stands accused of putting his own political interests above patient care, a grave charge that he must now fully answer.