Healthcare Improvement Scotland (HIS) was launched in 2011 to improve care standards, although it has few statutory enforcement powers.
HIS has inspected dozens of hospitals and health boards over the past six years, exposing many care, staffing and cleanliness problems.
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The inspectors have also been ordered to carry out reviews into scandals such as excess patient deaths in Lanarkshire hospitals, bullying at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and stillbirths at Crosshouse Hospital in Ayrshire.
However, the evidence heard by Holyrood’s Health and Sport Committee has led to fears that further problems may have been covered up, especially if they were damaging to the Nationalist administration.
HIS chief executive Robbie Pearson admitted the Scottish Government sees a draft report “a few days” before publication but insisted that ministers do not request changes.
An HIS boss assured that the government does request any changes in the reports
He added: “There are a number of reasons for doing that. One is to give the Government advance information about what is coming into the public domain.”
HIS chair Dame Denise Coia then said information had been “shared” with ministers during an inspection on at least one occasion, allowing them to “take action” against the health board.
She said: “There is a classic example from NHS Grampian, when there were major issues… We triangulated information with the General Medical Council and the consultants, and we also met patient groups in Grampian. During that time and before the report was published, the report was shared with Government, not so that changes could be made but so that action could be taken on some of the serious problems in Grampian.”
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This causes me great anxiety. On at least one occasion, according to Dame Denise’s evidence, the Scottish Government was taking action before the report was published
Donald Cameron, Conservative MSP
The NHS Grampian review was triggered in June 2014 following complaints from whistleblowing medics at the ARI and made headlines in the North-east throughout the independence referendum campaign.
At the time, the Scottish Government denied “meddling” and claimed to have had no prior knowledge when several health board bosses stepped down.
When the HIS report was published in December 2014, Health Secretary Shona Robison said it “painted a worrying picture” but gave no indication that she had been kept informed of the findings.
Conservative MSP Donald Cameron, a member of the committee, said: “I have serious concerns about HIS being able to provide a truly independent viewpoint. They are an NHS board so they report directly to ministers and have limited enforcement procedures and now we learn they share their draft reports before publication.
Inspectors have been looking into patient deaths, claims of bullying, and stillbirths
“This causes me great anxiety. On at least one occasion, according to Dame Denise’s evidence, the Scottish Government was taking action before the report was published.”
It is understood that some inspectors within HIS have privately reported concerns about being “pressured to tone down reports”.
Rab Wilson, an NHS whistleblower who is campaigning for a public inquiry into patient safety in Scotland, said: “This is an astonishing revelation. When organisations which are meant to be looking at our NHS are actively colluding behind the scenes with Government it simply smacks of corruption.”
During the committee hearing, Mr Pearson insisted the country does not need a healthcare regulator with statutory powers that is independent of government – similar to the Care Quality Commission in England.
Roger Livermore argues healthcare regulation is a legal requirement
Roger Livermore, who had a career as a top health and safety regulator south of the Border, said: “Mr Pearson does not have a choice in the matter. Healthcare regulation is a legal requirement under the Health and Safety at Work Act. If you don’t have regulation on patient safety in hospitals then you needn’t bother with it anywhere.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said HIS carried out around 100 inspections and reviews each year and have statutory powers to call an inquiry, provide advice to Ministers and – as of last year – to close a hospital ward to new admissions.
She added: "It is normal practice for HIS to alert the Scottish Government, Chief Medical Officer, Chief Nursing Officer and National Clinical Director to any concerns so immediate action can be taken.”
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