THE SCANDAL over our patient transport service was growing last night after it emerged a government minister may have misled Parliament over details of the crisis.
Minister of State for Health Philip Dunne MP may be forced to issue a formal apology, after telling MPs that the Sussex NHS body which awarded the ambulance contract to controversial private company Coperforma had ordered it to stop using an unlicensed ambulance firm.
Last night the Department of Health suggested it may have “misrepresented” the information when it supplied a Parliamentary answer to MP Caroline Lucas.
Before the partial climbdown The Argus had already established that Coperforma had received no such instruction from the High Weald, Lewes and Havens Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) which was the local body which awarded the company the contract in the first place.
Last night Ms Lucas said: “The evidence is damning – and suggests that the minister misled me in Parliament. If true, that is utterly deplorable.”
The latest development adds to the growing crisis surrounding the privatised ambulance transport service as calls grow for Coperforma to be stripped of the contract which began this year with hundreds of patients missing hospital appointments because of late arrivals.
Last week The Argus revealed that one of the ambulance companies that Coperforma subcontracts to deliver the service - Docklands - was unlicensed.
This newspaper also revealed the NHS watchdog which is supposed to award licences, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), could not confirm if more of Coperforma’s contractors were unlicenced because it had no list of the firms used.
The CQC registration process serves to ensure that providers operate in a way which is safe for the public, covering issues including vehicle cleanliness and driver criminal record checks.
The CQC has said it will investigate whether Docklands broke the law but Ms Lucas is now calling for immediate prosecution for breach of the Health and Social Care Act.
In a written answer to Ms Lucas the health minister said that on learning of Docklands’ involvement the CCG had, “immediately instructed Coperforma to cease using Docklands Medical Services Limited as a subcontractor. This was immediately actioned by Coperforma".
However a spokeswoman told The Argus: “On 29th July 2016 the CCG realised [the licence] was for Docklands London and asked Coperforma to carry out further checks. The CCG subsequently issued a contract performance notice for due diligence.”
When asked “Did you instruct Coperforma to stop dealing with Docklands?” she replied, “We asked Coperforma to carry out further checks.”
A spokesman for Coperforma said the decision to stop trading with Docklands came from Docklands themselves, who closed their doors overnight.
He said: “Oh yes it was their decision. We were caught on the hop somewhat, because we needed to re-allocate resources.”
When asked: “So the CCG didn’t tell you to stop trading with them?”, he replied: “No.”
Last night a spokesman for the Department of Health said: “The Department’s understanding of these complex issues was based on information provided by local NHS organisations.
“If this information was misrepresented in any way, we will seek to update the record at the earliest opportunity.”
Ministers who issue inadvertently misleading statements to the House of Commons are expected to correct them at the earliest opportunity. Those who issue deliberately misleading statements can be held in contempt and investigated by a Commons committee.
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MINISTERS BOUND BY CODE TO PROVIDE ACCURATE INFORMATION
MINISTERS are expected to give accurate information to Parliament and not to do so on a matter of significance is a very serious issue – just think of the “45 minute” claim in the debate over the Iraq War that stated the Iraqis could use weapons of mass destruction during that time frame.
Three doctrines cover the issue: the House of Commons’ own rules, the convention of ministerial responsibility and the ministerial code.
According to a House of Commons spokeswoman: “If it is drawn to an MP’s attention that they have inadvertently misled the House, they will generally apologise and correct this error on the record.”
If an MP is accused of deliberately misleading the Commons they may be investigated by a standards committee.
But even if the minister spoke in good faith, they may still have to apologise. Under the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, ministers do not blame civil servants even when an official’s error leads to a minister making a misleading public statement or error of judgment.
Famously, Foreign Secretary Peter Carington resigned his post upon the outbreak of the Falklands War, believing he was honour-bound to do so after his department failed to see the conflict coming.
Today we reveal that both contract holder Coperforma, and the clinical commissioning group (CCG), have directly contradicted the Health Minister Philip Dunne’s statement to the House that Coperforma was told by the CCG to stop using an unlicensed ambulance firm.
So despite the Department of Health saying “the information was provided by local NHS organisations” it will be Mr Dunne who issues a formal correction to the written record, if one is required.
So despite the Department of Health saying “the information was provided by local NHS organisations” it will be health minister Philip Dunne who issues a formal correction to the written record, if one is required.
Ministers do not tend to be best pleased when forced to make such a correction.
Echoes of displeasure may reverberate from Westminster via Whitehall all the way to CCG offices here in Sussex.
There is also the Ministerial Code, first drawn up in 1992. Section One states: “It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.
“Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”
There is no suggestion that Mr Dunne has knowingly misled Parliament.