The chair of the care watchdog has refused to resign after casting doubt on the mental health of a whistleblowing member of her board who raised concerns about the way the organisation was being run.
Dame Jo Williams has repeatedly been criticised for her performance as chair of the Care Quality Commission (CQC) since she was appointed in 2010.
But this week, a member of CQC’s board, Kay Sheldon, told The Independent newspaper that Dame Jo had commissioned an occupational health doctor to assess her mental health after she spoke out at the public inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal.
Sheldon, who has been open about her own experience of mental distress, told the inquiry last November of her “grave concerns and worries” about CQC’s leadership and “absence of strategic direction”.
She said in a statement to the inquiry how Dame Jo had repeatedly raised concerns about her mental health after she became distressed during a meeting.
Sheldon told the inquiry that she began to feel “victimised” by repeated references to her mental health, whether she was healthy enough to continue in her job, and the impact her mental health might have on CQC.
She told The Independent that after she spoke out at the inquiry, Dame Jo wrote to health secretary Andrew Lansley asking for her to be suspended and “urgently” replaced.
Dame Jo then commissioned an assessment from an occupational health doctor who, on the basis of a brief telephone conversation, suggested that Sheldon might have “paranoid schizophrenia”.
Weeks later, a Department of Health review vindicated Sheldon’s decision to speak out when it reported “operational and strategic difficulties” at CQC which had “seriously challenged public confidence in its role”.
CQC’s chief executive, Cynthia Bower, subsequently announced her resignation, but Dame Jo stayed in her role.
The new revelations also cast doubt on CQC’s own public support for whistleblowers, in the wake of its failure to take action after a nurse passed on allegations of serious abuse at Winterbourne View, a hospital for people with learning difficulties near Bristol.
The Commons health select committee later described CQC’s actions on Winterbourne View as “woefully inadequate”.
Sheldon told The Independent that CQC bosses had been “trying to discredit me as either mad or bad, as mentally ill or a troublemaker”.
She said: “I am very open about my mental health problems, but it feels like they tried to use it against me – this is a public body meant to be protecting people, it was completely outrageous.”
A CQC spokeswoman said she was unable to comment fully on Sheldon’s allegations because of “ongoing legal proceedings”.
But she said: “Dame Jo sought occupational health advice, [but that]certainly wasn’t with the intention of blaming anything on anybody. [She was] trying to offer the support she needed.”
And she said CQC did not want Sheldon’s comments to “undermine” its support for other whistleblowers “in any way”.
She added: “Kay is part of our board and we want to make that relationship work. She obviously doesn’t feel we have done everything we can. We would want to move forward from that and try to work together better.”
She added: “I do not think that [Dame Jo] has any intention of resigning.”
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “I do not believe we are considering [Dame Jo’s] position.”
She added, in a written statement: “The secretary of state considered carefully Kay Sheldon’s position and decided that she should remain part of the CQC board.
“The CQC has a central role to play in protecting the public and ensuring the standards of health and social care and we are committed to ensuring that it has a strong and effective board.
“The secretary of state was always clear that Kay Sheldon would suffer no detriment from giving evidence to the Mid Staffordshire Public Inquiry.
“We are unable to comment on the detail of any individual case or process as this would be a breach of confidentiality.”
15 August 2012