The Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has been accused of "chasing headlines" by asking the independent regulator the Care Quality Commission (CQC) to carry out spot inspections of all abortion providers in England last month.
A letter obtained by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act shows the CQC said the "urgent" request from the Secretary of State meant that nearly 600 planned inspections would have to be "forgone" and the estimated cost of inspecting providers was one million pounds.
The letter, written on 23 March, by Dame Jo Williams, Chair of the CQC, to the Department of Health, says the request had a "considerable impact" on the regulator's capacity to deliver its annual targets. The CQC's main role is to inspect hospitals and care homes.
The CQC inspected abortion clinics to see if they were complying with the law : certificates for abortion need to be signed by two doctors who have seen the patient or her notes. They visited almost 300 clinics, and the Department of Health said the CQC had found at least 50 which were not compliant with law or guidance.
The GMC said that several doctors have subsequently been referred to them, And the police say they are investigating whether criminal offences have been committed.
The Department of Health told the BBC that the CQC and the health secretary agreed on the inspection programme during a phone call on 19 March, and the question of resources was not raised. If it had, the department said, resource would have been made available.
Days later however, while inspectors were still making visits, and before he reported to Parliament on the matter, the Mr Lansley briefed journalists on the inspections.
According to the shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, this suggests Andrew Lansley was "chasing headlines" and he believes the process has "compromised the independence" of the regulator.
The Conservative MP Stephen Dorrell, who chairs the Commons Health Select Committee, told the BBC that Andrew Lansley should probably have behaved differently, by drawing the CQC's attention to abortion clinics, and inviting them to consider whether the law was being followed, rather than asking for the full scale urgent inspection.
"You always get into trouble in any walk of life if you claim for yourself the ability to determine one priority without looking at all the others," he said.
Like Andy Burnham, Stephen Dorrell said the inspections called into question the independence of the regulator. He compared the CQC and the Department of Health with other bodies, saying it would be a "scandal" if a Treasury minister instructed the independent HM Revenue and Customs to examine the enforcement of tax law in the case of a particular taxpayer.
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