23 Aug Chair of embattled exam watchdog owned data firm that was involved in major NHS care scandal | UK News
Seven years ago, a company founded by Roger Taylor was criticised for failing to explain its algorithm to the hospital at the centre of what was said to be the worst care scandal in the history of the NHS.
Now Mr Taylor finds himself facing similar criticism, as the exam regulator he chairs stands accused of failing to share vital information with the government about the algorithm blamed for wreaking havoc with GCSE and A-level results.
The public inquiry into avoidable deaths at Stafford Hospital, known as the Mid Staffs scandal, criticised Mr Taylor’s company for failing to offer “complete clarity” about an algorithm it used to calculate hospitals’ death rates, saying it gave Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust “false reassurance” about its standard of care.
Ofqual has been accused by government ministers of failing to point out flaws in its marking algorithm, which was abandoned after it appeared to downgrade the predicted grades of poorer pupils disproportionately.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson claimed he had “consistently asked a large number of challenging questions about the system” and been reassured by Ofqual about its “robustness and its fairness”.
An investigation by Sky News found similar criticism was levelled at Mr Taylor’s company in the 2013 inquiry into Mid Staffs by Sir Robert Francis QC, which described patients left in “appalling and unnecessary suffering” by a culture of cost-cutting and a focus on targets.
Medical data company Dr Foster used an algorithm to calculate scores called “mortality ratios”, in order to warn hospital bosses about risks to patients. Like the exam results produced by Ofqual’s algorithm, these were standardised, effectively ranking hospitals in a league table.
Yet after Stafford Hospital received a dangerously high score from the algorithm in 2007, executives who spoke to Dr Foster left with the false impression that the result was due to a technical error.
Following this exchange, Sir Robert wrote: “The trust consistently represented itself to others as having ‘no problem with mortality’.”
He concluded that this may have been due to the trust’s chief executive showing a “lack of understanding of the implications of the statistics”.
Sir Robert found that Stafford Hospital failed in its duty of care across the board, ignoring multiple warning signs because of a culture that “put corporate self-interest and cost control ahead of patients and their safety”.
But the inquiry concluded that Dr Foster “did not offer complete clarity with regard to the significance of the information it was providing to the trust”, allowing its bosses to persuade themselves the problem was less severe than it was.
Hoping to persuade the trust about the usefulness of its data-driven method, the company took an “unassertive approach”, the inquiry found, which could have given Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust “a degree of false reassurance”.
An independent 2008 study into standardised mortality ratios found that Dr Foster’s method was prone to bias, and that it was “less than credible” to claim that variation in mortality ratios reflected differences in quality of care.
Ofqual declined to comment, as did Mr Taylor.
During the inquiry, he accepted that the gravity of Mid Staffordshire’s mortality score was “not explicitly conveyed” to the trust, but said that evidence of its true meaning was readily available – a point Sir Robert Francis agreed with. Mr Taylor is not accused of any wrongdoing.
In addition to his role at Ofqual, Mr Taylor, a former FT journalist, is chair of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), a quango which claims its role is to “develop the right governance regime for data-driven technologies”.
Chi Onwurah, the shadow digital minister, said there were “serious questions” for ministers about the regulation of algorithms, adding: “The fact the government picked someone whose company had a history of failure, with heart-breaking consequences, also raises questions about the recruitment processes in place for those who have responsibility for the use of this technology”.
Tech policy expert Rachel Coldicutt questioned whether it was appropriate for Mr Taylor to hold roles at Ofqual and CDEI, adding: “It would be great if the person in charge of the data ethics was not a person who had had an ethical skirmish.”
Both former prime minister Gordon Brown and former health secretary Alan Johnson apologised to those who suffered at Stafford Hospital. Following the scandal, the mortality rates of all NHS hospitals were made available online.
After the inquiry was published, Mr Taylor was appointed as an adviser to the regulator for health and social care, the Care Quality Commission, where he oversaw the roll-out of its “new intelligent monitoring model”.
CDEI did not respond to a request for comment.
A Department of Digital spokesperson said: “The government has full confidence in Roger Taylor who remains chair of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, an independent advisory body to the government.”