NHS directors and senior staff who publish false or misleading information could face a two-year jail sentence as part of a crackdown on cover-ups in the NHS.

The Department of Health has outlined plans to introduce new legislation with strict penalties for publishing false information, ahead of the publication of a new Sir Robert Francis report on improving the culture of honesty in the NHS.

The DH says a new ‘false or misleading information’ offence will be introduced, making it a criminal offence for NHS-funded care providers to publish or submit false or misleading information.

 The legislation will specifically cover mortality data, data submitted to the Health and Social Care Information Centre, quality accounts, complaints data, cancer outcomes data as well as waiting times, and a range of national audits including diabetes and maternity services.

From April, organisations who fall foul of the new law could be prosecuted, while directors or other senior staff who “are found to have consented or connived” in providing the false or misleading information can also be prosecuted.

Potential penalties for care providers include a fine of unlimited size, a remedial order and a publicity order. Individuals could also be hit with an unlimited fine, with a jail sentence of up to two years reserved for the most serious cases.

The DH says the offence will only apply to the most serious cases, where lives have been put at risk.

“If organisations can demonstrate that they took all reasonable steps, and exercised due diligence, this will not affect them.”

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt outlined plans to introduce the legislation in mid-2013, saying that that in order to improve safety, the health service must foster an “open and transparent culture where problems are always aired and never swept under the carpet.”

The legislation was precipitated by Francis’ earlier report on the death rates scandal at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which included a recommendation for there to be new legal offences of giving out misleading information.

The DH also announced plans to fine hospitals up to £10,000 for clinical negligence claims where they can’t demonstrate they have been honest about a significant clinical mistake.

It said hospitals could be asked to “reimburse” the NHS Litigation Authority up to £10,000 for each case.

Hunt said the planned legislation “sends a strong message that covering up mistakes will not be tolerated.”

"Being open and learning from mistakes is crucial improving patient care. The NHS is a world-class health service, but when mistakes happen it is vital that we face them head on and learn so they are never repeated.”

Hunt also announced plans for an annual review of avoidable deaths in hospitals, studying about 2,000 patient case notes annually to monitor the extent of avoidable deaths and make changes where necessary.

A report by healthcare analysts Dr Foster published on Sunday found a “significant reduction” in the overall death rate in 11 NHS trusts that were put into special measures, providing a basis for the review.