Patient neglect to be made a crime
The wilful neglect of patients is to be made a criminal offence under NHS reforms being introduced in the wake of the Mid Staffs and other care scandals.
David Cameron said health workers who mistreated and abused patients would face "the full force of the law" in a package of measures to be unveiled next week.
The offence will be modelled on laws against the wilful neglect of adults under the Mental Capacity Act, punishable by fines or up to five years in prison.
A consultation on what scale of sentence should be applied to the extended law will be carried out over the next few months by the Department of Health.
The move was one of the central recommendations of a review of patient safety commissioned by ministers in the wake of findings that there were up to 1,200 excess deaths at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.
It was led by Professor Don Berwick, a former adviser to US president Barack Obama, who said it was needed to targets the worst cases of a "couldn't care less" attitude that led to "wilful or reckless neglect or mistreatment".
The Government indicated when he published his report in August that it was likely to make the change.
The Prime Minister said: "The NHS is full of brilliant doctors, nurses and other health workers who dedicate their lives to caring for our loved ones.
"But Mid-Staffordshire hospital showed that sometimes the standard of care is not good enough. That is why we have taken a number of different steps that will improve patient care and improve how we spot bad practice.
"Never again will we allow substandard care, cruelty or neglect to go unnoticed and unpunished."
He went on: "This is not about a hospital worker who makes a mistake, but specific cases where a patient has been neglected or ill-treated.
"This offence will make clear that neglect is unacceptable and those who do so will feel the full force of the law."
The chair of the Royal College of GPs, Dr Maureen Baker, said that the key to patient safety was ensuring that there were effective systems in place.
"Doctors, nurses - we are human, human beings make mistakes. You can't change the human condition, but you can help support the humans in having systems around them that help keep them safe, caring and compassionate," she told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
"You can't rely on the law to properly regulate how people do their jobs. We need to rely on the professionalism of doctors, nurses, managers.
"What we need to do is let the professionalism take more centrality so that people can flag up the way they need to work in a safe system to care for patients properly."
Dr Peter Carter, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said the new offence should be accompanied by legally enforceable staffing levels on hospital wards.
"This on its own will not be a remedy, it will not be a panacea to cure the perceived ills of the NHS," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"What you need to do is to ensure that you have legally enforceable staffing levels so that you don't end up with the situation that we are finding increasingly with the care of the older people."
Julie Bailey, who set up the Cure the NHS group which campaigned for a public inquiry into Mid Staffs, welcomed the move but said managers who suppressed or ignored hospital whistleblowers should also face charges.
"This alone will not avoid another Mid Staffs," she told the Today programme.
"When staff try and reach out and inform managers that there is a problem on those wards, staff need to be listened to. And if they are not listened to by the managers, that's when we need that criminal offence.
"It may be extreme, but it will save lives."
Peter Walsh, chief executive of Action Against Medical Accidents, said: "It cannot be right that any one of us can be criminally prosecuted for reckless driving or cruelty to animals, but no one is properly held to account for neglect and cruelty to our most vulnerable patients.
"This new law would only punish those who have wilfully caused suffering and harm due to neglect - not those who have made genuine, honest mistakes.
"However, this measure on its own will not bring about the wholesale change of culture that Robert Francis QC recommended. The Government must also commit to implementing the other key recommendations such as a statutory Duty of Candour requiring honesty with patients when things go wrong and cause any significant harm, and which is binding on organisations and everyone in them - from board to ward.
"We need training and support for staff in doing the right thing and protection for whistleblowers. Only if we see a package of measures like these will we succeed in putting right the culture.
"We require a firm commitment from the Secretary of State when he gives his formal response to the Francis Report next Tuesday that all the essential recommendations will be implemented."
Dr Paul Flynn, chair of the British Medical Association's Consultant Committee, said: "Whilst we must ensure that what happened at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital is never allowed to occur again, this proposal alone will not help change to a culture of care within the NHS. All of Professor Berwick's recommendations must be considered and the NHS must change from the top by increasing staffing levels and resources."