It is “totally unacceptable” for hospitals to have unsafe staffing levels, health secretary Jeremy Hunt insisted yesterday.

The statement was made at Commons health questions yesterday after Labour MPs declared it was the health secretary’s job to ensure every NHS hospital operates with safe staffing numbers.

Shadow health minister Andrew Gwynne said the Care Quality Commission had identified 17 NHS hospitals that were operating with unsafe levels of staffing “putting vulnerable patients and especially older people at risk”.

The CQC issued the hospitals with warnings last year, and they have been highlighted by the Labour party.

Mr Gwynne said: “Frankly it’s the secretary of state’s job to ensure that every NHS hospital operates with safe staffing levels.

“So does he now think it was a mistake to strip out almost 7,000 nursing posts from our NHS?”

Mr Hunt replied the government had protected the NHS budget, while “his front bench wants to cut the NHS budget in real terms”.

Mr Hunt added: “I think he’s got to think very carefully before he starts talking about all these so-called cuts, when his own shadow health spokesman wants to cut the NHS budget in real terms. That’s what he said last December.

“With respect to what the Care Quality Commission said, I agree with them. It is totally unacceptable for hospitals to have unsafe staffing levels.

“But if you also listen to what he said, he said that budgets and financial issues are no excuse because those budget pressures exist throughout the NHS and many hospitals are able to deliver excellent care despite them.”