Almost one in five NHS patients who need help with eating are offered no assistance - a figure that has not changed since 2002, data shows.

A further 18 per cent only “sometimes” get enough help at mealtimes, down from 19 per cent in 2009 and 24 per cent in 2002.

Many of those affected are elderly, with reports over the last few years of trays placed out of reach and meals cleared away before they have been eaten.

The latest findings are contained in an NHS for 2010 survey, involving more than 66,000 patients from 161 acute and specialist NHS trusts in England.

The poll found just under two-thirds (64 per cent) of those needing help with meals felt they “always” got enough help, up from 58 per cent in 2002, but 18 per cent were offered no help at all.

The wide-ranging survey revealed improvements on 2009 in some areas, with more patients saying they were given information about their treatment or condition, while in A&E fewer patients reporting being put in mixed-sex accommodation and more patients reporting very clean wards, toilets and bathrooms.

There was a slight rise in the numbers saying they had privacy and, overall, 80 per cent of patients reported “always” having trust and confidence in the doctors treating them.

There was no change in the proportion of patients rating the food as “very good” (21 per cent in 2009 and 2010), but the figure was up on the 18 per cent reported in 2002.

There was a slight increase in those rating the food as “good” (36 per cent, up from 35 per cent in 2009), while 30 per cent thought the food was “fair”, unchanged from 2009.

Some 13 per cent rated hospital food as “poor”, down from 14 per cent in 2009.

Overall, 40 per cent of patients were bothered at night by noise from other patients while 21 per cent said staff noise kept them awake, unchanged from 2009.