The Nursing and Midwifery Council is to undergo a strategic review due to its failure to deal with a long standing backlog of fitness to practise cases, it has been confirmed.

The government has asked the Council for Regulatory Excellence to undertake the investigation “with a view to further strengthening the NMC’s leadership and governance”.

It follows the resignation of senior nursing figures at the regulator including chief executive and registrar Dickon Weir-Hughes and director of standards and registration Roger Thompson.

Professor Weir-Hughes announced his resignation with immediate effect on 12 January, while Mr Thompson left on 2 December.

The review was announced in a written ministerial statement in Parliament. The CHRE will announce the full terms of the review in due course. It will report to ministers with its findings by early summer.

The parliamentary statement said the Department of Health also planned to hold a public consultation on reconstituting the NMC’s council to reduce its size, in line with a recommendation by the CHRE. It said: “The department believes that this option now warrants consideration for the NMC.”

The statement also referred back to a House of Commons debate held in March 2008 – first revealed by HSJ’s sister title Nursing Times – in which significant concerns had been raised about the regulator’s performance and allegations made of bullying and racism within the organisation.

A subsequent investigation and report from the CHRE concluded that the NMC was performing its statutory duties but not to the standard the public had the right to expect. As a result of the findings the regulator published an action plan and a new ruling council was appointed independently in January 2009, followed shortly by a new chair and chief executive.

The parliamentary statement said: “Subsequent reports by the CHRE have found some areas in which the NMC is improving. Regrettably, however, their most recent report on fitness to practise, published in November 2011, shows that the rate of improvement in this area falls below the standard that the public and registrants have the right to respect.

“The review will look at the NMC’s organisational structure, resource allocation and operational management. It will establish what further action is needed to ensure that the NMC is effectively carrying out its statutory duties to promote high standards of conduct and practice in order to protect the public.”

In a separate statement today, the NMC said it welcomed the strategic review of its role and operations as “an important opportunity to achieve clarity and consistency in the delivery of its regulatory functions”.

NMC chair Tony Hazell said: “The NMC has made significant improvements in the last few years, particularly in the handling of fitness to practise referrals. At the same time we recognise the importance of maintaining our commitment to the effective and efficient delivery of all our core regulatory functions. In doing so we continue to focus on our primary objective, that of safeguarding the health and well being of patients and the wider public.

“Recent events have presented council with an opportunity to review our activities to ensure that we can continue our progress towards becoming a more efficient and effective regulator. Earlier this month I wrote to the CHRE to ask them to assist us with this review, and I am pleased that they agreed to work collaboratively with us on this important project,” Professor Hazell said.

“It is in this context that we now welcome this ministerial announcement of a strategic review and the impartiality that external colleagues will bring in scrutinising what we do, how we do it and in some cases, why we do it. An internal review of our activities has been underway for some time, and has already prompted some important questions about the wide ranging nature of some of our work streams and the contribution that they make to our core business. We look forward to continuing these discussions with the review team,” he added.

“A key outcome from this review is that it must be demonstrably clear to all concerned that the NMC’s priority is public protection.”