The Healthcare Commission is struggling to cope with the hundreds of complaints it receives each month from patients as staff desert the watchdog ahead of next year's regulation changes.

The regulator is being absorbed into the Care Quality Commission next April, when its complaint function will be taken over by the health service ombudsman.

Staff turnover in the 150-strong complaints team is already running at 54 per cent in the run-up to the change.

The risk that complaints targets are not met has been given the highest possible rating in the commission's most recent performance and finance report.

Ad hoc management

Transition management has also received a red rating as it is being managed ad hoc, the report states. The plan "does not make it clear the approach and timetable for the selection and transfer of staff", it says.

Chief executive Anna Walker told HSJ: "It's a big challenge to manage the transition. We continue to receive 700 complaints a month. There are a lot of distressed customers out there."

Staff have been told they do not have the right to transfer into new roles under TUPE arrangements and unions have written to health secretary Alan Johnson to complain.

The ombudsman's office has received 120 job applications from Healthcare Commission staff.

Staff shortages have also put the hygiene code inspection programme behind schedule, forcing the commission to outsource work to Capita.

Every acute trust is being visited by inspectors to ensure they are prepared for the code becoming a condition of registration with the new commission in April.