Senior consultants have been stripped of merit awards for the first time by the Advisory Committee on Distinction Awards.

Four unnamed consultants will lose annual payments of£24,640 because they 'have not continued to fulfil the criteria' under a new five-yearly review system.

But James Wisheart, one of two surgeons struck off by the General Medical Council last year at the end of its inquiry into the deaths of babies at Bristol Royal Infirmary, continues to receive an award-boosted pension.

Health secretary Frank Dobson last year promised to try to find a way of clawing back Mr Wisheart's band-A merit award.

The Department of Health said this week: 'Taking a person's pension away raises complex legal issues that need to be carefully considered.'

The vice-chair of the Medical Practitioners' Union, Sam Everington, said continued payments to doctors who had been struck off 'sent out a very bad message'.

He said the government could move faster by asking doctors found guilty of professional misconduct either to 'voluntarily drop the extra pensionable- related award or repay some of the enormous financial liability' caused by their cases.

ACDA stressed that 'the quality of care provided to patients was not the subject of criticism' in the case of the four consultants whose awards have not been renewed.

Revised procedures issued last October to increase the 'transparency' of the awards procedure will take effect in April.

The Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association is calling for a radical 'points-based system' to make explicit the criteria on which awards are given.

HCSA president Winston Peters said it was meeting health minister John Denham within weeks to put forward proposals for a more 'quantifiable' system.

'If someone gets an award on the basis that they are a good bloke, when he loses the award is that because he is no longer a good bloke?' he asked.