The only place for lawyers in a hospital 'is on the operating table' - health secretary Frank Dobson told MPs last week.

A ripple of laughter greeted his aside at the health select committee, triggered by a question from Labour's Howard Stoate on whether a no-fault compensation scheme might help the NHS.

'I am very concerned at the huge rise in the number of cases of litigation, ' Mr Dobson added, warming to a favourite theme. 'It is obvious that in some cases lawyers are doing nothing but feathering their own nests.'

The health select committee is holding an investigation into adverse medical incidents.

Chair David Hinchliffe opened last Thursday's session by suggesting to Mr Dobson that incidents were 'compounded by the complaints system', which 'seems to me a bit of a mess'.

Mr Dobson said it was 'a shambles'.

An expert committee under chief medical officer Professor Liam Donaldson had been set up, including representatives from the oil and airline industries, to develop a system for recording adverse incidents - even if they did not lead to complaints - and learning from them.

Professor Donaldson told the committee there were four aspects to improving the present situation. They were: evaluating the three-year-old NHS complaints procedure; improving the NHS's ability to learn from adverse incidents; improving poor clinical performance, guidance on which is due 'shortly'; and investigating trends.

'A problem with litigation is that the opportunity to learn from incidents is lost, ' he said. 'Everything becomes sub-judice and vanishes underground.'

Mr Dobson also told Mr Stoate that 'we have to find a better way of compensating people'.

He told Labour veteran Audrey Wise that if a 'wholly satisfactory' compensation system could be devised, it would be 'possible to imagine' that people would not be allowed to go through the courts.

If he was feeling uncharitable about lawyers, Mr Dobson was in a more relaxed mood about doctors.

While agreeing with committee members that there were problems with the current system of professional self-regulation, he argued that was 'right' because 'I cannot imagine how we could carry out any other system without substantial input from the profession.

'If I wanted to monitor heart operations, for example, I would rather ask for advice from Sir Magdi Yacoub than the editor of The Guardian or the Consumers' Association, ' he said.