The government's review of consultant suspensions is considering proposals for a 12-month limit to control the 'inordinate amount of time' devoted to some cases.

The review, ordered by former health minister Alan Milburn last October, is looking at plans for an automatic review of all suspensions lasting more than a year.

Suspensions should be lifted if bodies could not prove 'exceptional reasons' to prolong investigations, Department of Health officials told the Commons health select committee during a hearing about its inquiry into adverse incident procedures.

Head of branch employment issues Robin Heron said: 'As a matter of principle, suspensions should not go on for more than 12 months without good reason.

'At that point there needs to be some sort of review of the situation... only exceptionally should a suspension continue.'

A consultation document 'later this year' will follow a report to ministers due 'very soon', the DoH said. Mr Heron said 'increasing concern... particularly about the inordinate amount of time' some suspensions lasted had led officials to identify a number of areas for improvement.

These included avoidance of suspensions via the early detection of potential problems and earlier action - such as increased supervision of underperforming doctors.

He said current guidance to trusts encouraging this route should be 'strengthened'.

He told the committee that he was 'not aware of any increase in the number of suspensions'.

But he admitted that the DoH did not collect figures for suspensions lasting less than six months.

The lack of available data on issues surrounding adverse incidents angered committee members, who criticised what they called a 'laid back' and 'pass the buck' attitude.

DoH head of corporate affairs Martin Staniforth told the committee he did not think the number of adverse clinical incidents had increased in recent years. But he admitted: 'I don't think we have figures that we could use to track the number of adverse incidents over time.'

MP David Amess told fellow committee members: 'I for one have not been reassured at all. I would have thought this would have been a major responsibility for the department.'

Earlier, committee chair David Hinchliffe queried regional office arrangements for reporting incidents by trusts and primary care goups. Mr Staniforth told him that reporting procedures 'may well vary from office to office', while responsibility to initiate action would lie 'for most of the problems' with trusts.

Committee member Audrey Wise replied: 'Your answer implied there is quite a variation in the way offices handle these things - and also that you weren't too aware of how they were handling things.

'I would have thought steps would have been taken to find the best way of handling these matters.'