The head of the Institute of Biomedical Science is standing by a survey that claims one in 10 NHS laboratories is using unqualified staff in testing processes, despite putting his name to a Department of Health rebuttal statement.

Chief executive Alan Potter agreed a joint statement 'refuting claims that the IBMS survey has reported that clerical staff are involved in cancer testing'.

But he told H S J that although the unpublished survey had not explicitly linked clerical staff with cancer testing - as was incorrectly reported in national newspapers - neither had it ruled this out.

'I'm quite sure that more sensitive tests like cervical smears are being done by qualified staff, but if unqualified staff are being used, some (cancer tests) will be done by unqualified staff.'

The survey of 280 labs found that 58 per cent were using inappropriate and unqualified staff instead of biomedical scientists, with 10 per cent using staff who included clerical workers. Mr Potter denied that he had been reprimanded by the DoH, saying: 'We would never respond to a slap on the wrists.'

He said low pay was at the root of a recruitment and retention crisis so severe it was forcing trusts to 'break guidelines on appropriate staffing and expose themselves to the risk of litigation'.

A DoH attempt to divert criticism by highlighting a 26 per cent pay offer for the lowest-paid medical laboratory scientific officers also appears to have backfired.

A DoH spokesperson told H S J that about 1,000 staff would receive the rise. But MSF head of health Roger Kline said: 'We did a sample ring-round yesterday and only two labs were aware of people who were on the bottom rung [and eligible for 26 per cent].

'Pay is so low trusts can't get people to start at the bottom so they are having to put them in on a higher scale point. It's called grade drift.'

By MSF calculations, even with extra allowances for staff on lower grades, the average rise proposed for lab staff is less than 5 per cent.

Mr Potter said he knew of no-one who was eligible for a 26 per cent rise and accused the DoH of a 'mathematical exercise'.

Lorraine Norden, director of pathology at University College London Hospital trust, said: 'The fact that pay is appalling is something that almost everyone would agree with.'

But she disputed claims that unqualified staff were doing any more than filing samples, data collection and 'fetching and carrying'.