The merger of the health and social care inspectorates looks set to be delayed by at least six months following the absence of a bill to implement it in the Queen's Speech.
The delay was signalled last week when a long-awaited bill to merge the Healthcare Commission and the adult functions of the Commission for Social Care Inspection was left out of the government's legislative programme for the year ahead.
A CSCI spokesman said staff were being told the merger would not now go ahead until 'late' in the target year of 2008. It had originally been expected to take effect in the spring.
The news comes a week before the publication of the long-awaited regulatory review, carried out by McKinsey for the Department of Health.
A DoH spokesman said it was still 'committed' to the merger, first proposed by chancellor Gordon Brown in his 2005 Budget. Any bill would follow consultation on the review, scheduled for 'this autumn', said the spokesperson.
The NHS Confederation welcomed the delay. Policy manager Maria Nyberg said: 'It is clear,
when you look at the two organisations, that they are actually quite different.
'The types of organisation they inspect are also very different. So when looking at how they might be merged, it is best to take the time to get it right in the context of a wider regulation review.'
Healthcare Commission head of strategy Jamie Rentoul said: 'It makes sense for the DoH to consult ahead of any legislation for a new body or a new function.'
The government will have other controversial health legislation to deal with in the coming parliamentary term. The day after the Queen's Speech, health minister Rosie Winterton and Home Office minister Gerry Sutcliffe published the 2006 Mental Health Bill.
The bill follows the DoH's decision to scrap plans for a new mental health act in March after eight years of consultation.
Opposition MPs, doctors' leaders and mental health campaigners have already indicated that they will not give the bill a smooth ride.
Dr Tony Calland, chair of the British Medical Association's medical ethics committee, said the civil liberties of people with mental disorders could be 'severely compromised' if the legislation went ahead.
The BMA is also concerned about another part of the government's legislative programme: a bill to create a single, UK-wide regulator for in vitro fertilisation, embryology, human tissues and transplantation, to replace two existing regulatory bodies.
Dr Calland said the functions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Tissue Authority were 'very different' and 'there should be a proper debate on whether a new body is needed and how it should be set up'.