You reported my recent appearance before the House of Commons public administration committee (News Focus, page 12-13, 16 July). It must have been in a parallel universe: the meeting I attended was very different.

With the Bristol tragedy in mind, the committee asked what my office could do about concerns raised by 'whistleblowers' about poor medical performance.

I told them that my current role is restricted by law to investigating complaints from people who have themselves suffered injustice or hardship as a result of alleged maladministration, failure of service or failure to provide a service.

I cannot investigate generalised complaints about quality of care. I cannot investigate complaints by a member of staff about a colleague's performance. Nor can I decide on my own initiative to investigate a matter without a complaint being put to me.

If I do investigate a complaint and discover serious shortcomings in the standard of care or treatment, I can say so in my report and a copy of this will be sent to the secretary of state. If I find information which suggests that someone is likely to constitute a threat to the health or safety of patients, and that information is not included in the report, then I can bring it to the attention of, for example, the appropriate regulatory body. But I cannot pass on mere allegations.

I therefore could not inform trusts, the General Medical Council, the chief medical officer or anyone else of allegations made to me, however serious: I could only urge the complainant to approach the appropriate body .

If Parliament chose to widen my powers the situation would be different. But even then, I am sure the future Commission for Health Improvement would be best suited to investigate hospitals or departments where the clinical performance was below standard. I hope that the legal provision for the commission will allow me appropriate discretion to draw matters to its attention, if I believe that doing so will benefit patients, and allow us to exchange information as appropriate.

You also reported that of the 2,660 complaints put to my office in 1997- 98, only 120 were about clinical judgement.

In fact, the vast majority of the 2,660 complaints included some clinical matters. As you reported, many had not yet been put to the NHS body concerned, so I had to reject them.

During the year I accepted 113 cases for investigation, of which 39 were clinical.

Finally, only four out of the 120 investigations I completed in 1997- 98 took longer than 76 weeks and none took as long as two years. That was four too many. But the average was 45 weeks.

Michael Buckley

Health service commissioner