Health secretary Frank Dobson will ask the NHS to conduct an official, open survey of staff shortages by the end of the financial year to resolve 'stupid disputes' between management and staff over figures.

Mr Dobson disclosed the plans to the Commons health select committee inquiry into NHS staffing last week, while admitting: 'I have no doubt we have a serious nursing shortage.'

'There are probably 9,000 or so nurse vacancies that have been vacancies for three months or more, but it isn't standard across the country, ' he said. 'It is not even standard between one region or one small geographical area.'

He added that the figures were based on 'observations and talking to people' rather than hard statistics because 'a lot of the data at the centre is quite inadequate to the task'.

At the hearing, he said Britain was part of a 'global scandal' in which the developed world took doctors and nurses trained at the expense of the developing world.

He had discussed the situation with the World Health Organisation and suggested that a 'government-to-government' agreement was needed to allow staff to come to Britain for training in specialist skills rather than 'this spatchcock arrangement' in which hospitals sent out recruitment teams.