All organisations providing services to the NHS will be contractually obliged to inform patients and relatives if a mistake has been made under proposals set out by the government.

A ‘duty of candour’ would be written into the NHS Standard Contracts requiring organisations to be open about where a mistake has caused moderate or severe harm or death.

The Department of Health has launched a consultation on the proposals asking for views on what exactly the duty should require the NHS to do, what the penalties should be for breaching the duty and whether organisations should have to make an annual declaration of openness.

It also asks what support patients and clinicians would like to help them act when they feel the NHS is not being open about an incident.

Health secretary Andrew Lansley said: “We must develop a culture of openness in the NHS. This is a key part of how a modern NHS should be – open and accountable to the public and patients to drive improvements in care.

“That’s why we are introducing a requirement on providers to be transparent in admitting mistakes. We need to find the most effective way to promote openness and hold those organisations who are not open to account.”

However, members of patient safety charity Action Against Medical Accidents (AvMA), which has been campaigning for a duty of candour for more than 20 years, are unhappy the duty will be a contractual one and not a statutory one and have called for it to be a condition of being licensed by the Care Quality Commission.

Chief executive Peter Walsh said: “We challenge the Department of Health to consult on the substantive issue of whether a duty of candour should form part of the licensing arrangements with the CQC rather than merely the vague ‘contractual’ duty they are proposing.

“To restrict the discussion to how to implement their own watered down version of a duty of candour calls into question how seriously they take this issue and their willingness to listen.”