3,645 people died in English hospitals because of errors by National Health Service (NHS) staff during 2007-8 compared to 2,275 in 2005-6, say the Liberal Democrats.

Party spokesmen, who obtained the data from the National Patient Safety Agency (NPSA), say that included in this total are: - 22 people who died as a result of abuse by hospital staff or third parties; - 309 people who died in infection control incidents; - 14 deaths resulting from mix-ups with forms and records; and -171 deaths from accidents.

Health officials point out that the higher figures are in fact due to improved reporting, but Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb described most of these deaths as “avoidable and completely unacceptable. Along with very high standards in most hospitals, there are also areas of completely unacceptable practice. At the heart of this problem is weak management and indifferent political leadership.”

Mr Lamb called on the NHS to “get serious” about improving patient safety, as the Healthcare Commission argued in its recent report on the state of health care in England and Wales. “We need a complete cultural change so that every part of the NHS has systems in place to ensure patient safety," said Mr Lamb.

In the Commission’s final annual report to Parliament last month, the healthcare watchdog had concluded that the safety of care is now higher up the NHS agenda but that Trusts are still not doing enough to monitor and learn from incidents and ensure good practice is followed.

“We have made the safety of care our highest priority - safe care is the first building block of good quality care,” said the Commission’s chairman, Sir Ian Kennedy. However, he added that we are “a long way from an NHS that hungrily and systematically examines its own performance, gathers in and learns from mistakes, reinforces good practice and does things differently for the future.”

The NPSA’s medical director, Dr Kevin Cleary, responded to the Commission’s findings by pointing out that frontline NHS organisations can only learn from incidents if they utilise the correct methods of analysis of incidents and share these with the wider NHS through the Agency. “We clinically review all 1,500 serious incidents reported to the Agency each month and are using this as a platform to further improve reporting and learning by clinical staff,” said Dr Cleary.