The care home watchdog, which is facing severe criticism over its failure to detect the abuse of vulnerable adults, is suffering a double crisis of unfilled posts and low morale.

More than 280 posts are vacant at the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and the most recent staff survey discovered that the vast majority were disillusioned with their jobs. Exacerbating the problems, the watchdog is locked in a war of words with the Government over the blame for the lack of recruitment.

The CQC has come under fire for ignoring a whistleblower’s warning over the behaviour of staff at Winterbourne View residential hospital, Bristol, where an undercover reporter filmed shocking scenes of abuse of patients.

Questions over its ability to police the sector have also been fuelled by the parlous financial state of Southern Cross Healthcare, which runs the country’s biggest chain of care homes.

Yesterday Nick Clegg’s parliamentary aide, Norman Lamb, said he had “very serious concerns” about the regulation of care homes and accused the CQC of doing little to persuade whistleblowers to come forward.

The watchdog has 283 vacant positions, including 133 for care home inspectors. As a result the inspection team is 15 per cent understaffed.

It is embroiled in a row with the Department of Health over who is responsible for the shortfall. The CQC insists the posts are empty because of a recruitment freeze imposed on quangos last year by the new coalition government.

But the Department of Health strongly disputes its version of events, insisting it had lifted the freeze four months ago and last October gave permission for the recruitment of 75 inspectors despite the wider ban on public sector appointments. It added: “The hiring of inspectors and staff is the direct responsibility of the CQC.”

The commission received evidence last year of the disenchantment among employees. Its annual staff survey discovered just 18 per cent said morale was good in their part of the organisation.

Only one in six (16 per cent) said it was well-managed, 14 per cent had confidence in decisions by management and seven per cent believed its internal communications were good.

The CQC chief executive, Cynthia Bower, has acknowledged “morale has taken a hit” as the watchdog adjusted to a new regulatory system set up three years ago. Unions blame the low morale on work pressure on staff who have to deal with high levels of bureaucracy and encounter regular problems with computer systems.

The CQC has admitted it failed to respond to at least two warnings from a former nurse about the treatment of vulnerable adults at Winterbourne View residential hospital and have issued an “unreserved apology”. The Government ordered a report into how warnings were disregarded.

The commission conceded yesterday inspection rates had fallen while care providers were brought into the new system. A spokeswoman said: “The rate of inspections is now rising again, although it is too early to say at what level it will settle. Our aim is still to review every home at least two-yearly and for the great majority this will involve a site visit.”

Mr Lamb, a Liberal Democrat health spokesman, spoke of his “very serious concerns” over the warnings ignored by the commission.

“If you go to the CQC website it actually says 'even though we cannot investigate your individual complaint for you, we'd like to hear of your experience'. Now that's hardly an invitation for people to come forward with concerns,” he told the BBC.

He pointed to Law Commission’s finding that social care legislation needed reform and the review headed by the economist Andrew Dilnot commission into how to meet the country’s spiralling care bills.

“There is a real opportunity now to get both the law and the funding fit for purpose, and the Government will be looking at those issues. We have an extraordinarily diverse sector here, with many private and voluntary sector organisations, but nothing in place to provide for market failure."