Doctors and nurses would be given a contractual right to "blow the whistle" on malpractice in hospitals without fear of being sacked or disciplined, under plans to improve NHS safety.
Ministers also want to set up an independent "whistleblowing watchdog" to which staff could turn if their concerns were not addressed.
The proposals were announced yesterday by the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, in the aftermath of the nursing standards scandal in Staffordshire. He said a "culture of fear" had pervaded Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, where between 400 and 1,200 patients died because of poor nursing care between 2005 and 2009, which enabled problems to continue "unchallenged and undetected for so long".
Mr Lansley said a cultural shift in the NHS would make it easier for staff to highlight failings. One such whistleblower was Dr Kim Holt, a consultant paediatrician who claims she was forced out of her job after raising concerns about the clinic where the abused toddler Peter Connelly, known as Baby P, was seen in the days before he died after suffering more than 50 injuries.
In another case, a nurse, Margaret Haywood, was struck off for going under cover and secretly filming the neglect of elderly patients at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton for the BBC's Panorama programme.
The issue of whistleblowing has been highlighted by The Independent. In August, a study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found NHS staff were routinely forced to sign "gagging orders" when they left a hospital trust. Last night, the Department of Health said all hospitals should be aware that such agreements were entirely unacceptable.