An independent inquiry into Britain's system for disciplining doctors today accuses the General Medical Council (GMC) of dealing more harshly with foreign doctors than with UK colleagues.

NHS doctors trained overseas are more than three times as likely to be found guilty of a disciplinary offence than UK-trained colleagues, despite attracting the same volume of complaints, the inquiry found. Reasons for the discrepancy remain unexplained but the report says that in the absence of "objective measures" showing complaints against foreign doctors are more serious, the GMC "remains open to accusations of bias".

The finding will dismay ministers, who are trying to recruit more doctors from overseas to bolster the NHS. The shortage of home-grown doctors is the single greatest obstacle to the Government's pledge to cut waiting lists and expand the service.

Yesterday, council officials agreed they could be accused of racism. Doctors qualifying abroad up 30 per cent of the UK medical workforce and attract 30 per cent of all complaints. In 2001, they accounted for 58 per cent of doctors charged with serious professional misconduct.

UK-trained doctors had 70 per cent of the complaints but in 2001 accounted for 42 per cent of those charged with serious professional misconduct. Doctors from overseas were also more likely to be found guilty and to get a harsher sentence. In 2001, 77 per cent were found guilty, compared with 60 per cent of the UK doctors.

Even among doctors convicted in courts, those with UK qualifications were less likely to face a full disciplinary hearing than those trained abroad. The report concludes: "The main problem ... [is] that there is no discernible common agreement on the criteria and threshold to be applied."