The number of foreign nurses registered to work in Britain rose by 41 per cent last year.

More than 8,400 nurses and midwives from at least 24 countries outside the European Union joined the UK register in the year to April, according to figures released yesterday, as NHS hospitals increased their reliance on staff from overseas. The figure compares with 5,945 last year and 3,621 in 1999.

The biggest source was the Philippines, which supplied 3,396 registered nurses last year – four times the number recruited the year before.

South Africa and Australia were second and third on the list, both supplying more than 1,000 nurses, substantially less than in the preceding years.

But registrations from Pakistan were up 238 per cent on the previous year to 44, those from India by 201 per cent to 289, those from Malawi by 200 per cent to 45 and from Jordan by 1,000 per cent to 33. The sharp rise was revealed by the United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting (UKCC), with which all nurses mustbe registered. Officials confirmed a report in The Independent in May forecasting that overseas registrations would exceed the number of newly qualified British nurses – 15,433 last year – for the first time.

The UKCC expects to process some 29,000 overseas applications this year, and 15,000 are likely to make it on to the register. Paul Hutchinson, of the council, said: "It is clear those recruiting overseas are casting their net much wider than ever before."

It is estimated that between 35,000 to 40,000 foreign nurses are now working in Britain, amounting to nearly 10 per cent of the 375,000 nurses employed by the NHS.

But acute shortages in some hospitals,especially in London, mean that up to a third of nursing staff are from abroad. Private nursing homes have also turned to foreign staff, and there have been a string of cases where Filipino nurses have been employed on pitiful wages and exploitative contracts.

Ministers have promised to stamp out unethical recruitment in a new code of practice next month. But the Department of Health will rely on foreign recruits to meet its target of 20,000 extra nurses by 2004. A deal has already been signed to take 5,000 surplus Spanish nurses, and a similar accord could be struck with India.