The regulator for nurses and midwives has "fallen down" on its task of enforcing acceptable standards of practice in recent years, MPs have said.
Over a number of years, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) has failed to understand its function and properly prioritise patient safety, according to the Health Committee.
Committee chairman Stephen Dorrell said: "The NMC's job is to protect patient safety by registering nurses and midwives and by enforcing acceptable standards of practice. The simple fact is that in recent years it has fallen down on that task."
The committee has carried out an accountability hearing with the NMC. Mr Dorrell said: "We welcome the fact that the new management team in the NMC is committed to address its failings, and that the latest evidence shows that its performance is improving.
"However, there continues to be a serious gap between current performance and acceptable standards. The NMC has proposed that fitness to practise cases should be decided on average within 18 months of a complaint being received; the committee proposes that the average time taken to decide a fitness to practise case should be reduced to nine months, and the maximum time should be set at 12 months.
"In the words of the new chair of the NMC, its fitness to practise functions are the engine room of the organisation, but the regulator still faces a huge backlog of cases, some of which should have been resolved years ago.
"Measures to work through this have been put in place by the NMC's new management team and we are optimistic that these changes will eventually bear fruit. Nevertheless, we believe the NMC must set to this task with greater urgency."
The committee said chronic under-investment had characterised the NMC's past approach to fitness to practise cases.
Mr Dorrell said: "It is unacceptable that the NMC underestimated the budget for its fitness to practise directorate by 30%. The committee will be seeking reassurance at the next accountability hearing that this management failure has been addressed."
The committee also said the language and communication skills of nurses and midwives remained a concern. Mr Dorrell said: "Some progress has been made within the EU, and we welcome the Government's willingness to take administrative action in the UK to address this issue. This remains an issue of real concern for its impact on patient safety."