Ministers have bowed to pressure and announced a new independent inquiry into the Stafford Hospital scandal.
Health Secretary Andy Burnham said the focus of the investigation would be to allow patients and their families to raise concerns about specific cases – and to get answers.
Hospital staff and NHS managers will be summoned to appear and give evidence.
Mr Burnham said they would be expected to co-operate voluntarily, but if they refused he would give the inquiry the legal power to force them to take part, under the Inquiries Act 2005.
The investigation will be chaired by barrister Robert Francis QC, a specialist in medical law.
It falls short of the full public inquiry campaigners have been demanding, but Mr Burnham said he hoped it would rebuild public confidence in the hospital by giving people who had been personally affected by the scandal to talk about their experiences.
Campaigners have been demanding an independent investigation since a Healthcare Commission report about Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the hospital, revealed “shocking” standards of care had put A&E patients at risk and may have contributed to hundreds of deaths.
But Health Secretary Alan Johnson instead ordered two reviews by senior NHS managers.
The decision provoked fury among campaigners, who claimed a full public inquiry was essential to determine what had gone wrong.
Stafford campaign group Cure the NHS, which represents patients and their families, said they welcomed Mr Burnham’s announcement “as a step forward” but still believed a full public inquiry was needed.
Spokeswoman Julie Bailey said: “The two reviews which have taken place were not independent. This time there is a QC appointed who has an excellent reputation.
“We had been hoping for a public inquiry. There is a fear that this investigation won’t go far enough. But that is something we will have to discuss with out solicitors once we get the terms of the inquiry.”
Local MP David Kidney (Lab Stafford) said: “I am able to welcome the inquiry as announced because of the clear statement from the Ministers that if the inquiry is obstructed in any way they will convert it into a public inquiry with powers to compel attendance and give evidence.”
But Conservative shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said a full public inquiry was still needed.
He added: “While I welcome the acknowledgement that individual cases have not been given a sufficient hearing, other critical issues have been sidelined.
“The terms of reference neither scrutinise the role of the Department of Health nor the impact of the Government’s policies. In addition, they don’t incorporate the relationship between the commissioning bodies and those with oversight and scrutiny at the trust. “
Mr Burnham also announced plans to change the law so that Foundation Hospitals can lose their status if they fail to provide services to an acceptable standard.
His proposals would give the Government the power to demand that Monitor, the independent watchdog for Foundation Hospitals, explain why a hospital deserved to be a Foundation trust, with more independence than standard NHS hospitals.
It follows a damning inquiry by the Commons Health Committee, which accused Monitor of “serious shortcomings” in its handling of Mid-Staffordshire Foundation Trust.
Mr Burnham said: “Together these measures will help the hospital improve more quickly and ensure that patients and people in Stafford can have confidence in their local hospital.”