OBJECTIVES: To report the outcome of applications to 43 research ethics committees. SETTING: Four regional health authorities in England. FINDINGS: The research ethics committees varied considerably in their practices. The time lapse until notification of the outcome of the approval ranged from just under one week to 23 weeks with a mean of 8.6 weeks. Four research ethics committees failed to notify the research team of an outcome of their request for approval. CONCLUSION: A national research ethics committee is needed to review national and multi-location research studies in the light of the fragmented and variable practice of local research ethics committees.