Dobson: I'm sorry about rise in waiting lists

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A multi-million pound boost to NHS spending is on the way in the Chancellor's spring Budget following yesterday's record waiting-list figures, which threaten to break a key Labour election pledge. Treasury ministers were engaged in discussions with the Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, who is seeking an extra pounds 500m for the health service over the next 12 months. Mr Dobson, who has the Prime Minister's backing, went as far as he could in public yesterday in signalling that he has won his battle in principle with the Treasury to gain more money for the health service. Pressed to say when there would be good news for the health service, Mr Dobson said: "Soon." Asked how soon, Mr Dobson said: "Watch this space." The argument with Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is over how much extra he will get in the Budget on top of the additional pounds 1.5bn announced by Mr Brown in last year's Budget.

Mr Dobson, regarded by many as Old Labour, won plaudits from the Prime Minister's office for his handling of the latest figures showing hospital waiting lists have risen by 100,000 since Labour came to power, to a total 1,250,000 patients waiting for treatment.

The Health Secretary adopted the approach of admitting some responsibility for the rising figures and said they were embarrassing the Government. "There's no point in me pretending that these are not bad figures. I have got to take some responsibility for it, because I am not going to pretend that I am not partly responsible."

Mr Dobson's decision to tackle the crisis facing accident and emergency departments contributed to the higher figures, because it delayed the numbers waiting for elective surgery. Labour went into the election promising to cut waiting lists by 100,000 and yesterday's figures mean Labour will have to double the cut to 200,000 by the end of the Parliament to avoid breaking its pledge.

Mr Blair has told Cabinet colleagues, including the Chancellor, that he is determined the Government will not break its promise to the voters on health. Whitehall sources said it was crucially important to protect the health service this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the NHS by a Labour government.

The Prime Minister knows he will face a backbench rebellion over the NHS if he fails to order more money for it. Unrest on the Labour backbench surfaced at Prime Minister's question time on Wednesday when Dennis Skinner called for more money.

The Chancellor is resisting raiding the contingency reserve, which could be wiped out by the cost of a war with Iraq. But Labour MPs are confident Mr Dobson will win more. Rhodri Morgan, a former Labour spokesman on health in Wales, said: "There will be huge celebrations in July for the 50th anniversary and a number of MPs will be visiting the grave of Nye Bevan. If waiting lists are still going up then, people will be expecting to hear him revolving in his grave."

The number waiting more than the patients' charter limit of 18 months rose from 385 in June to 974 at the end of December but Mr Dobson is on track to fulfil the pledge and stop such long waits by the end of March.