Labour pledge on NHS schemes

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The Labour Party has written to Tory MPs promising that any incoming administration would honour private finance schemes for National Health Service hospitals that have been signed before the general election.

Where a contract has not been signed by the time a future Labour government took office, Chris Smith, the party's health spokesman, has told the MPs: "We will be seeking urgent ways of speeding up the process."

Mr Smith said any hospitals at the head of the list would continue to receive priority attention. The letters mark a sharp shift in policy from his predecessor, Harriet Harman, who attacked the private finance initiative as privatisation.

It was raised by Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, in a Commons debate led by Labour to attack the Government over the rise in waiting list figures to a record total of more than a million.

Mr Dorrell said that although Mr Smith had done a U-turn on Labour policy, he had given no explanation of how an incoming Labour government would speed up the provision of private finance for hospitals, which could help to cut the waiting lists. Mr Dorrell insisted the number waiting for more than a year had been brought down from an average of 200,000 to 22,000.

Mr Smith said that in spite of a government assurance last week that cancer patients were not waiting for treatment, 42 per cent of cancer patients had to wait more than 30 days.

The NHS is seen by Labour as one of the key areas where Labour can defeat the Tories at the election, and all leave was cancelled for last night's vote, forcing Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, to delay a trip to Hong Kong.

But Mr Dorrell is defending the Government's position by going on the offensive, with a series of initiatives for the expansion of family doctor services. He is to publish a draft Bill to encourage patients to take out private insurance for long-term care if they need it in their old age, to avoid having to sell their homes to pay for treatment.

He also accused Labour of a "vacuum" over health policy and of "empty rhetoric". But Mr Smith used the opposition debate to warn voters in the Wirral South by-election on Thursday that if a Tory government was elected, it would herald the break-up of the NHS, and a switch to private health.

Accusing ministers of "massaging" hospital waiting list figures, he charged Mr Dorrell with "running rather too obviously for the Tory party leadership instead of addressing the real issues".

Opening the debate on the NHS, Mr Smith warned of a "general deterioration in the state of the health service".

n The House of Lords last night inflicted a surprise defeat on the plans of Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, to increase selection in grant-maintained schools, voting by a majority of 17 to insist on local consultation on any such moves.

Leading article, page 13