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Labour to target medical body: Discussion paper will back reform of training and merit awards

THE STATUTORY powers of the General Medical Council to police doctors would be handed over to an independent body under radical Labour plans to overhaul the medical profession.

In a discussion paper due out soon, the party is expected to say that the GMC no longer carries public confidence. It will call for a new body to investigate and discipline those guilty of professional misconduct.

Labour's health team cites two recent decisions of the GMC. Earlier this month, the council's professional conduct committee decided that Michael Bewick - who was involved in the sale of kidneys from Turkish peasants for transplant three years ago - could resume private practice. The committee also lifted practice restrictions it imposed last year on Ajeet Pasricha, an anaesthetist who went for a coffee break during an operation on a 10-year-old boy. The boy, a patient at Ingham Infirmary, South Shields, died later after complications developed.

David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, said: 'At present it is rather like the Stock Exchange being asked to investigate insider dealing.'

In its discussion paper, Labour will also demand a shake- up of the merit award scheme for hospital consultants that currently costs pounds 113.5m. These 'bonus' payments of up to pounds 47,200, are awarded annually by committees dominated by doctors. In its report last year, the Doctors and Dentists Pay Review Body criticised secrecy over the payments, which male consultants are twice as likely to receive as female consultants.

Dawn Primarolo, a member of Labour's frontbench health team, calculates this money could pay for an extra 2,027 consultants and help cut hospital waiting lists. Britain has fewer doctors per head of population than any other EC country, 1.4 per thousand population, compared with 2.6 in France, 2.9 in Germany and 3.6 in Spain.

Alternatively, the merit award system could be opened up to nurses and other hospital staff to increase incentives and reward professional excellence. 'Why should it be restricted to consultants?' she said.

The discussion document will further support junior doctors' demands for an end to the restrictive practices in medicine that control most appointments to consultant posts.