Brown warns of Tory plan 'to cut £3bn from NHS'

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The Chancellor of the Exchequer began "a battle for the soul of this country" yesterday and warned that the Conservatives would cut up to £3bn from National Health Service funding to finance plans for private medicine.

As part of a summer offensive to set clear battle lines with the Tories over public services, Gordon Brown said the Opposition's strategy would either take health care back to the 1930s or lead to an American-style service "where they checked your wallet before they checked your pulse".

Mr Brown, who will run Labour's general election campaign, told delegates to the annual conference of Amicus-AWU that a Conservative government would need to take £1bn from the NHS to fund planned tax relief on private medical insurance. Funding 60 per cent of the cost of private operations, under the Tory scheme, would cost up to £2bn.

That was the equivalent of 1p on income tax and it would benefit the richest people, not the middle class or low paid.

"Is this what they mean by a fair deal? A fair deal but just for Bupa members. A fair deal but just for private medicine. This is an insight into Tory priorities; an insight into what matters most to them.

"Where we believe in an NHS free to all at the point of need, they want to make people pay." The Tory policy constituted the biggest threat to the health service since it was established in 1948 and was an "own goal", he said, adding that voters could choose between reforming and investing in the NHS or privatising it.

Mr Brown's speech in Blackpool was part of a campaign to persuade Labour's grassroots supporters that, if they harboured misgivings on NHS reform, they should realise the Conservative alternative was far worse. The Chancellor will need the help of thousands of trade union activists to act as foot soldiers in the next general election campaign.

His concentration on the health service was also seen as a means of deflecting attention from the problems of manufacturing, which are near the top of the Amicus agenda.

After the speech, the Chancellor held talks with Derek Simpson, the union's general secretary, on problems encountered by the aerospace industry.Mr Simpson later told delegates that 20,000 aerospace jobs had been lost in Britain since the 11 September attack in America, but only 500 had disappeared on the Continent.