Duncan Smith says public would be willing to look at 'other ways' to pay for health care

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Patients would be prepared to pay new charges for treatment on the National Health Service, the Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said yesterday.

He refused to rule out charging people to see their GPs, insisting that "we are already being charged".

Challenged about the possibility of new NHS charges on the BBC's On The Record programme, Mr Duncan Smith said people were "prepared to look at other ways" of paying for health care.

He said: "My point is, the public already know they're paying. The problem for them is they don't get the service that they feel they ought to.

"That's the priority: if we can get the reform changed, if we can get the structure better so that people get a better quality, we can look at how we raise the extra finance, then I think people would say, 'I'm prepared to pay and that's how I'm doing it. I'm doing it through tax, I'm prepared to look at other ways.'"

He said: "The Labour government already charges people. They charge them for their prescriptions, you know to go and see a dentist you get charged." Mr Duncan Smith's comments will fuel the increasingly angry debate over health funding. Tony Blair has used the prospect of increased NHS charges under the Conservatives to repel continued attacks about the Government's progress in securing NHS reform.

The Conservative leader insisted that the Conservatives were focussing on a programme of NHS reform before considering ways of funding the service.

He said: "Our priority is to deal with the public services, to bring a radical set of reforms that will give people that choice of quality. Once we have done that we can look at how to finance that."

The Tory leader spoke after former party leader William Hague said that Mr Duncan Smith was among those who "begged" him not to resign after their general election defeat in June.

Interviewed on BBC1's Breakfast with Frost, Mr Hague said: "Many colleagues urged me to carry on. Iain Duncan Smith was one of them. He didn't want the job for himself. He was one of my most loyal colleagues and begged me to carry on.

"But I wasn't going to be persuaded on this occasion by Iain or any of the others because I had made up my mind and I think it was right."

Mr Hague praised his successor as "honest, well-informed, intelligent, thoughtful, hard-working and right about everything he speaks about".

Mr Hague said: "I think we have chosen the right man and I think he will do very well."

Mr Hague said he would remain an MP and confirmed that he planned to contest the next general election. But he said he "would take a lot of persuading" to accept a front-bench job again.

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