Labour promises `action to end gag on NHS staff'

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Doctors and nurses will be restored to the boards of health authorities and hospitals if Labour wins the next election, Harriet Harman, the party's health spokeswoman, said yesterday.

A Labour government would also "act to end the gag on NHS staff", she said, believing that it was in the public interest for "all health-service staff to be able to speak freely about their professional concerns".

But she told a British Medical Association meeting in Leeds that Labour would also set "tough new standards for patient care".

That would include not just published targets for reduced waiting times in the National Health Service, but also tables setting out the numbers of patients readmitted for treatment at hospitals, and the number who suffered infections after treatment.

"This kind of information will be published nationally for the first time, and made available to patients," Ms Harman said.

Her move came as Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, appeared to rule out moves by NHS trusts to sell their own-brand health insurance to patients.

Some 30 trusts are said to have had discussions with private insurers on launching schemes which could range from the promise of a fast-track for waiting-list operations to full cut-price private cover or cash allowances during NHS stays.

Gerald Malone, Health minister, told MPs a fortnight ago that there was "no objection to NHS trusts offering branded insurance policies", but Mr Dorrell confirmed yesterday that such an approach had "no place in our plans for the future of the NHS".

In a letter to Alan Milburn, the Labour health spokesman, he maintained that Mr Malone's answer was a statement of "the long-standing legal position".

But he added: "I do not believe that private health insurance schemes could in any circumstances be introduced without an unacceptable risk to public funds. I do not be- lieve there is any reason for the NHS to involve itself in that activity."

Mr Milburn argued that Mr Dorrell's comments amounted to a major climbdown after Mr Malone's comments.

The Health minister, he claimed, had "let the cat out of the bag" by revealing the Conservatives' real intentions for the NHS, but had now been "slapped down" by Mr Dorrell.