Private sector in NHS to be extended

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Labour will pledge to extend the role of the private sector in providing treatment for National Health Service patients in its general election manifesto published today.

Labour will pledge to extend the role of the private sector in providing treatment for National Health Service patients in its general election manifesto published today.

The 110-page document, entitled Britain Forward not Back, will promise that whenever patients need extra capacity, Labour will ensure it is provided "from whatever source" - either the NHS, the voluntary or private sector.

The manifesto envisages a bigger role for private health providers in "specialist services" including palliative care. By the end of 2008, GPs will be able to send their patients to any hospital in the country that meets NHS medical and financial standards.

Labour's plan worries some party traditionalists but is among a new raft of public service reforms pushed by Blairite ministers including Alan Milburn, Labour's election co-ordinator, John Reid, the Health Secretary, Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, and Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary.

Modernisers claim the 23,000-word manifesto is a New Labour prospectus and the most radical in the party's history. They hope it will scotch suggestions that Tony Blair has run out of steam after eight years.

But the Prime Minister will move to head off a repeat of the row with the trade unions over the private sector's role which followed the publication of Labour's 2001 manifesto. Today Labour will insist that NHS treatment will remain free at the point of use and deny that its plans amount to backdoor privatisation of the service.

The manifesto will insist that the proposal is not based on dogma but puts "the user in the driving seat" and extends "patient power" and "choice" throughout the NHS.

Other themes include a parallel move on "parent power" in schools, a pledge to create "a genuine meritocracy" to allow everyone to achieve their full potential whatever their background and new policies on climate change. The manifesto will rule out any increase in the basic or top rates of income tax but will leave the door open to a rise in national insurance.

In his preface to the document, Mr Blair will make clear that he wants a third term in order to drive his reforms "further and faster" and compares them with the changes brought in by the Attlee and Thatcher governments. "We must make progressive change in this country irreversible," he says. "I believe that in our third term we can embed a new progressive consensus."

The Prime Minister writes: "Our vision is clear: a country more equal in its opportunities, more secure in its communities, more confident in its future. It is our social contract: we help you, you help yourself.

"So now, I fight my last election as leader of my party and Prime Minister of our country. My call is a passionate one: let's together make irreversible the positive changes that are happening. Let's make the values of social justice and a fair deal for all the governing ideal of our country not just for some time but for all time. People freed from barriers of class, building a better future for themselves and for the country. Self-interest and national interest together."

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