New health secretary Andy Burnham has refused to match or better his political shadow’s pledge to give the NHS “real terms” funding increases from 2011-12.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley’s statement yesterday that a future Conservative government would give the NHS continued “real terms” spending increases and pay for that by cutting other areas of public spending led to speculation that the Conservatives were either manipulating their figures or had inadvertently announced swingeing cuts elsewhere.

Asked if he could match Andrew Lansley’s controversial pledge, Mr Burnham told the NHS Confederation conference in Liverpool: “The NHS isn’t immune to what is happening in the wider world.”

He said the prime minister had indicated his commitment and intention to maintain spending levels in the NHS but he said the service “can’t and shouldn’t expect” to see funding grow at the same pace it had over the last five years.

He then urged the audience of NHS managers to judge the Labour government’s commitment to the NHS by its performance over the last 12 years. “Look at our record. This government has looked after the NHS and funded it properly,” he said.

Asked if he could commit to real terms spending growth after 2010-11 he said no one would thank him if he “used a form of words” to wiggle around the issue.

Asked separately by HSJ if he would take up NHS Confederation chief executive Steve Barnett’s call for unions and NHS employers to start discussions about the next pay round in a bid to help NHS managers plan their spending, Mr Burnham said he would talk about the issue with Mr Barnett.

But he added: “it’s hard to sign a new pay deal without knowing what the next spending review is. We couldn’t sensibly sign a new deal, but we could do the preparatory work.” That work could begin to discuss the broad parameters of the next deal, he said, adding that the establishment of the social partnership forum meant there was now a “much better dialogue” between the DH and unions.

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