Anger with Labour over the private finance initiative dominated debate at Unison's healthcare service group conference.Lyn Whitfield reports

For a moment, it was almost exciting. John Denham walked into Cardiff international arena preceded by men in black suits muttering anxiously into walkie-talkies.

This sort of 'protection' is more usually associated with boxers, the mafia and US presidents than health ministers, but rumours were circulating at the Unison healthcare service group conference that hardliners were planning a demonstration against the private finance initiative.

In the end, it wasn't even a replay of the great days of New Labour vs Militant. The best the demonstrators could manage was a ragged chant of 'PFI, no way, NHS here to stay' that failed to catch on. An attempt to unfurl a banner was defeated by the security guards.

The health minister responded with a joke.He said former health secretary Frank Dobson had been heckled by Unison. But: 'Last year nobody heckled me, so they said 'you had better go again, John'.'

He gave a long, solid speech about the many initiatives to improve the lot of NHS staff that Labour had implemented over four years, with masses of statistics.

The effect was that of a fireblanket descending on a small fire. The speech sucked the oxygen of excitement from the dark, curtained conference hall.

Even so, this minor ripple showed the strength of feeling against privatisation in the NHS in general and PFI in particular.

On the first morning, delegates passed a motion rejecting the government's 'ideological adherence' to the private sector and market economy in health and called for the concordat with the private sector to be scrapped.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis picked up the theme the next day, condemning the government's 'senseless commitment to privatisation' and describing PFI as a policy thought up by a 'discredited Tory government'.

Strong words, but hardly a new sentiment. Some Unison members want their union to go further.

At a focus group on PFI, Candy Udwin, a well-known thorn in the side of managers at University Col lege London Hospitals trust, backed calls for an anti-government campaign.

'We have to make this an election issue, ' she said, sporting a badge for the newly formed Socialist Alliance. 'We have to be able to stand up in public and embarrass them in the election.

'We should not be afraid of doing that.We do not need to be afraid of William Hague (and the Conservatives). They are finished.'

Sympathisers accused Unison of taking its policy 'from Millbank' rather than its members, and called for Unison to end financial support for Labour MPs until the government came to heel on PFI.

Steven Weeks, a Unison officer, told the focus group there was no question of Unison being afraid to campaign against PFI.

'In a meeting recently, someone who will remain nameless said:

'Unison, I am fed up with hearing from Unison on PFI, '' he said. 'And somebody else stood up and said: 'Abandon PFI and you will not have to hear from us.'' Mr Weeks was referring to Matthew Taylor, head of the Institute for Public Policy Research, which is due to launch a major report on public-private partnerships this summer.

The government appears to hope, and Unison fears, that this will back current policy on PFI, or an extension of it. Even if the IPPR is more critical, anything other than outright condemnation of PFI will be too much for the union.

The conference formally debated PFI on its last afternoon, passing motions in support of the 'magnificent action' of strikers in Dudley and calling for more action.An emergency motion committed the service group executive to send a national deputation to health secretary Alan Milburn about Dudley, and place national press advertisements against PFI if the government refuses to back down. But time is running out in Dudley. The Dudley Group of Hospitals trust was due to sign a PFI-deal on 3 April, and the staff transfer could begin within a fortnight of that.

Mr Denham tried to assure the conference that Unison and the government had more in common than not.Much government policy - on flexible working, more training for staff, measures against discrimination and harassment - was effectively supported by delegates passing motions demanding all these things.

Agenda for Change talks are progressing slowly. Delegates made it clear that they wanted a single pay spine for all staff, rather than three pay spines for different groups of staff, but the discussions hardly conflict with repeated demands for more pay and status.

As Unison head of healthcare Bob Abberley said, it was generally a quiet conference because delegates were generally happy with the direction of travel. PFI remains a big obstacle on the road.

Nursing a fresh grievance

One other issue was on Mr Prentis's mind last week:

the Royal College of Nursing's decision to admit some healthcare assistants as associate members.

He made a pointed reference to Unison members who might be 'targeted by other unions'- and said Unison was determined to remain a general and a nursing union.

Conference passed a motion demanding campaign material to highlight the 'second-class status'the RCN was offering HCAs and the good work Unison had done for this group.

Unison has even produced new badges for its HCA members - with the word 'nurse'in large letters and 'HCA'above in very small ones.These are unlikely to go down well in Cavendish Square.