Health secretary Frank Dobson put quality at the 'heart of the NHS' in a warmly received speech, strongly reaffirming the government's commitment to the current financing of the service.

He told the conference: 'You may want to discuss the far blue yonder of alternative care systems but this government, like the people of this country, is committed to the one we have got.'

Mr Dobson said the government was not prepared to leave quality to chance.

Launching the consultation document A First Class Service, he said systems were being introduced that would provide the safeguards that could have prevented the Bristol heart babies scandal and recent breast and cancer screening failures.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence would be professionally led, providing authoritative guidance on the latest technologies and drugs, Mr Dobson said.

And the Commission for Health Improvement, which will monitor performance in every part of the NHS, would be led by a director of health improvement - 'a heavyweight appointment' with direct access to ministers.

All hospital doctors would be required to participate in national external audit, and GPs and patients would have a right to information on success rates of their local hospitals.

CHI would conduct a rolling programme of local reviews, visiting each trust at least every three to four years, and provide an external check on clinical governance. It would identify the external audit for hospital doctors and monitor local implementation of national service frameworks and NICE guidance.

These measures would augment, co-ordinate and codify what clinical leaders were trying to do, and help managers by emphasising the need for top quality organisation to deliver treatment and care, Mr Dobson said.

He strongly defended the waiting list initiative which, he said, was beginning to work. The government was committed to cutting lists on such a scale that waiting times would be automatically reduced. There would be more money in the next two years to bring them down because 'this is a serious long-term commitment'.

Mr Dobson told HSJ after his speech that he did not believe concentrating on waiting lists was in conflict with the views of managers, set out in an NHS Confederation survey, that extra resources should be spent on buildings and equipment.

The two spending areas came from different budgets, he said, and the government had already put in train the biggest building programme in the NHS.

Asked if the government was now considering introducing charges, Mr Dobson said his party had made it clear at the election that it wanted to continue the present system and this had been endorsed by the election result.

People who went around conferences advocating new ways of financing the NHS should accept the verdict of the British people, he said.