Published: 28/07/2005, Volume II5, No. 5966 Page 13

If Labour backbenchers oppose patient choice the result would be as 'disastrous' as the party's opposition to giving council tenants the right to buy their homes in the 1980s, the health secretary has warned.

Patricia Hewitt told the Fabian Society that middle-class people already exercised choice in the NHS and it was the party's responsibility to 'democratise' choice.

'If more information, more choice and more control over their lives is good enough for middle-class professionals, it is certainly good enough for my working-class constituents, ' she said. 'Choice is important because - far from entrenching inequality - it will help us create a more equal society.' She added: 'It would be a major mistake - a mistake the Conservatives are just waiting for us to make - to deny people choices over their health and healthcare, leaving us out of step with irreversible changes in society and out of touch with the people we seek to serve.

'I remember our disastrous opposition to the sale of council houses. I was on the wrong side of that argument...So let us not make the same mistake on choice and personalisation in public services in the 21st century.'