Trusts and GP practices will be invited to become 'beacons of excellence' and receive extra money to help others improve their performance, Mr Blair told the conference.

Beacon services might include wait-free casualty departments, 'leading edge' IT initiatives, or 'outstanding' programmes to cut smoking and heart disease, the Department of Health said later.

Money will come from the NHS modernisation fund and projects will serve as 'practical examples of the modernisation objectives that flow from the comprehensive spending review'. Invitations to become first-wave beacons will go out in October.

The initiative was welcomed by management leaders. IHSM director Karen Caines said: 'We need beacons of excellence, but the NHS has been bad at spreading best practice around.'