Published: 06/10/2005 Volume 115 No. 5976 Page 12

Prime minister Tony Blair used his keynote speech to the Labour Party conference to push the choice message - while pledging to 'never allow the NHS to charge for treatment'.

In a wide-ranging speech, he was bullish in pushing home the message of choice as a route to improving the quality of public services.

He told the conference: 'Every time I've ever introduced a reform in government, I wish in retrospect I had gone further.' The prime minister pointed out that elective waiting lists had only fallen after the introduction of competition.

Earlier, he won applause when he said the idea that choice was a New Labour invention was a myth. He told delegates: 'Choice is what wealthy people have exercised for centuries. The Tories have always been comfortable with that. But for Labour, choice is too important to be the monopoly of the wealthy.' He said that the idea that the way to keep services universal was to keep them uniform was also a myth.

The route to keeping services universal was making them of such quality that those who could afford to pay chose not to.

And he stressed: 'I will never allow the NHS to charge for treatment.' Mr Blair also promised action to reform incapacity benefit. He told delegates: 'Let's be frank about why so many people are on incapacity benefit. Under the Tories, it was used to conceal unemployment.' He said next month's green paper would 'radically reform the benefit for the future and help people who can work back into the workforce - where they belong'.