Published: 07/10/2004, Volume II4, No. 5926 Page 5

Health ministers have claimed victory over 'cartels' of consultants resisting efforts to cut NHS waiting lists in order to protect their private-sector income.

Health secretary John Reid and health minister John Hutton have launched a series of attacks on the role played by some consultants who formed cartels in order to maintain demand for the domestic private sector - and their associated income.

Mr Reid said the government introduced independent treatment centres run by overseas firms deliberately in order to undermine the 'monopoly' created by 'cartels' of consultants working in the private sector - an operation which he believed had succeeded.

The remarks, made during a series of fringe sessions at last week's Labour Party conference, amount to the most explicit and concerted assault yet from the ministerial team on the vested interests supporting the UK's private sector and enabling it to charge 'the highest private-sector rates in the world'.

Mr Reid brought up the subject when he was quizzed about the government's foundation trust policy. He told delegates: 'I actually think a much more controversial act [than foundation hospitals] was the introduction of treatment centres from the independent sector. There I was saying I was buying 5,000 operations... and nobody said a dicky bird.'

The health secretary said the policy was a crucial way to change the conditions in which the healthcare market operates - and bring down the 'forces of conservatism'within it.

And he said that in order to bring down waiting lists, the government needed to change the system so that consultants who acted as such a force, 'either through cartels or monopolies' to maintain demand for their private sector services, were undermined.

He said: 'Many consultants are progressively minded but some are not. One of the things I have been doing over the last year - and I have not been shouting about this - is that I have been reducing the demand for the private sector by reducing waiting lists. Lo and behold we have undermined the monopoly that the cartels have.'

Speaking at an earlier fringe meeting, Mr Hutton said achieving 'innovation, change, reform and improvement' in the health service was impossible without introducing 'contestability' into the system.

He added that the NHS's 'relationship' with the private sector was a 'permanent one and warned that 'it would be a huge mistake to row back from this position'.

And Mr Hutton suggested the government would maintain its efforts to get a better deal for taxpayers when buying care from the independent sector.

'If you talk to a group of consultants they'd say: 'I am sure we can see off the treatment centres and get it back to how it used to be.'Oh no you do not.

'We are not going back where the government, the taxpayer, is held over a barrel, a monopoly barrel, stamped 'consultants', where we have to pay huge amounts of money for additional activity. In fact, surgeons in the UK charge the highest private sector rates in the world. I do not want that. The taxpayer shouldn't want that, they should get a better deal.'