conference focus :

The increasingly contentious relationship between the private sector and the NHS divided the panel in a questiontime style debate.

Labour peer Lord Harris of Haringey launched a forthright defence of the private sector's role.

Private providers already did 'an enormous amount' of work in the health service, he said, citing residential care for elderly people and GPs' private contractor status.

The former Association of Community Health Councils for England and Wales director claimed: 'It doesn't matter who pays the wages of whoever delivers that bit of the service or who owns that bit of equipment to the patient.'As long as a public-service ethos and the principle of healthcare free at the point of delivery were retained, whether the provider was private or public sector was 'not something that worries the general public'.

He came under fire from Liberal Democrat health spokesman Lord Clement-Jones, who urged a halt to public-private partnerships until they were evaluated: 'Until we have a proper evidence base for the private sector in the NHS we shouldn't proceed.'

The Guardian's Malcolm Dean said the government 'ought to do what It is doing at the moment and no more' - with the exception of the private finance initiative.

'do not use any more PFI until You have evaluated it, ' he said.

He called for clarity from the government. 'Stop this total confusion. Get the message out from the prime minister himself on the precise boundaries, please.'

Conservative health spokesman Philip Hammond said: 'I find myself in the slightly alarming position of agreeing with Toby Harris.' The important question was 'who can do this best, most efficiently, most effectively'.

The debate was chaired by the BBC's Niall Dickson.