Health secretary Frank Dobson has delivered a calculated snub to the independent healthcare sector by refusing to bring private hospitals under the NHS regulatory and quality standards umbrella.

The independent sector has lobbied hard to be covered by the Commission for Health Improvement and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, believing that this would provide a powerful boost to the sector's credibility.

But in a move that will be seen as a sign of ideological hostility to private healthcare, Mr Dobson told MPs last week that private hospitals would be covered instead by a separate regulatory body, paid for by the private sector.

Giving evidence to the Commons health select committee, Mr Dobson was careful to emphasise that he regards the separation of regulatory bodies as a practical and perfectly sensible measure.

CHI was not designed to monitor the private sector, he said. Extending its remit to the private sector could lead to a situation in which CHI's energies were diverted from its main job of maintaining NHS standards.

Mr Dobson also made it clear that he did not want to be perceived as accountable for any failures on the part of private hospitals.

He did not want to 'make the secretary of state responsible for everything except the profits of the private sector'.

Privately, supporters of Mr Dobson made it clear that they felt the decision successfully tackled a deliberate attempt by the Conservatives and some Liberal Democrats to undermine the integrity of the NHS by blurring the boundaries between the private and public sector.

The government was also expected to overturn an amendment to the Health Bill which would extend the commission's powers to the independent sector.

At the select committee, Conservative MP Robert Walter pointed out that there was already a regulatory body covering both private and public sectors for education - Ofsted.

Mr Dobson replied: 'I'm in favour of having organisations that are specific to the tasks they are carrying out.'

Tim Evans, executive director of public affairs for the Independent Healthcare Association, felt that although his members had not got what they wanted, Mr Dobson's decision to set up a regulatory body represented a significant move forward on the government's part.

'Mr Dobson clearly recognises that he is secretary of state for health and not just secretary of state for the NHS,' he said.

Mr Dobson said that although the government's main responsibility was to run the NHS, it had 'some responsibility to patients of the private sector because the present regulatory arrangements are quite unsatisfactory'.

But Mr Dobson responded coolly to suggestions by health select committee chair David Hinchliffe that private providers or insurers pay for 'repair' work carried out by the NHS on patients whose private operations have gone wrong.