Health secretary Andrew Lansley has said it will “remain incumbent” on him and his successors to provide a comprehensive health service via the NHS Commissioning Board and clinical commissioning groups.

Mr Lansley was speaking at the National Association of Primary Care conference in Birmingham this morning.

He emphasised the freedoms CCGs would have, but said this would come with the responsibility of CCGs to make sure patients have “access to the NHS services they need”.

Mr Lansley said: “That is in law, in essence, what is described as a comprehensive health service.

“It’s the duty that has been placed on me and my predecessors for more than 60 years and it will be incumbent on you to discharge that duty in the future - and it will remain incumbent on me and my successors to ensure that through the NHS Commissioning Board and through your CCGs that service is provided.”

Changes to the duty of the secretary of state to provide a comprehensive health service have been one of the most controversial aspects of the Health Bill. They are currently being debated in the House of Lords.

Mr Lansley promised that CCGs would be free to commission services without interference with politicians or day to day instructions from the centre.

He said: “You will have the freedom to choose who should support you in taking charge of local health services. Clinical senates and clinical networks will be there to advise you, not to tell you what to do.

“You will have the freedom to structure yourselves to meet the needs of your population, providing you involve members of the public, with nursing and secondary care experience on board.”

The health secretary repeated the proposed management cost per head of population figure, of £25 to £35.  “If you can demonstrate you can live within that running cost allowance we will not stand in the way of how you want to construct yourselves, including the size and shape of CCG you want to be,” he said.

But, he added that many talented people were already working in PCT clusters and told GPs they would want to recruit them directly or contract them as part of external commissioning support organisations.

In a panel session after the speech, Paul Corrigan, former health advisor to the previous Labour government, said Mr Lansley had acted as “an agent” for PCT staff.

Mr Lansley emphasised how tariffs could be used to improve quality of care, enabling commissioners to select and drive specific improvements in care for their populations. He also said tariffs were “about to be introduced” for integrated care pathways, which could pay for a year of care from any number of providers for a patient with cystic fibrosis.

The health secretary also announced that ministers have agreed with the British Medical Association GPs committee that under the new GP contract all practices will be members of CCGs.