A doctors' leader has referred the NHS plan to the Commission for Racial Equality on the grounds that it may discriminate against ethnic, singlehanded GPs.

The Overseas Doctors Association has asked the CRE to establish if the plan constitutes 'implied racism' against GPs from non-white backgrounds - about 70 per cent of whom are practitioners working on their own.

According to paragraph 8.11 of the plan, single-handers operate in 'relative clinical isolation' and the 'red book' provides a 'particularly poor mechanism for protecting quality standards' in such practices.

The government wants to negotiate new contractual quality standards within the red book, but if this proves impossible 'a new national personal medical services contract will be introduced, into which all singlehanded practices will be transferred by 2004'.

ODA chair Dr Surendra Kumar told HSJ : 'If [the government] can't negotiate with the British Medical Association, all single-handers will be forced on to PMS. If you are making a provision for a group of doctors where 70 per cent of them are from ethnic minorities, then this sort of step can be construed as implied racism, 'he said.

Dr Michael Taylor, honorary secretary of the Small Practices Association, said: 'If once the government realises that 70 per cent of people to whom paragraph 8.11 applies are overseas doctors and it fails to take this into account, then that is racist.'

The GPs' committee of the BMA and the Royal College of General Practitioners said in a joint statement they 'deplored any move to victimise single-handed GPs'.

A spokesperson for the CRE confirmed that a policy officer was looking at the referral.

GPs working on their own have not been singled out for attack, said a Department of Health spokesperson.

'But we have had to look at ways to be sure they are accountable and ways of monitoring the services they provide.'