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As voters prepare to elect members of the Scottish Parliament, Patrick Butler talks to candidates with a health service background about their plans for the future of the NHS in Scotland

Have you stuck your finger in a plug socket?' A woman outside Spittal community centre has noticed that the Labour candidate's hairstyle is not the smooth, sculpted number pictured on her campaign leaflet, but a bob of glamorous black curls.

The candidate, Janis Hughes, laughs and joins in the banter. The only shock she is likely to get is if the voters of Glasgow Rutherglen turn recent history on its head and refuse to elect a Labour candidate.

Freak results aside, Ms Hughes, a 40-year-old renal unit administrator at Glasgow Royal Infirmary University trust and ex-Unison branch secretary, will become a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament on 6 May, thus ending a 19-year NHS career.

Leaving the NHS will be a wrench, she says, but after the years of 'battling management' and fighting for workers' rights at a local level, she feels the time is right to devote her energies to the 'strategic view'.

Her vision for the Scottish NHS is predictably close to the one outlined in the Scottish New Labour manifesto, with its emphasis on information technology to speed up waiting times and provide a 'seamless' service.

But Ms Hughes speaks from experience, working in a department that she says has already begun to see the benefits of IT. Electronic wizardry in the service of NHS information management is not an alien concept to her.

Where she - and Labour - is on less sure ground, is in dealing with relatively old technology: bricks and mortar. The private finance initiative - for so long the political dog that didn't bark - has threatened to become a campaign issue.

Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond has declared that PFI - astonishingly - is up with taxation as a key election issue.

An SNP deputy health spokesperson, Ian McKee, has implored the Scottish people to 'rise up and oppose it'.

But one suspects that it is less the remote prospect of fanning popular dissent against a little-understood capital finance model that drives the SNP, than the hope of widening one of the few cracks to be found on the Labour machine.

Old Labour is vehemently opposed to PFI. So are the unions, who were set to debate PFI at the Scottish Trade Union Congress this week.

New Labour has avoided mention of PFI in its manifesto, and has reportedly taken to talking of private-public partnerships - which may or may not be the same thing.

'PFI? It's not an easy one,' admits Ms Hughes. 'The Tories invented PFI. I think the hope of Unison was that a Labour government would abolish it. Over the years there has been talk of renationalisation. But it's not possible to wipe the slate clean.

'I personally would like to see PFI go, but I'm realistic about it.

'We would like to see hospitals being built with public money, and that may happen in time. Anyway, whether or not a hospital is built with public or private money is not what the public is interested in.'

The SNP is not free of charges of ambiguity. It has no detailed strategy for transforming the NHS, but promises a national healthcare commission, comprising MSPs of all parties, health professionals and unions, to draw up a future strategy 'by consensus'.

This has prompted Labour jibes that it has no policy. 'The SNP aren't offering anything, except increasing amounts of money. I have not seen anything innovative from the SNP,' says Ms Hughes.

Dr Ian McKee, a GP and SNP candidate for Edinburgh Central, ironically looks every inch the prosperous Tory professional. Sitting in his Range Rover, and wearing a smart grey suit under his green waxed jacket, he admits that he was a Conservative 'years ago', but is now proud to be to Labour's left.

He is incensed that Labour has implemented its NHS reforms before the Scottish Parliament comes into being, steamrolling in primary care trusts and GP co-operatives without proper consultation with the Scottish people.

Dr McKee draws parallels with the Tories' disastrously unpopular GP fundholding scheme.

'I'm a great believer in pre-legislative forums and discussion. There's no excuse for this culture of secrecy,' he says.

The SNP would not immediately overturn Labour's reforms, he promises. But Dr McKee hints at a radical wish-list for the future, including 'much stronger democratic input into the NHS by local councils', and a 'unified budget for primary and secondary care'.

His 27 years as a GP in Wester Hailes, a deprived area of Edinburgh, has made him passionate about the SNP's commitment to appoint a public health minister to address causes of ill-health, the 'damage that poverty does to the family'.

Edinburgh Central Liberal Democrat candidate Andy Myles, who was an NHS manager in Dundee between 1983 and 1992, is unmoved.

'Appointing a minister for public health seems to me a substitute for policy. Just saying you are going to have a minister for something does not impress me.'

Nonetheless, all four main parties are mesmerised by Scotland's appalling history of heart disease and cancer, and all - even to some extent the Tories - emphasise their commitment to tackling poverty, unemployment, deprivation and poor housing as the root causes of ill-health.

The Conservative Party also has its sensitive spot. Where Labour has its P-word, the Tories have an F-word.

Fundholding does not appear in its manifesto, although it promises in various ways to put the GP surgery 'back at the centre of the NHS'.

Donald Reece, a health promotion officer in Ayrshire and Arran who is standing for the Tories in Dumbarton, and who co-wrote the health section of the manifesto, explains: 'It may be we introduce something similar to fundholding but it won't be directly analogous. It won't be fundholding part two.'

The Tories will be a minority party in Holyrood. But thanks to proportional representation, they expect around 20 Tory MSPs to make it into the 129- member Scottish Parliament.

As Dr Reece says, with no Tory MPs sitting at Westminster for Scottish seats, the party can for once look forward to 'a successful election'.