Private ambulance operators have threatened legal action against plans for a national register of paramedics - claiming that it is an attempt to squeeze them out of the 30m 'public and sporting events' market.

The Professional Ambulance Consortium says it will take out an injunction to stop the Ambulance Service Association setting up the register if it refuses to amend its plans.

It also intends to ask the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the ASA's attempt to limit qualification for the proposed register to NHS- trained paramedics on the grounds that this would create a 'cartel'.

The consortium was set up to lobby against the register. It claims to represent 15,000 private ambulance workers. The ASA represents all NHS ambulance trusts.

John Merry, the secretary of the consortium, said the register was a 'despicable and underhand' attempt to 'pull the wool over the eyes' of clients, who would mistakenly assume that only NHS paramedics were properly trained in pre-hospital care.

'We want a register, we want to get rid of 'pretend' paramedics. But make it a level playing field,' said Mr Merry.

If it gets enough support, the register could be in place by 2000. It could also eventually mean that only paramedics on the register would legally be able to call themselves 'paramedics'.

The register would be run by the Council for Professions Supplementary to Medicine. It would regulate the profession, enforce standards of training and competence, and have powers to strike off paramedics who breached its codes of conduct.

Mr Merry said the ASA was trying to make its own qualification, which is administered by the NHS Institute of Health Care Development, the sole 'passport' to the register.

The allegations were rejected by ASA director Roy Saunders, who said: 'We are not attempting to corner the market in public events.'

Although the proposed register will at first accept only the NHS qualification it would be open to individuals who could show that their own qualifications were of equivalent standard, said Mr Saunders.

'If they are suggesting private ambulance services may have better standards of training than the NHS, surely that should help in gaining entry to the register.'

But Mr Merry said that it could take time to decide which qualifications were of equivalent stature to the NHS certificate.