Health minister John Denham was jeered by nurses at the Royal College of Nursing's annual congress in Harrogate this week.

In a question-time session, Mr Denham fared worst among a panel that also included shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox, Liberal Democrat health spokesman Lord Clement-Jones, Scottish National Party MSP Shona Robison, SDLP member of the Northern Ireland assembly Dr Joe Hendron and Plaid Cymru election candidate Ann Owen.

The minister was thrown on the defensive when Dr Fox attacked Labour's decision not to send health secretary Alan Milburn to the event: 'If the government was so committed to nursing, John, the secretary of state would be here today, not you. '

Mr Denham's reply - that 'in the middle of an election campaign, all politicians have busy diaries' - was interrupted as a groan went up around the conference hall.

The exchange set the tone for what was to follow. When the panel was asked about 'modern matrons', Mr Denham cited nurses responding to consultation before the NHS plan who said: 'We do not control the cleaning, the cleaning got privatised. '

Ms Robison seized the opportunity. 'I find it astounding that John Denham would actually talk about privatisation. . . in the same breath. They're going to privatise half of the services that are within the NHS. '

Mr Denham was forced to defend the government's policy on the private finance initiative and relations with the private healthcare sector. When he added that in the new treatment and diagnostic centres, 'there may be scope for private sector management of some of these units but clinical staff will be NHS staff ', delegates jeered and heckled.

He was jeered again after defending Labour's refusal to fund free personal as well as nursing care in England.