Ministers had an easy ride at union conferences last year. Now the honeymoon is over. Dolly Chadda reports

Health minister Alan Milburn ran into an angry storm of protest in Brighton last week as the Labour government's erstwhile allies in the public service trade unions showed there were limits to their loyalty.

Furious at the previous day's ringing ministerial endorsement of the private finance initiative, some delegates to Unison's health group conference burst into uproar as Mr Milburn struggled through his speech.

With one delegate from the floor denouncing him as 'full of shit' and others barracking an announcement on short-term contracts, Mr Milburn told the hecklers to 'grow up' and 'sit down'.

Pointing out that the government had said in its manifesto that it would carry on with PFI, he added: 'We promised to get PFI working for the NHS and not the other way round - and we have.

'We know there are anxieties among staff and that's why we have been looking to change the way PFI works.'

Just 24 hours before arriving in Brighton Mr Milburn had given the go ahead for 10 hospital building projects, worth nearly£900m, in a second wave of PFI schemes.

By a stroke of bad luck, that was on the day the conference was due to debate PFI - possibly the issue on which Unison has campaigned most vigorously over the past few years, and to which it is strongly opposed.

The news, while not a complete surprise, inflamed already heightened passions and had led to one of the most heated debates of the conference, setting the scene for the following day's confrontation.

Delegates and members of the service group executive were united in anger and opposition to what they saw as 'another betrayal' of the health service and its staff by New Labour.

Kicking off the debate, Unison deputy head of health Malcolm Wing said the government was committed to the biggest hospital building programme ever, most of which was to be financed through private capital.

He said: 'It is a historically reckless policy which is destined to fail. It is a blight on the government's health service agenda. And it will take resources away from other areas and services.'

Mr Wing attacked the secrecy surrounding PFI, saying: 'Not a single full business case has been published relating to those schemes that were to proceed.'

Yunus Bakhsh of Newcastle City health branch accused the government of 'playing on the desperate need' of the NHS for new hospitals and suggesting that the only way they could be built was through private finance.

He said it would result in hundreds of thousands of staff being transferred to companies which did not recognise their rights.

'What a disgrace that Labour should be handing a blank cheque to those companies, because that is what they are doing, ' Mr Bakhsh went on.

'How do we know we are going to need some hospitals in 60 years' time. . . but we will be locked into paying these companies for them.

'These companies. . . are not motivated by altruism or the desire to provide a service but by profit.'

In a stirring address, Mr Bakhsh said his message to Mr Milburn would be:

'PFI the Euro Fighter, PFI Trident. . . but leave your hands off our hospitals.'

Dave Carr of University College London Hospitals branch had a message, too, for the health minister - that 'our hospitals are not for sale'.

Mr Carr told conference of the 'shock, anger and sense of bitterness' that staff at his hospital felt when they heard that health secretary Frank Dobson, in whose constituency UCLH is situated, had approved its PFI scheme.

People had been crying because they were so worried about what was going to happen to their jobs, their pay and their pensions, Mr Carr said.

Karen Reissmann of Manchester Community Health branch condemned the government's plans for the£780m Millennium Dome, money which could be spent on four new state-of-the-art hospitals, she said.

Earlier, Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe had urged Mr Dobson 'to get the Treasury to change its mind on PFI'.

Even Professor David Hunter, of the Nuffield Institute for Health at Leeds University, praised Unison's campaign against what he described as 'the most absurd policy that has been developed by any government'.

'Do not give up your stand against PFI, ' he urged.

Conference passed a composite motion deploring the decision of the Labour government to continue with PFI and re-affirming its opposition to it.

But as part of that opposition, delegates also voted overwhelmingly - against the advice of the executive - in favour of a lobby of Parliament against PFI.

The conference went on to back an emergency motion condemning the government's decision to stage the pay review body awards for the second year running.

And it agreed to step up its campaign to highlight low pay in the NHS, including taking industrial action if members voted for it.

Arguing for immediate industrial action, Mr Bakhsh said: 'Workers are continually told that there must be wage restraint. . . when all the time fat cats have had their noses in the trough.

'It is a disgrace that under a Labour government our workers are still living in poverty, ' he added, urging: 'This union has to fight for their rights because Labour is not going to do it for them.'

He suggested the union's leadership was complacent on the issue, saying: 'If you expect a decent pay offer do not expect the people up here to get it for you.'

Candie Udwin of UCLH branch agreed, saying that staff felt 'angry and betrayed' by their pay offer and wondered whether the service group executive was serious about fighting on the issue.

She said: 'It is time for this union to take power if the government we wanted and we voted for is not going to listen to us.'

In a dig at the Royal College of Nursing - one of a number during the conference - she added Unison could not wait indefinitely for it to come on board.

But the government had its defenders. Lena Holmes from Wolverhampton said it had taken Unison five years for its three constituent unions to come together properly.

The government needed more than just a year in power to undo 18 years of Conservative rule.

She told delegates they had to live in the real world. 'Let's be fair just for once, ' she said.

'The union is the members, not the people here. If I go back and say to members in Wolverhampton we're going on strike next week, they'll say 'Lena, we're going on holiday, we want our money'.'

Ray Carrick of Mersey Regional Ambulance Service said the mood in his branch was also not for strike action.

He added: 'It is very disheartening to come here and see some individuals who want to take strike action at the drop of a hat.

'It is also disheartening that for some groups here, no matter what a Labour government did it would never be enough.'