A third of health authorities have no strategy for palliative care, despite the government's insistence that decisions on how much financial support hospices receive from the NHS must be taken at local level.

The admission came from junior health minister Lord Hunt during a debate on hospices in which evidence emerged of wide variations in levels of NHS funding of palliative care.

The NHS provides roughly 31 per cent nationally of running costs of hospices. But at local level NHS contributions range from 9 per cent of running costs to 61 per cent.

Baroness Lockwood said that in Yorkshire, NHS funding of hospices had fallen by between 1 and 5 per cent in 1999-2000. She was concerned that the variations could be exacerbated by the move to primary care groups.

The Duke of Norfolk said that NHS funding of children's hospices nationally was just 5 per cent. He called for national NHS funding to increase to 40-50 per cent.

Lord Hunt replied that 31 per cent was a 'reasonable baseline'.

He added: 'The NHS needs to provide support to the hospice movement. . . however, at the end of the day those matters must be decided locally on the basis of an agreed palliative care strategy.'