The NHS reforms present “huge opportunities” for the private sector, a health minister has said.

But Lord Howe said it should not matter “one jot” who provides care to NHS patients - as long as it was free at the point of delivery.

He said private companies will “do well” under the plans as long as they can offer patients high quality services that compete favourably with current NHS care.

And he said it would be illegal for any commissioner or the government to favour any one sector - NHS or private - over the other.

Lord Howe also warned there were some “outstanding performers in the NHS” who “will not give up their patients easily”.

The speech to the Independent Healthcare Forum came on the day the Health Bill was voted through the House of Commons by MPs.

Lord Howe said: “Now, we in government are regularly accused of favouring the private sector.

“We don’t. To be honest, I don’t think it should matter one jot whether a patient is looked after by a hospital or a medical professional from the public, private or charitable sector.

“What matters is the quality of care they receive, the outcomes they get and that it always remains free at the point of delivery.”

He said a level playing field was being created and competition was based on quality of outcomes, not price.

It will “be the best providers, private or NHS, that will prosper, and it will be patients that benefit most,” under the plans, he said.

“The opening up of the NHS presents genuine opportunity for those among you who can offer patients high quality, convenient services that compete favourably with current NHS care.

“If you can do that, then you will do well.”