The English people are split down the middle on the use of private companies to provide NHS services, according to exclusive polling data compiled for HSJ.

The news comes in the week the House of Lords debates the provisions of the Health Bill which seek to create a regulatory framework to facilitate increased competition for NHS services.

The data also shows that Labour’s lead over the Conservatives on health policy has reached its highest point in 10 years. On Saturday, the prime minister declared that he did not mind “taking a hit” on the reforms.

Ipsos MORI asked survey respondents: “To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: ‘As long as health services are free of charge, it doesn’t matter to me whether they are provided by the NHS or a private company’.”

Fifteen per cent strongly agreed with the statement, while 29 per cent tended to agree. 20 per cent strongly disagreed and 21 per cent tended to disagree. Fourteen per cent neither agreed or disagreed.

Despite the high profile row about the health reforms there appears to have been little movement in people’s views. When the same question was asked 10 months earlier in February 2011, 41 per cent agreed with it and 36 per cent disagreed.

However, the debate does appear to have had a significant impact on the population’s view of which party has “the best policies on healthcare”, according to the separate February poll 2012 of a representative sample of British voters.

Asked which party had the best health policies, 37 per cent of respondents choose Labour, 19 per cent the Conservatives and eight per cent the Liberal Democrats, giving the opposition an 18-point lead over the coalition’s senior partners.

In March 2010, two months before the general election, Labour only had a nine point lead. Then, 33 per cent of respondents favoured its policies, 24 per cent opted for the Conservatives and nine per cent backed the Liberal Democrats. In August 2008, the Labour lead was just three points.

The last time Ipsos MORI recorded a larger lead for Labour over the Conservatives on health was in February 2002. However, its 18 point advantage compares to a 28 point lead immediately before the 2001 election and 32 point gap recorded in advance of the 1997 Labour landslide.

On Saturday, the prime minister told the Conservative spring conference that there was an “invisible crisis” in the NHS which required action.

He added: “We could have just protected the NHS from the cuts, as we have, we could have just put in the extra £12.5bn, as we have, and we could have just left it there.

“That would have been easy, but it would have been wrong, because sooner or later the cracks would have started to show; the queues would have grown, patients would have been let down. So, frankly, I don’t care about taking a bit of a hit on this issue.”