Former health secretary Alan Milburn has attacked Andy Burnham’s decision to move away from competition and make the NHS the “preferred provider” of services.

Speaking at the Labour Party conference yesterday, Mr Milburn directly criticised the current health secretary’s decision to move away from the Department of Health’s “any willing provider” policy to one where the NHS would be the preferred provider.

“I disagree with Andy Burnham when he said the NHS should be the preferred provider. There should be no preferred provider. Quality should be the only yardstick, not the type of provider.”

There should be no preferred provider. Quality should be the only yardstick, not the type of provider

Alan Milburn

Last week Mr Burnham said new guidance would be issued clarifying that where NHS services were failing, the provider would be given at least one chance to improve services before commissioners went out to tender for an alternative.

The union Unison was pleased with the announcement, but it raised questions from primary care trusts and independent sector providers, who warned it went against the principles of competition.

Mr Milburn told a fringe event: “I’m not saying competition is always correct for any service, but the only yardstick that counts for patients is quality and the only yardstick used by the public is efficiency.”

He said the NHS would be unsustainable without significant changes including transferring commissioning to local authorities, abolishing strategic health authorities and giving foundation trusts greater autonomy.

Failing to accelerate the pace of NHS reform will put frontline services at risk, he warned.

The architect of the 2000 NHS Plan, under which private sector providers were embraced and thousands more workers employed, called for state control over the NHS to be reined in.

He said: “The NHS is in transition between a 20th century model of state control and monopoly provision and…a different model where the citizen has more control.

“The policy question is whether that journey is going to be finished or truncated. We have to take it to its final destination.”

Payment by results also needed to be adjusted so it rewarded quality over quantity, he said. In addition, patients deserved greater control over their care.

He said: “These sort of reforms are necessary if we’re going to make the NHS sustainable in the long term.

“Failure will result in two things. We will put frontline NHS services at risk.

“It will give permission to those on the right to question the whole validity and sustainability of our NHS.”

Speaking to HSJ after the event, Mr Milburn said he thought the pace of reform needed “more oomph”.

Health minister Mike O’Brien, who was also speaking at the event, responded: “The appetite for reform is undiminished.”