Competition between the National Health Service (NHS) and private-sector providers in England has “played an important role in driving up quality and responsiveness of health care services and increasing value for money,” according to Health Minister Ben Bradshaw.

Competition is also “a route to high-quality services and value for money, not to privatisation by the back door or any nonsense” about the closure of general practices, he added, speaking a conference in London on the NHS organized by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). "Since 1997, record levels of investment alongside reform have led to a transformation in the NHS. Waiting lists have been slashed, the quality of care has improved and the NHS is more responsive to patients' needs,” he said.

The decisions by Scotland and Wales to reject private-sector participation in the NHS and introduce radically different policies to those in England had created “a fascinating competition,” commented Mr Bradshaw. But, he added: “I get fed up being told by some of the media that England suffers from health apartheid - an inappropriate word in the health context in any event - because millionaires in Wales get their prescriptions free or Scotland plans to allow anyone who wants to park in busy hospital car parks for free.”

The conference also heard confirmation from Mr Bradshaw that Lord Carter of Coles will next month take up the post of chairman and director of the new Cooperation and Competition Panel, whose role will be to ensure that competition between the NHS and private-sector providers for NHS-funded services is fair and transparent.

The Panel will advise Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs) and the Department of Health on resolution of disputes relating to competition for NHS-funded services. It will have specific responsibility for considering complaints about issues associated with the procurement of clinical services, advertising and promotion, and the merger or acquisition of health care providers where an NHS body is involved. It will only consider disputes where these have not been able to be resolved locally.

“We have designed a system for the NHS where competition works, through patients exercising their choice of provider and through open and fair competition to provide services. The Cooperation and Competition Panel will ensure that providers operate on a level playing field, safeguarding the interests of patients and taxpayers," said Mr Bradshaw.

Geoff Benn, vice-chairman of the NHS Partners Network which represents the independent sector providers, welcomed Lord Carter’s appointment, and particularly the fact that he has “substantial commercial experience in the sector.” In 1985, Lord Carter co-founded the nursing home and specialist care company Westminster Health Care, which he sold in 1999. The firm was then taken over by Barchester Healthcare in 2004.