By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News
Average hospital waiting times have risen under Labour, figures show.
Labour has made reducing waiting lists a key priority
Before Labour came to power in 1997 waits of more than 18 months were not uncommon, but now no-one waits longer than six months in England.
However, NHS data reveals in 1997-98 median average waits stood at 41 days, but by last year had risen to 49 days.
The government said it was the price paid for the end of really long waits, but doctors said longer waits included some patients with serious conditions.
Jonathan Fielden, chairman of the British Medical Association's consultants committee, said: "All that has happened is that the government has put an end to the really long waits and the really short waits.
"Doctors have been stopped from using their clinical judgement and pushing people through the system when they need to be.
"Of course, it is good that the really long waits have gone, but it is wrong to say that all patient care has improved because of shorter waits."
Labour has concentrated on reducing waiting times by introducing a succession of targets.
When the party came to power in 1997 waits of over 18 months were not uncommon.
Even by 2000, when the 10-year NHS Plan was published, there were still 125,000 people waiting over nine months.
But now no-one waits over six months and by the end of this year the longest waiting time is expected to be 18 weeks.
However, the push has had the opposite - albeit fairly small - impact on average waiting.
The figures obtained by the BBC News website, from the NHS Information Centre, show that for some cancers average waiting has increased slightly, while big falls have been seen in more minor conditions such as cataract operations and treatment for dermatitis and eczema.
Katherine Murphy, of the Patients Association, said: "These figures make us really question whether patients are getting a better deal.
"What concerns me is that patients with serious conditions may be waiting longer than they used to be. That is wrong."
But Health Minister Ben Bradshaw said: "Our waiting time targets were specifically designed to eradicate unacceptably long waits.
"Under the Tories is was not uncommon to wait 18 months or more for an operation.
"Tackling long waits leads to a short-term increase in the average wait as the backlog is cleared - this can be seen in the data."
Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said: "This shows how the bigger picture gets neglected in order to meet the government's top-down targets.
"In meeting one target, another patient misses out. It is simply unfair."
And Lib Dem health spokesman Norman Lamb added: "These figures massively undermine Labour's claims to have made a substantial difference to NHS waiting times."