Hospitals built and run under the government's Private Finance Initiative (PFI) could leave patients exposed to health risks, a BBC investigation reveals.
Twenty PFI hospitals have already been built
Reporters worked undercover in three PFI hospitals for the BBC One programme Kenyon Confronts.
The team found unacceptable hygiene levels, poor design and bed shortages during the investigations.
In one hospital, bags of discarded clinical waste were left in corridors for hours at a time, waiting to be collected by the private company that maintained the hospital.
In another, bed occupancy was found to be 99.5%, even though NHS best practice states that any hospital should only be 82% full.
In a third, the design of the hospital building had resulted in a leaking roof, excessively high temperatures and ward sizes that mean that beds are too close together to comply with current NHS guidelines.
Under the PFI, private companies build and maintain hospitals, including services such as the removal of clinical waste and cleaning.
In return, they charge the government rent and fees for services.
Despite some fierce criticism, the government insists the PFI is the best way to accelerate its hospital building plan and will not compromise patient care.
Twenty have been built in just six years with another 44 in the pipeline.
At the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle, bags of discarded clinical waste were found only feet away from a ward, containing soiled incontinence pads, blood stained gauzes, mouth swabs and used tissues.
The waste later tested positive for strains of the Salmonella family, the hospital super bug MRSA, pseudomonas (which causes blindness), gut infections and E.coli.
At the Worcestershire Royal Hospital, an undercover researcher witnessed one overworked nurse taking blood without gloves in order to get through as many patients as possible.
John Gordon, a relative of a patient at the hospital, told the programme: "I witnessed an appalling standard of cleanliness on the ward."
Mr Gordon found soiled dressings and medication under the bed, as well as excrement that had not been cleaned up.
But when he informed the ward's sister, she told him she had already complained four times to management and nothing had been done.
However, the hospital and its PFI company - Catalyst Healthcare - said no problems had been reported with the handling or disposal of clinical waste, and claimed that bins were regularly removed.
Back in the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle, the undercover reporter found that the hospital faced a major problem when there was a power cut in the area soon after it opened. Patients on one side of the hospital had to be manually ventilated for 13 minutes when one of the two hospital emergency generators failed.
As PFI hospitals have often come under criticism for poor design, Professor of Architecture Malcolm Hollis, from Reading University, was taken into the three hospitals to give his opinion.
Professor Hollis was particularly concerned about Worcestershire Royal Hospital.
He said: "It is the worst. It has a muddled design layout and some of the corridors are so narrow it becomes very difficult to get a bed and two people either side carrying a drip or looking after a patient."
A reporter was placed undercover at the award-winning Darent Valley Hospital in Dartford to investigate bed shortages - a widespread problem across the NHS but one that critics suggest is worse in PFI hospitals.
On speaking to the hospital's bed manager, he was told that there were only three spare beds available in the entire hospital.
If there was a sudden influx of patients, the bed manager would have to resort to what he called "virtual beds", which are actually converted trolleys.
Professor Alyson Pollock, of the School of Public Policy at University College London, told the programme: "The problem with these hospitals is that they are so expensive, and [costs] are having to be met from the budgets that are normally used for direct patient care."
The company that runs the hospital, Carillion, together with the NHS management, said that a new Treatment Centre would help cut waiting times and free up beds.
It also said that without the PFI, services provided would still be from old and unsuitable buildings, some of which were more than 100 years old.
The Department of Health said in a statement:
"A number of genuine problems and issues have arisen at these schemes but on closer inspection we have found them to be mostly the result of the usual teething problems."
Kenyon Confronts was broadcast on Wednesday, 8 October, 2003 at 1930 BST on BBC One.