The Government is to pay for foreign doctors to become GPs in a bid to boost the number of family doctors, it emerged today.

Overseas doctors will get NHS funding to train to become GPs for the first time since the mid 1980s, Health Minister John Hutton announced.

The move was an important strand in the Government’s drive to increase GP numbers, he said.

Under the current system, overseas doctors – those without right of residence in the UK – only get funding if they are training to become hospital doctors and trainee GPs are excluded.

This has put potential trainees off pursuing a career in general practice and it is thought that only a handful are paying to put themselves through training.

The change, which is being made with immediate effect across the UK, will help the Government meet its target of 550 more GPs in training over the coming three years.

Mr Hutton said: “Most patients’ experience of the NHS begins and ends in the GP surgery. If we are to ensure that patients get the fast, efficient care they expect of a 21st century health service, we need to make sure there are enough GPs to provide it.

“We know that there are overseas doctors, including some currently working in the UK, who are keen to train for a career in UK general practice. But out-dated restrictions have prevented them from doing so.

“We are injecting a much-needed dose of common sense into the system to change this.

“This will end an anomaly that has discriminated against GPs in training and further re-enforces the Government’s priorities of improving primary care and making the UK an attractive place for doctors from overseas to work in.”

Mr Hutton also announced today that the Department of Health was consulting with the Home Office with a view to amending immigration rules to bring GP training within the permit-free arrangements that currently extend to hospital doctors.

Rules barring doctors trained outside Europe from becoming specialist consultants could be lifted, the Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday.

The Prime Minister said NHS training requirements were being reviewed after Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy raised the issue in the Commons.

But Mr Blair insisted the low numbers of ethnic minority doctors reaching the senior rank was due to regulation “rather than racism”.

Mr Kennedy had called for an end to the rules preventing doctors applying for specialist posts if they qualified outside the European Union.