People with cancer in Britain have less chance of survival than their counterparts in the rest of Europe or North America.

To achieve a survival rate matching the best in Europe, we would have to save more than 25,000 lives a year - just equalling the European average would avoid 10,000 premature deaths.

Ministers, stung by the continuing failure to equal the level of treatment available abroad, launched a fresh NHS Cancer Plan last month.

An extra £570 million will be spent on treatment by 2003/4.

The Government also promises 1,000 more cancer specialists, including surgeons, radiographers and nurses, will be in place by 2006 - an increase of a third above numbers in 1999.

The money will also buy 49 more radiotherapy machines, increasing the number available from three per million people to four per million.

In 1998, cancer specialists recommended four machines per million but have since revised their advice upwards to five per million - the ratio of machines to people already standard in many European countries.

But not all hospitals and NHS trusts will buy the best radiotherapy technology available according to the American-owned firm Varian Medical Systems, which has a manufacturing plant in Crawley.

John Peel, Varian's UK managing director, said: "Are the machines they are buying going to deliver the best outcomes? Are they buying absolutely top of the range? I think they ought to be. I would tell them another x-thousand people will die because we are not using the latest techniques."

People with cancer are treated using surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or a combination of them.

Radiotherapy is used for conditions in between surgery, used for treating isolated tumours, or for chemotherapy to treat patients with large parts of their bodies affected.

The principle is not new, it has been evolving since Marie Curie began investigating the medical effects of radioactivity 100 years ago.

What has revolutionised the treatment is high powered computing and, in the last three years, the technology has moved ahead at a pace. At the cutting edge is Intensity Modulated Radiotherapy (IMRT), using linear accelerators of the type manufactured by Mr Peel's firm.

Even more advanced machines, which use a refinement known as high-resolution IMRT are already creating a another technological leap forward.

A second company making high-tech linear accelerators, Swedish-owned Elektra, also operates from Crawley, making Sussex something of a world leader in the technology.

Computers on IMRT machines allow doctors to draw in three dimensions, literally drawing the tumour and devising a treatment that causes the minimum amount of damage to surrounding organs.

High resolution IMRT is even smarter, allowing radiotherapy to be targeted even more precisely.

Mr Peel said: "Now we can actually get in and actually plan the individual treatment.

"There is a greater accuracy and fewer side-effects if you can target it."

Like other equipment used in today's technology- driven hospitals, the machines do not come cheap - between £700,000 and £1.2 million per unit.

Individual hospitals and trusts, however, would only have to find an extra £80,000 to top-up the money ministers are giving them to buy IMRT equipment, Mr Peel estimates.

The Royal College of Radiologists welcomes additional radiotherapy machines and the phasing-out of old equipment, but is wary of the claims made for IMRT.

The college, the professional body which represents radiologists, said IMRT machines were more expensive and there was no clinical evidence the technology would benefit patients.

The Department of Health has refused to rule out IMRT machines, saying they were being evaluated along with other equipment to make sure they gave value for money and could be integrated in hospitals.

A spokesman said: "All of the equipment which is being purchased via this tendering process is capable of all the new technologies. It is not by any means old equipment. It is capable of all the new technologies."