Grey suits are replacing white coats in the NHS, according to official figures published yesterday

The number of NHS managers expanded by 17.6 per cent last year, compared to a 5 per cent growth in hospital consultants, 4.9 per cent in nurses and 1.6 per cent in GPs.

The Department of Health, which published the figures, said it was asking NHS organisations to reducespending on "all areas other than patient care". A spokesman said: "An organisation as big and complex as the NHS needs good management. But it needs to reduce bureaucracy."

Opposition parties claimed the NHS was becoming over-bureaucratised and the extra billions of pounds being invested risked being swallowed up by administration costs.

Liam Fox, the shadow Health Secretary, said: "These figures are truly shocking. It is startling enough that the number of managers and senior managers increased by 17.6 per cent in just a year. It's simply appalling that the number of new managers far outstripped the number of extra doctors."

The NHS Confederation, which represents managers, said that despite the rise, the number of managers was still small at 30,900 in 2002, and that as a proportion of the NHS it had fallen from 3 per cent in 2001 to 2.6 per cent in 2002.

Gill Morgan, its chief executive, said: "Staff are the lifeblood of the NHS. Years of under investment [have] left the service not just short of doctors and nurses, but lacking the management and support needed to drive improvement."

The figures show 1,288 more consultants, 497 GPs and 17,100 nurses joined the NHS in the past 12 months, but the British Medical Association said the Government was not on course to meet targets for doctors set out in the NHS Plan.

¿ The UK and Ireland are more reliant on recruiting nurses from the developing world than any other Western nation, a report by the International Council of Nurses, the World Health Organisation and the Royal College of Nursing, said.