Costs at No 10 soar by pounds 2m

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR was accused last night of lavishing cash on his own private office after new figures showed that Downing Street costs had soared by nearly pounds 2m since the Conservatives lost power.

The Liberal Democrats attacked the Prime Minister after his announcement that staff costs at Number 10 were pounds 5.3m in 1999-2000. The estimated figure for this financial year compares with pounds 3.4m in 1996-97, the final year of John Major's Tory administration, a rise of 56 per cent. The total amount spent on Downing Street has risen consistently since Labour took office, with pounds 4.1m allocated in 1997-98, and pounds 4.9m in 1998-99.

The startling statistics, which cover private secretaries, the Policy Unit, press office, Strategic Communications Unit and support staff, emerged last night in a written parliamentary answer by Mr Blair published in the House of Commons. Mr Blair stressed that the cost of his political office staff did not fall to the Government. Such officials are paid by the Labour Party instead.

Malcolm Bruce, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said that the figures would shock most taxpayers at a time when the Government was insisting on rigorous scrutiny of all public spending.

"This huge rise in the cost of staff in Downing Street shows a Government whose priorities are seriously out of step with those of the British people," he said. "Just one day after the Government forced through large cuts in benefits for disabled people, the public is going to be appalled that Tony Blair is able to find millions of pounds extra for government spin- doctors and apparatchiks."

A spokesman for Downing Street said last night that there was no link between the costs of the Welfare Bill and that of the Prime Minister's staff. "We make no apologies for having a strong centre at the heart of government," he said.