Blair's office costs taxpayer £7m a year

The costs of staffing Tony Blair's expanding empire in Downing Street have increased by 68 per cent to almost £7m since he took office.

The taxpayer has been expected to foot the bill for soaring staff costs, just part of No 10's annual expenditure, which now stands at an estimated £14m – twice as much as it was five years ago.

Coming so close to the comprehensive spending review announcement tomorrow, opposition parties leaped upon the figures, disclosed in a Commons written answer.

David Laws, the Liberal Democrat MP for Yeovil, said: "This information will be of great concern to many people who believe that the Government's extra expenditure should be going into front-line public services and not to increasing the amount of Whitehall bureaucracy."

The shadow Cabinet Office minister Tim Collins described the rise as "staggering". "It shows that Mr Blair is far more interested in spending public money on improving his own image than on raising the quality of our public services," he said.

In Mr Blair's first year as Prime Minister, the cost of staffing Downing Street, which had 121 employees, was £4.1m. Now the 190 staff on the Number 10 payroll cost £6.9m.

Downing Street's spending has risen at a time when the Royal finances have been brought under control, prompting criticisms that Mr Blair is using public money to pay for the trappings of his "presidential" style.

Downing Street declined to comment on the figures. But a senior Whitehall source said: "We have never made any secret of the fact that we believe that the centre did and does need to be strengthened so as to have more effective government and that is what this is about. It is about how we co-ordinate Whitehall from the centre."

£6.9m would pay for:

* 447 newly qualified nurses;

* A new-build single site secondary school;

* 345 police officers;

* 256 experienced school teachers;

* 128 GPs; or

* The secondary education of 222 children for one year.

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