RHODRI MORGAN was last night accused of recruiting a grey-suited army as it was disclosed that the cost of employing Assembly Government civil servants had risen by more than 50% in three years.
But while Tories fulminated against the cost of an extra 1,000 'pen-pushers', Mr Morgan said the increase was an inevitable consequence of the Assembly's broadening responsibilities.
Conservative health spokesman Jonathan Morgan discovered that the cost of officials employed by the Assembly Government had risen by £31.5m since 1999. The number of officials employed by Rhodri Morgan's Government has mushroomed by 37% since the Assembly was created, and now costs £90,062,000.
The largest increases have been seen in administration, personnel and accommodation services for the devolved institution.
Jonathan Morgan said he had calculated that the vast bill for "pen-pushers employed by the bloated Assembly civil service" could pay for:
Four new children's hospitals - based on the cost of the Children's Hospital for Wales in Cardiff.
5,600 nurses, and
8,200 occupational therapists.
He added, "From these figures, it is not all that difficult to see why council taxes have risen so dramatically in the past four years.
"Bearing in mind that waiting lists have doubled, these findings just add insult to injury. When you ask the Conservatives how we would fund our reforming polices of the health service whilst freezing council taxes, I think you may have your answer.
The Tory AM, who represents South Wales Central, added, "The Conservatives believe in a streamlined, minimal Government that is happy to let frontline staff make the decisions. Rhodri Morgan on the other hand is simply intent on amassing his own grey-suited army."
The First Minister responded, "The figure of £31m is right but this is against an extra £3bn in our budget - 99% of all our budget goes to frontline services, 638 of the extra staff are for functions which didn't even exist in 1999. The Conservatives would be the first to scream if we didn't have staff in Wefo to administer the Objective One budget. They scream if there are late payments to farmers.
"Jonathan Morgan would be the first to condemn us if we hadn't set up the Care Standards Inspectorate to ensure that vulnerable elderly people are properly looked after in our care homes. Less than 1% of our budget is for staff costs and this has remained consistent since 1999. Despite this we have taken on 15 extra functions since 1999.
"All the staff work very hard and our record of getting money out in grants to farmers, to industry to the voluntary sector and to front line services is very good. That is why the Tories are such hypocrites."
A spokesman for the Assembly Government added, "The Assembly's payroll expenditure has been consistently less than 1% of overall budget - it has remained at 0.8% of total budget since 1999 when the Assembly first started.
"The increase in staff of the Welsh Assembly Government, from 2,500 in 1999 to 3,500 in 2003, has taken place because the Government has taken responsibility for a wide range of activities which are making Wales a better country.
"There are 135 extra staff working in the newly created Care Standards Inspectorate - an organisation established to drive up the standards of care received by vulnerable people in care homes.
"And 130 staff were added when the former agencies for Health Promotion and the Health Common Services Agency were assimilated.
"The WAG has taken over 15 new functions since the Assembly was created. These were responsibilities previously undertaken by other parts of government.
"At each stage opposition parties seek to identify themselves with the new functions but nevertheless then seek to denigrate the work of public servants whose recruitment they initially supported."