THE Welsh Assembly Government has been accused of trying to con the people of Wales by misusing statistics in the new way it has presented its budget.
Tory education spokesman David Davies alleges that there was a deliberate attempt to deceive by double and triple counting billions of pounds over a three-year period. But the Assembly Government maintains it was perfectly legitimate to present the figures in the way it has.
The row echoes past allegations levelled at the Labour Government in Westminster, where it was suggested spending plans for the same project had been announced and re-announced several times.
Mr Davies said he had been shocked to discover figures he believed referred to actual spending increases for a particular year in fact included extra amounts that had been added in from previous years.
This year, for the first time, the Assembly Government's draft budget proposals have been presented on a three-year forward basis.
Throughout the 24-page set of tables covering all the Assembly's responsibilities, including health, education, economic development and many more budget headings, statistics are presented in a series of columns indicating spending plans for the next three financial years.
On each page, there are columns headed 2005-06 Changes, 2006-07 Changes and 2007-08 Changes.
Mr Davies argues that a reasonable person would assume that the figures in the columns corresponded to that year's increase in relation to the previous year.
In fact, the figures for 2006-07 include not just the increases for 2006-07 but also the increases for the previous year.
When we reach the figures for 2007-08, the amounts in the "Changes" column represent not just that year's extra money, but the total spending increase over three years. Mr Davies said, "This is an extremely dishonest way of presenting the budget.
"What matters to people is how much increase will be coming through on an annual basis. When you see a column that says '2007-08 Changes', you expect to see the amount a budget line has gone up from the previous year, not with two previous years' increases thrown in as well."
When the budget was announced by Finance Minister Sue Essex, it was praised by the Western Mail, especially for its emphasis on early years education. Mrs Essex said, "This budget reflects the priorities of a government with a vision and commitment to deliver both now and in the future. This is a government that cares for its people and this budget is about making sure our priorities are demonstrated in our expenditure.
"The budget provides record levels of spending on frontline services helping us to achieve our vision for Wales - a dynamic and successful Wales with better jobs, better health and stronger communities."
At the weekend, deputy health minister John Griffiths went further by claiming the Assembly Government was pursuing socialist policies in Wales markedly to the left of the UK Government.
He said after the first annual general meeting of Welsh Labour Grassroots, a new group that believes Tony Blair has taken the British party too far to the right, "In line with the needs of Wales and the values of our people, Welsh Labour is developing and implementing a socialist programme of government for the sort of Wales our people want.
"Equality of opportunity must be joined to equality of outcome to achieve our top priority of social justice, a fairer country with much smaller gaps between rich and poor."
Documents produced for the Welsh Labour Grassroots meeting in Swansea claim the party across Britain is in turmoil, with many policies dismaying party members and supporters. In Wales, however, it is claimed that Rhodri Morgan deserves the support of all socialists because of his rejection of New Labour's reverence for the market.
Responding to the allegations of double and triple counting relating to the Assembly budget, an Assembly Government spokesman said, "This settlement differs from previous years in that to aid financial planning we have for the first time set figures for three years ahead.
"The Assembly Government is committed to transparency and there can be no dispute that a total of an extra £126m will be made available for post-16 learning from the baseline budget of £518m in 2004-05. The budget gives details of extra resources during each of the next three years. There is an extra £24.8m in 2005-06, an extra £45m in 2006-07, and an extra £56.6m in 2007-08. "