Spending on outside consultants by Northern Ireland's Government bodies rocketed by almost a third last year to £42.01m, MLAs have learned.
The massive total for 2006/07 included expenditure by the 11 Stormont departments, as well their agencies and other offshoot organisations.
It represents a shocking 32% increase on the previous year's tally of £31.71m.
The figures were disclosed by the Department of Finance to the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which is conducting an investigation into the Government's use of outside advisers.
Other statistics provided to the MLAs for a hearing yesterday included:
- Spending on consultants by departments alone, excluding their offshoot bodies, climbed from £10.51m in 2005/06 to £18.59m in 2006/07.
- The big two in the consultancy world - PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Deloitte - received a large share of the business from Government bodies.
- In the two-year period 2004/05 to 2006/07, PwC received £17.575m from departments here, while Deloitte was next highest with £ 9.132m. The company with the third highest total received £3.91m.
- The Department for Regional Development (DRD) had the highest individual total of any department last year - £5.08m.
- DRD's soaring bills were connected to the controversial water reform package, involving the creation of a new Government-owned company, Northern Ireland Water.
- Its expenditure on a water reform legal advice contract jumped by more than 300% above the original tender price.
The work by an international law firm had initially been expected to cost £1.1m. But it passed the £3.9m mark over a two-year period.
- Bills for another DRD contract, involving financial advice on water reform, have climbed from the original tender price of £1,160,000 to £2,276,799.
Senior DRD official David Sterling told the Assembly committee yesterday that issues had arisen in such contracts that made them more complex.
He accepted that the figures looked "bad" but sought to assure the PAC that value for money was being received.
The head of the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) Bruce Robinson told MLAs the overall rise in Government consultancy spend was linked to a number of major initiatives. These included water reform, the Workplace 2010 buildings sell-off scheme and the Review of Public Administration.
Mr Robinson accepted that DFP still had work to do in overseeing spending.
This will involve obtaining information from other departments and " test-drilling" contracts to ensure compliance with procedures.
MLA John Dallat referred to consultancy contracts as the "lambing season " while fellow PAC member Mitchel McLaughlin said: "Lambs to the slaughter is the phrase that occurs to me."
The Stormont committee will be issuing a report on its investigation in January.