Debt-ridden Midland hospitals have been forced to pay almost £1 million for consultants sent by the government to help them with their finances.

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt ordered "turn-around teams" into Midland hospitals after they were forced to make massive cuts in an effort to balance their books.

But it has emerged that hospitals across Britain have been charged more than £10million by the teams themselves.

Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust and University Hospital North Staffordshire NHS Trust have both been charged almost £500,000.

The fees were uncovered by shadow Health Minister Stephen O'Brien who made freedom of information requests to the hospitals affected.

He said: "Patricia Hewitt's early assurances that the turnaround costs are known and containable are well clear of the mark."

The Worcestershire Trust runs hospitals in Worcester, Redditch and Kidderminster.

It has been forced to axe most of its chaplaincy staff after running up debts of millions of pounds.

But over the last two years it has spent £419,892 on management and financial consultants to "turnaround" its financial position.

MP Peter Luff (Con, Mid Worcestershire) said paying for consultants would take resources away from patient's care.

He said: "The Trust is struggling to find ways of addressing a situation not of its making - but the end result is that they are sacking hundreds of staff, including hospital chaplains who care for the minds and souls of patients and staff, while employing legions of management consultants to do the bidding of Patricia Hewitt. This is wrong, wrong, wrong.

"I do not blame the Trust for this scandal they are only doing what Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Health has forced them to do."

He added: "She has been taking money from our local health service to meet deficits elsewhere. She has messed up initiatives like payment by results, which make it impossible for the Trust to budget accurately. This deficit was made in Whitehall."

In 2004 the NHS as a whole spent £568,000 on consultants but over the last two years hospitals have spent £10.6million. This is on top of another £11million spent by the Department of Health centrally. A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "As there is no detail given as to what is included or what kinds of services are included in the external costs, we cannot comment on this figure.

"We do not collect the amount the NHS spends on external consultants however, any figure should be looked at in context - the NHS budget is over £70billion and the NHS is one of the largest employers in the world.

"Like taxpayers, we want every penny to be spent on patient care. However, we are always looking at how the NHS can do things better collectively. For example targeted supported for turnaround teams is helping Trusts to address their finances."

She added: "The result will be that by April 2007 the NHS will once again balance its books. The link being drawn between deficits and the use of consultants flatly contradicts the detailed analyses undertaken by the Audit Commission and National Audit Office."