The government is under fire for doubling the number of nurse consultants as the posts are not attracting the £40,000-plus salaries promised by prime minister Tony Blair.

Speaking at the Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors conference in London last week, junior health minister Lord Hunt announced an extra 219 nurse consultant posts - on top of the existing 232 - as part of a new leadership strategy to help transform the NHS.

But only last month, a study by analysts Industrial Relations Services found that nurse consultants were being offered salaries of between£30-35,000, with the result that some jobs were having to be advertised twice.

Josie Irwin, senior employment relations adviser at the Royal College of Nursing, said that unless salaries were raised the government would fail to meet the NHS plan target of 1,000 nurse consultants by 2004.

'Certainly with that first tranche of posts employers were pitching salaries at the lower end of the pay scale. We hope they have learnt that they need to pay to get quality. We think they should pitch salaries at the higher levels of between£40,000 and£42,000 a year to really match the aspirations and rhetoric of the government, and avoid having to advertise twice or scratch around to fill the post.'

The nurse consultant post was introduced in 1999 with a£40,000 salary as a way of retaining and rewarding nurses with excellent hands-on clinical skills who did not want a career in management.

The government's leadership strategy will see the creation of 1,152 places on the RCN's clinical leadership training programme for frontline nurses, midwives and health visitors.

Chief nursing officer Sarah Mullally said nurse consultants were 'already proving themselves to be creative and innovative leaders'. 'The clinical leadership programme. . . will provide thousands of ward sisters and charge nurses with the tools to make a real difference for patients, ' she said.

In addition, over 32,000 places will be created on the Leading Empowered Organisations training programme over the next two years. Lord Hunt said nurses, midwives and health visitors 'have the potential to make great leaders'.

'I am determined that we make the most of this valuable resource.

The NHS plan requires a radical transformation in services. We simply cannot deliver this level of change without changes to the way we develop and sustain our leaders in this service.

'Just as service modernisation requires a complete rethink of management systems and processes in the NHS, so, too, should we modernise our approach to leadership development.'

Geraldine Cunningham, codirector of the RCN leadership programme, said: 'This is an opportunity to influence the future of nursing and how healthcare is delivered as a whole.'