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Friday, 10 August, 2001, 11:20 GMT 12:20 UK
Birt becomes Number 10 adviser
Lord Birt, former BBC Director-General
Tony Blair was impressed with Birt's Home Office work
The appointment of former BBC director-general Lord Birt as a strategic adviser to Tony Blair in Downing Street has come under fire from opposition parties.

The crossbench peer is taking up a part time, unpaid post in helping to inject new thinking into Number 10's long-term plans, it emerged on Friday.

I think the government seems to pick out of thin air individuals who happen to be in favour and appoint them to these plum positions

Lord Avebury
The appointment comes after the prime minister was impressed by Lord Birt's work on a 10-year crime plan for the government.

The move has brought accusations of "cronyism" because of his friendship with Mr Blair and Peter Mandelson.

Whitehall shake-up

Lord Birt will work with the Forward Strategy Unit, which is headed by senior Downing Street official Geoff Mulgan.

The Forward Strategy Unit was one of three new groups created by Mr Blair in June as part of his shake-up of Whitehall.

The former BBC chief will be involved in so-called "blue skies thinking" - a term applied to experts tasked with seeking fresh ideas to stimulate debate.

A Downing Street spokeswoman told BBC News Online: "The unit is basically looking at a range of long-term projects for the prime minister."

David Lidington, shadow Home Office minister
Lidington: Public should see Birt's work
Half of those involved with the new unit will be external advisers from outside the civil service, including those with voluntary sector and business backgrounds.

The spokeswoman said their names would be announced in due course and no specific projects had yet been earmarked for the unit.

She continued: "His work on crime was fed into the crime plan and the prime minister found his contribution useful and thoughtful and said at the time if he was re-elected he would like to ask John Birt to work on other specific projects."

Crime adviser role

Lord Birt stood down after eight years as BBC director-general last year.

His work on the crime plan was never published and shadow Home Office minister David Lidington said the government had "stonewalled questions" about it.

He told BBC Radio 4's World At One programme: "It is fair for ministers to have around them people that are sympathetic to their political point of view.

"But then to pretend these people are somehow coming up with exciting ideas, on crime and policing in Lord Birt's case, is just misleading the public when it turns out that they have done very little."

Mr Lidington said Mr Blair was either very easily impressed or he should share the fruits of Lord Birt's work on crime policy with the public.

Work kept secret

Political historian Anthony Seldon, who has written about how Downing Street is organised, said the Forward Strategy Unit was supposed to work in confidence.

"The sense that I have with the unit is that it is the prime minister wanting to maintain momentum throughout the second term and into the third term.

"John Birt in his mind, rightly or wrongly, is associated with somebody both who can keep his mouth closed and someone who can think strategically."

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Avebury criticised the appointment on the World At One.

"I think the government seems to pick out of thin air individuals who happen to be in favour and appoint them to these plum positions without any regard to their qualifications or who might be available to do the job."

Anthony Seldon, political author
"The Prime Minister was impressed by Lord Birt's strategic thinking"
Conservative Home Affairs spokesman David Liddington
"To pretend these people are experts... is simply misleading the public"
See also:

10 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Birt crime job offer criticised
31 Dec 99 | UK
BBC chief to enter Lords
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