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Thursday, 31 January, 2002, 15:55 GMT
Birt warned of 'knock at door'
Part of the UK rail network
Lord Bird's railways expertise has been questioned
Former BBC director-general Lord Birt could receive a "knock at the door" if he fails again to agree to give evidence to an influential Commons committee.

The peer declined to give evidence to the Transport Select Committee despite being Prime Minister Tony Blair's transport adviser.


Lord Birt's arrogant refusal to be scrutinised by the House of Commons is yet another sign of Labour's contempt for Parliament

Theresa May
Downing Street has already intervened in the row saying transport department officials can better answer the MPs' questions but the Conservatives say it shows the government's "contempt for Parliament".

Now committee member and Labour MP Louise Ellman has warned Lord Birt that he could receive "a knock on the door" if he fails to give evidence.

Ms Ellman told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Select committees do have powers ultimately to send for people and to send for their papers - I hope it is not going to come that.

"I hope that when we repeat our request for Lord Birt to come, we will be told that he is going to come to see us.

"We start off asking very politely, and then we ask a little more strongly, and if it really comes to the test committees do have powers, and people can be sent for, so there could be a knock on the door, but let's hope we don't come to that."

But the parliamentary bible, Erskine May, makes clear peers cannot be forced to give evidence to Commons select committees.

Lord Birt became a strategic adviser in Downing Street's Forward Strategy Unit last year and is especially examining long-term transport policy.

Committee criticism

In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, the committee said Lord Birt's team came within its remit and the MPs believed he should appear before them.

Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody, who chairs the committee, said she was "angry" about his decision.

"My committee has the right to send for people and papers. We are considering the position," said Mrs Dunwoody.

Lord Birt
Downing Street says others can answer better than Lord Birt
Shadow transport secretary Theresa May cited the case as evidence of an "increasingly presidential regime" being run in Downing Street.

"Lord Birt's arrogant refusal to be scrutinised by the House of Commons is yet another sign of Labour's contempt for Parliament and the democratic process," said Ms May.

"This just adds weight to the suggestion that Lord Birt is not a transport expert and can't stand up to questioning."

Private advice

But a Downing Street spokeswoman said: "It was explained to the committee that Lord Birt is the prime minister's unpaid strategy adviser and he was part of the Forward Strategy Unit but had no executive role."

Instead, Lord Birt provided "private advice" for the prime minister, she added.

Number 10 says the crossbench peer is responsible for longer term transport planning - beyond the scope of the 10-year plan.

The former BBC director-general is part of Downing Street's Forward Strategy Unit, which focuses on so-called "blue skies" thinking into future policy.

'Nonsense'

His role has been ridiculed by opposition parties and Mrs Dunwoody has herself branded it nonsense.

"It seems extraordinary we are asking him to do something about which he knows nothing," she recently told Trade Secretary Stephen Byers in the commons.

Gwyneth Dunwoody
Birt could not organise "an arrangement in a brewery", says Dunwoody
"Well, it keeps him occupied," the Transport Secretary replied.

A draft report by Lord Birt said Britain's transport system had fallen far behind those of other leading European countries, according to newspaper reports.

Lib Dem transport spokesman Don Foster said he could understand why Lord Birt would not want to talk about his recommendations now.

But it was "bizarre" if he was not prepared to talk about his remit and to whom he was accountable, said Mr Foster.

Later, Leader of the Commons Robin Cook suggested it would be harder to recruit unpaid special advisers if they were to expect such close scrutiny of their decisions.

Ministers, not special advisers, made decisions, said Mr Cook, and they were the people who should be called to account.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's John Andrew
"It is very ususual"
The BBC's Shaun Ley
"Lord Birt is saying his responsibilities stretch beyond the 10-year plan"
See also:

10 Aug 01 | UK Politics
Birt becomes Number 10 adviser
10 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Birt crime job offer criticised
07 Jan 02 | UK Politics
UK transport system 'failing'
31 Jan 02 | UK Politics
A life through many lenses
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