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Role of Lord Birt

12.59 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes): I am delighted to have secured this debate today; it is, in many ways, a journey into the unknown. I hope that by the end of it we will all know more about what Lord Birt does. The Minister has a blank canvas on which to paint, for we know precious little so far. I draw the Minister's attention to the title of the debate. I have deliberately chosen a narrow topic, so I hope that when he replies he will address himself to it. If he is tempted to range far and wide without actually hitting the target, I will look to you, Mr Illsley, for assistance and protection.

What do we know about Lord Birt's latest appointment? I can list that very quickly. According to the Prime Minister's answer to one of my questions, we know that he has been appointed to the forward strategy unit in No. 10 and that he works with the unit on "a range of projects", that he is unpaid but can claim expenses, and that he last travelled by train on 28 November. We also know that he is engaged in blue-skies thinking, whatever that is. Someone suggested that it may be gazing out of the window of the Cabinet Office. In any case, when one adds up that information, it is not very revealing.

What we know about Lord Birt himself, as opposed to his new role, hardly fills us with confidence that he is an appropriate person to occupy a key Government position. Let us take his time as Director General of the BBC. It was hardly a success. He took a unified organisation and split it into atomised pieces, each fighting the other. Morale plummeted while management costs soared. Broadcasting house became virtually empty of broadcasters; they were all shipped at vast expense to White City to make more room for the managers and accountants and the army of consultants that Lord Birt employed. Fortunately for the BBC, Greg Dyke has reversed much of the damage.

The profile of John Birt in The Observer in 1996 put it thus:

The man who was chairman when Birt was Director General, Marmaduke Hussey, told The Guardian last August that if he had been given a new term as chairman, he would have sacked Birt. He said:

Is that the sort of man we want creating transport policy?

We also know that Lord Birt was installed as Director General at the BBC without a formal interview or application process. Lord Birt appears rather good at securing jobs for which he is ill-equipped without having to bother applying for them. He joined the BBC as Director General in November 1992 and it was not until

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March that it transpired that he was not on the staff but was employed through an organisation called John Birt Productions Ltd. He then asked people to believe that he had been too busy to join the staff. Naturally, his little wheeze was financially very rewarding in tax terms—although it meant less money for the Exchequer, as tax avoidance always does. None of that stopped him from retiring from the BBC with a golden handshake reputed to total £784,000. Is that the sort of man we want creating transport policy?

Of course we need not look back to the BBC to examine John Birt's record. Prior to being given his transport blue-skies role, he was the Prime Minister's crime tsar. His brief, according to a parliamentary answer to me, was

And if that was not clear, the Prime Minister helpfully added:

It was interesting to know what the Prime Minister thought he brought to the job, for it certainly was not a knowledge of crime.

What did Lord Birt manage to contribute? We do not know officially, of course. That, like everything else to do with Lord Birt, is kept from MPs and the public. However The Guardian managed to piece things together a little. An article entitled "Crime tsar Birt leaves to the sound of mockery" stated:

The article went on to say that John Birt had not met the Association of Chief Police Officers, the National Association of Probation Officers, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders or, it appears, any organisation with a knowledge of crime. One would have thought that he might have started on that tack if he had wanted to carry out some useful work in that role.

We are told that his work was "considered alongside" contributions from Departments for the report "Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead", although the Prime Minister has refused my request and those of others to place a copy of John Birt's work in the Library. Why is it not in the Library? Is he worried that it might look a little threadbare or amateurish? In any case, the consensus is that his work was distinctly underwhelming.

Is this the sort of man we want creating transport policy? Why has he been asked to look at transport? Well, it gives him something to do, as the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions neatly put it when giving evidence to the Transport Select Committee. He implied that Lord Birt was a harmless diversion, but I wonder whether he knew about Lord Birt's financial connections with Virgin, which has railways and air services as part of its empire. He should know that Lord Birt became chairman of Lynx New Media in 2000, as he disclosed in the Lords' register of interests. However, Lord Birt did not disclose

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that Lynx is in effect managed by Virgin Media Group. Was the Prime Minister informed of that connection when he asked Lord Birt to undertake transport policy?

Perhaps that explains why Lord Birt has an office with Lynx New Media on the fourth floor at 45, Old Bond street. That is where Downing street will refer callers on ringing up to find out how to contact him. It might also explain why a life-size cardboard cut-out of Richard Branson adorns the office. Of course, 45, Old Bond street is very exclusive. I have a photograph that the Minister might like to see if he has not seen it before. It shows John Birt's office, two doors from the Gucci shop, with a Rolls Royce parked opposite. I am reliably told that rents there average £80 per sq ft. Is the taxpayer paying for office space for Lord Birt there?

Is it appropriate for the Prime Minister's personal transport adviser to have a £100 million financial relationship with a leading supplier of transport in the UK? Is that the sort of man we want creating transport policy? I believe that the link with Virgin represents a clear conflict of interest for a person charged with developing transport policy. Unless the Prime Minister and Lord Birt himself can show categorically that no conflict exists—bearing in mind that no information whatever has been provided so far—Lord Birt should resign forthwith.

However, neither Lord Birt nor the Prime Minister seems to want to show anything. For a start, the Prime Minister refuses to give out anything but the barest information about Lord Birt and his role, little more than the fact that he has been appointed. I refer to some of the questions that I have asked so far but the Prime Minister has refused to answer. The Prime Minister will not tell us for how long Lord Birt has been appointed to the forward strategy unit. He will not tell us how many times he has met Lord Birt this year. He will not tell us whether Lord Birt has access to Cabinet papers. He will not tell us how many hours a week Lord Birt works. He will not tell us how much he has claimed in expenses. He will not tell us to which Ministers Lord Birt reports. He will not tell us which transport organisations, if any, Lord Birt has met since his appointment. He will not tell us what secretarial support is available to Lord Birt, although a helpful inside source tells me that between eight and 10 civil servants are working for him. Is that correct? He will not tell us what office space has been made available to Lord Birt. He will not tell us which projects Lord Birt has worked on or will be working on.

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions will not tell us—no doubt under orders from No. 10—whether he was consulted prior to Lord Birt's appointment or what access Lord Birt has to civil servants in his Department. Was the Secretary of State consulted by the Prime Minister prior to Lord Birt's appointment?

I wonder whether the Prime Minister recalls the magic words he issued as Leader of the Opposition:

Those are hollow words when it comes to finding out about Lord Birt or much else in the internal mechanism of No. 10.

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This farrago of non-answers, which the Minister appears to think is consistent with democracy—he is laughing about it—treats Parliament with contempt. I have requested basic information that would in no way compromise the principle that advice available to Ministers is confidential. Some of the questions that were refused an answer had previously been answered by this Prime Minister and the previous Prime Minister, who in many ways was more open. I refer the Minister, and the Prime Minister, to the Speaker's statement of 28 November—

Mr. Eric Illsley (in the Chair): Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that "Erskine May" details particular conventions on comments about Members of Parliament. Lord Birt is technically a Member of the upper House, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to follow those conventions and ensure that his language is temperate.

Norman Baker : I shall try to do that, Mr. Illsley. I thought that my language was temperate, but I have listened to you carefully.

I refer to the Speaker's statement of 28 November, in which he said that

In none of the cases that I mentioned was that done, and the reason is obvious. Nothing in the code could possibly justify the contemptuous non-answers that the Prime Minister has given to me and other Members. If there is, the Minister should tell us about it in his reply. I give the Minister notice that if he fails to provide answers to those outstanding queries today, I will lodge a formal complaint with the Public Administration Committee to take the matter further. I will also pursue the whole issue by other means.

This matter does not only concern questions. We now learn that Lord Birt has decided—or the Prime Minister has decided for him—that he is not prepared to give evidence to the Transport Committee, despite the formidable and vocal objections of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I hope that the Prime Minister has also noted the points of order raised last Thursday in the Chamber by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).

What on earth has possessed the Prime Minister to appoint someone whose record is patchy to say the least, who is ill suited to the task in hand and, according to the press, widely derided by civil servants and the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions? Given his involvement with Richard Branson and Virgin, he also has a clear conflict of interests. If Lord Birt is the answer, the question must be a strange one.

What on earth has possessed the Prime Minister to deal with the matter in such a secretive and contemptuous way? Why will he not answer basic questions? Why should Lord Birt not be answerable to the Transport Committee? The immediate answer that I

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fear is that it is because he is a friend—or should I say a crony. Lord Birt was ennobled by the Prime Minister, he attended Cherie Blair's 40th birthday party, and at his 50th birthday celebration, the Prime Minister took part in a pantomime skit based on his life. The wider answer, I regret to say, is that the Prime Minister appears to believe that he can simply bypass normal rules and conventions if his friends are involved and he feels like it. It seems that the rules and conventions that work to hold the Government to account are optional if he so decides.

The Prime Minister came to power in 1997 with a Labour Government who had a huge majority on the back of public revulsion at the sleaze that had dominated the latter Tory years. He arrived committed to a new way of doing things—a new Bill of Rights and a Freedom of Information Act, ending the secrecy in government and the corruption, patronage and sleaze. Fundamentally, the Prime Minister is a decent man, but he is slipping into the seductive ways that make life easier today but store up trouble for tomorrow. His decision to withhold from Parliament almost all information about Lord Birt is a symptom of a wider malaise. He must remember, as should his Ministers, that freedom of information is ultimately a friend of good government and the governing party. Subterfuge, secrecy, contempt of Parliament, withholding information unnecessarily and thwarting Select Committees are dangerous roads to go down for both democracy and the Government.

Lord Birt is the wrong man for the job, and he should be relieved of his post forthwith. However, if the Prime Minister wants to keep him, he should provide answers to justify the employment. He must recognise that Members of this House have a right to ask questions and a justifiable expectation that they will be answered, whether they are inconvenient or not. That is how this place works. Members are entitled to ask questions and expect answers, not to be fobbed off. Let us have Lord Birt before the Transport Committee to answer basic points about his role—not about the advice that he has given, but about his terms and conditions of work. If Lord Birt is to win any respect in his present post, that is the only way forward. Without basic accountability, he will be able to limp on in his closed world, sheltered from the biting wind by the warm, enveloping cloak of the Prime Minister and all at No. 10, but the price that he will have to pay is derision.

The price that the Prime Minister will have to pay is greater. It will be to water the bitter seeds already planted—the seeds of distaste at the naked patronage of cronies, the seeds of anger that the Government's fine promises of openness and accountability have been betrayed, and most of all the seeds of disappointment that the new start in which so many people believed back in 1997 has finally spluttered to a halt and that the Prime Minister, in the public's eyes, is just like any other politician.

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie) : Convention dictates that I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing the debate, but so far it has not been characterised by his more usual generous and magnanimous approach. I was starting to feel worried:

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he is desperately trying to maintain his reputation by portraying himself as a man with the bit between his teeth. I felt that he was grasping at straws today and the level of intemperance said a great deal about his mindset and focus in the debate. I am truly disappointed and sorry about that.

I should like to deal with Lord Birt's role and directly answer the hon. Gentleman's questions. Lord Birt is appointed by the Prime Minister as an unpaid strategic adviser and has an overarching role on several projects supported by the forward strategy unit at No. 10. His role is to provide analysis and advice on a range of strategic issues, including long-term options for transport over future generations. Lord Birt's position is simply another in a long line of external unpaid appointments that have been made by Governments of all parties when they want the benefit of wider advice. His role is in parallel with the work and objectives of the forward strategy unit, and he provides private policy advice to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues.

It is important to set out what Lord Birt is not doing: he does not have an executive role; he does not execute or make policy decisions; he does not receive a salary from the taxpayer; he does not change the nature of decision making because Ministers and the Prime Minister are ultimately accountable. Ministers are in the hot seat, taking decisions and accepting full responsibility. Ministers are properly held to account and have to answer for the consequences of their decisions. Ministers have always sought private advice from a range of sources. They have always had private discussions about long-term trends and developments in policy across departmental barriers. The unpaid advisers in the forward strategy unit provide useful analysis in order to inform those discussions.

Advice comes to Government from several quarters—even, I suppose, from the Liberal Democrats. Policy is not made in a vacuum. Suggestions, recommendations, guidance and opinions are all taken to Ministers, who weigh up options and arguments, and take decisions themselves after careful consideration. Their choices are defended when Ministers are held to account in Parliament. Ministers go before Select Committees, make statements and answer at Question Time in the Chamber—and, indeed, in Westminster Hall Adjournment debates. As the ministerial code of conduct makes plain:

Nothing Lord Birt or the forward strategy unit does changes that.

It might help the hon. Gentleman if I explained the context and practice of appointing unpaid advisers. The ministerial code of conduct clearly sets out the provisions and parameters in the appointment of unpaid advisers. Such advisers are personal appointments by Ministers; there is no contractual relationship between adviser and Department; all normal codes of government apply; the Official Secrets Act and the business appointment rules—introduced, incidentally, by this Administration—cover unpaid advisers and special advisers. Those arrangements have worked well in the past, and we believe that they will continue to do so.

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There are virtues to having two unpaid advisers in government. Advisers volunteer their time and expertise because they want to contribute to improving public services and the country at large. They offer the benefits of their experience and knowledge to help Ministers to make better policy. No financial rewards are involved. Advisers simply wish to contribute to the common objective of delivering improvements to the work of the Government. They are public-spirited individuals, with no vested interests or axes to grind, or profit to gain. I wish that I could say the same about axes to grind in respect of the hon. Gentleman. We would all be much worse off if we resisted taking fresh perspectives and challenging concepts to the heart of government.

Ministers receive advice all the time from a huge range of sources, some of which is requested and some unprompted. There are many professionals and experts with ideas that may be worth listening to. It would be idiotic to have a closed mind and a blinkered approach when alternative strategies and options may provide the right solutions. It is right to be able to tap into advice from outside on an unpaid basis. That must be a feature of a mature democracy.

I want briefly to set in context the work of the forward strategy and the performance and innovation units. There is a long-standing tradition of strategic units at the centre of government. They hardly represent a radical new departure in No. 10 or a major constitutional change. In the Heath Administration in the 1970s—I cannot recall it precisely—the central policy review staff were known as the Think Tank, which was intended to look at issues in a detached, strategic manner, while Departments focused on delivering day-to-day policies. The Think Tank was headed by an outsider, Victor Rothschild. It lasted throughout the second Wilson Government, the Callaghan Government, and the Thatcher Administration, and then merged into the No. 10 policy unit.

Governments of all parties have from time to time felt the need for outside advice and a fresh perspective from new angles. In 1997, when the Labour Government took office, the policy unit was not sufficient to give proper capacity for strategic thinking. Therefore, we set up a performance and innovation unit to look afresh at different issues across normal departmental boundaries. The PIU undertakes its work in several ways, using outside advisers to bring in new skills and expertise. It conducts structured, intensive and focused projects and has a commitment to the use of hard evidence to ensure that policy decisions are built on firm foundations. Let us consider two examples of the PIU's work and outcomes. Its report on the recovery of the proceeds of crime led to the Proceeds of Crime Bill and the Prime Minister's review of adoption led to the Adoption and Children Bill.

The PIU has been increasingly recognised as a successful model, so the establishment of a forward strategy unit inside No. 10 gives a stronger strategic function capable of giving the Prime Minister and the Cabinet long-term, private and strategic advice. The forward strategy unit is a panel of senior individuals with a wide breadth of expertise working in small teams drawn from the civil service and outside.

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The hon. Gentleman mentioned appearances before a Select Committee. Ministers are accountable to Parliament, not officials, except for accounting officers. Ministers make and execute policy. It is the Executive who are held accountable. Ministers give evidence and submit written material to Select Committees all the time, and it is proper for them to express a preference on who should explain their policies. As an unpaid strategy adviser, Lord Birt has no executive role. The invitation to Lord Birt from the Transport Committee was to give evidence on the 10-year plan, which is the responsibility of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Ministers therefore decided that Mr. Willy Rickett, a senior official from the DTLR who is working with the forward strategy unit on transport issues, would be better placed to give evidence, and he did so last week.

There are ample opportunities for Select Committees to make inquiries and cross-examine people. The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has appeared twice, and the Minister for Transport and a Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department have also appeared before the Committee. There is no deficit in accountability, because the buck stops with Ministers.

The Government are strongly committed to a healthy system of scrutiny through the Select Committee process, and the Leader of House will soon bring forward proposals to further it—for example, making nominations more independent of Government, providing more resources to conduct investigations and broadening the scope and jurisdiction of Select Committees.

It is nonsense for the hon. Gentleman to refer to some grand, dark conspiracy theory at the heart of government. In many ways, I worry for the workings of his mind. There is bound to be lots of media excitement, especially in the BBC, about the issue. The desire to concoct such theories is a bit excessive.

Norman Baker : The Minister should not worry about my mind. It is perfectly all right, and I shall look after and treasure it in the years ahead.

Before he sits down, will he address the long list of questions that have not been answered by the Prime Minister and the others that I inserted later, including

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those on the relationship with Virgin and the costly offices at 45, Old Bond street? Does he agree that answering those questions would not in any way interfere with the advice given to Ministers but would be proper accountability in Parliament?

Mr. Leslie : If the hon. Gentleman had been listening to my comments, he would have heard me mention that the business appointment rules apply to unpaid advisers. He suggests that there is a conflict of interest, but that would not be allowed under the ministerial code or the business appointment rules.

As for the theory that there is a cost to the taxpayer for offices in Old Bond street, there is no cost to the public purse at all. As I said, whenever new units are created or appointments are made, there is bound to be some interest, but the role of Lord Birt and the forward strategy unit are hardly radical constitutional innovations. If the hon. Gentleman reviews previous discussions, he will discover that.

Ministers can accept or reject advice as they wish. The simple aim is to broaden the thinking in the Government and widen horizons in policy development. Surely there is nothing wrong with that. The Government are making genuine efforts to manage and improve public services. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see all these matters in that light.

Running Government and public services—schools, hospitals, the police service and transport—is an immensely complicated and important task. The Government are trying as hard as they can to advance the quality and efficient management of those vital services. To do that, it is necessary to tap into the expertise of people who have a track record of running large and complex organisations and institutions. In the process of reforming and modernising our public services, getting the right solutions is, surely, vital. Thus, the ability for Ministers to listen to advice volunteered by those with useful experiences—for example, in managing major projects—should be welcomed, not discouraged. Reasonable Governments do not just dwell on the problems facing a nation; they face the challenge of devising practical solutions as well.

Mr. Eric Illsley (in the Chair): We come to the next debate, which is about the outcome of Government initiatives to combat the social exclusion of young people through work.

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