MP calls for investigation into Birt's 'conflict of interests'

By Oliver Marre
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The Independent Online

* Following Pandora's report that John Birt is interested in a formal Civil Service job, I learn the Lib Dem MP Norman Baker has written to the Cabinet Secretary to request an investigation into Birt's current role at Downing Street.

The former director-general of the BBC lists in the Register of Lords' Interests that he is paid by the management consultancy firm McKinsey as an adviser on "global media and entertainment practice". At the same time, he has been working for the PM, unpaid, advising him - among other things - on the future of the BBC.

Baker's letter, which has been leaked to Pandora, asks Sir Andrew Turnbull what access Lord Birt, above, has to confidential government papers; and whether it is suitable for a man employed as a management consultant to be working at No 10.

"One has to wonder about the crossover benefits of his position," Baker says. "It can't harm his standing at McKinsey if they know he's rubbing noses with Blair."

Another aspect of Birt's role that Baker believes warrants investigation is the fact that a civil servant works (part-time) for him, and his use of office space at No 10.

"This expenditure means that Lord Birt is not exactly entirely free to the taxpayer," Baker adds.

When I call the Cabinet Office, a spokesman says: "Lord Birt's appointment was carried out in full accordance with the ministerial code."

* NEVER LET it be said that Aishwarya Rai, the Bollywood actress who claimed fame in the West as the star of Bride and Prejudice , lacks commitment to her art.

She was sadly forced to take a break from filming her next flick, Mistress of Spices , after the said spices got into her eyes.

"Aishwarya plays the part of a young girl who's trained in the ancient art of spices, and she was so enthusiastic about the whole thing that she ended up spending longer amongst them than was good for her eyes," I'm told.

"She was forced to go off sick, but nobody could be angry about it - it was hard not to laugh."

The film is directed by Paul Berges, whose wife, Gurinder Chadha, directed Rai in Bride and Prejudice .

"Gurinder's being very helpful," adds my source. "It's his first film so it's good to have her around."

* WHEN GORDON Ramsay announced that he was jumping ship from ITV to Channel 4, pundits predicted a change of direction from the decidedly low-brow Hell's Kitchen .

They were right: Pandora learns that Gordon is teaming up with the restaurant critic Giles Coren, above, for a series on his new channel.

"It's early stages, and I wouldn't want to give anything away," Coren tells me, discreetly. "But I get on well with Gordon and appeared on Hell's Kitchen as a critic."

It seems that the Times writer won't be forced to don an apron this time either.

"We're mates, but I imagine it would be a bit too taxing to work for him as a chef," Coren adds.

* ANOTHER DAY, another tale of Labour spin. Party headquarters has written a skeleton press release for its MPs to ask Tory election candidates about their views on the new Prevention of Terrorism Act.

"Labour's ______, the MP for ______", it reads, "today challenged the Conservative candidate for ______ on the Tory's [sic] refusal to support Labour's anti-terrorist reforms."

Nice of HQ to help, of course, but the suggestion hasn't gone down well in all quarters.

"The minister who authorised this for the male testosterone morons and Stepford wives on Labour's backbenches is seriously unbalanced," says Brian Sedgemore.

For the record, Mr Sedgemore - who recently wrote to constituents to apologise for asking a couple of sycophantic questions - is not a supporter of the Act.

* Good news for HM the Queen - and any other readers who have declined their invitations to Prince Charles's civil wedding ceremony on 8 April.

The BBC is to film a special edition of its comedy show Double Take about the nuptials that will feature the Guildhall visit, from which the Prince has banned all cameras. In the past, the programme has shown Charles painting Camilla, nude, in water-colour.

"It'll be great fun to do something topical this time," says the director Alison Jackson. "Who can blame the Queen for not going: it looks ghastly."