Critics say Birt is not qualified to advise on improving railways

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The Independent Online

Downing Street defended Lord Birt yesterday as critics claimed he was unqualified to advise on Britain's railways.

The former BBC director general, who was appointed as a senior policy adviser last summer, has been commissioned by Tony Blair to engage in "long-term thinking" on rail services. But critics suggested yesterday that Lord Birt had no relevant experience and pointed out that a similar crime review at the Home Office had been attacked by experts in the field.

As a member of No 10's Forward Strategy Unit, Lord Birt has already produced drafts of a review of underinvestment in the rail network.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman denied that the peer had been drafted in over the head of Stephen Byers, the Transport Secretary. "I hardly think Stephen Byers, the Prime Minister or anybody else regards this as a slap in the face, as it has been portrayed. This work was commissioned some months ago. The unit has been working with the Department so it should come as no surprise," he said. "This unit is not divided from Government, it's part of Government."

Mr Blair's spokesman said that the Prime Minister valued Lord Birt's contributions to the policy debate and said that he had done some "very good work" at the Home Office.

But the Tories have been keen to round on Lord Birt.

"He has no real knowledge of the transport system. He's a Tony's crony whose idea of a traffic hold up is his chauffeur turning up five minutes late," Theresa May, the Shadow Transport Secretary, said.

Home affairs groups yesterday claimed that Lord Birt's report for the Government's Crime Plan in the last Parliament was poorly researched.

Frances Crook, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the sum total of his contribution was "nonsense". "I think the amount of his research was nonsense," Ms Crook told BBC Radio 4's World At One programme, "and I say that advisedly because, irregularly, Lord Birt came up with a statistic that said that 100,000 people were responsible for half of all violent crime.

"That got translated into 100,000 people were responsible for half of all crime, and this is clearly nonsense."

Lord Birt, whose post is unpaid, works part-time in the new unit with a remit to develop "blue skies thinking" to shake up the Civil Service.

The peer stepped down from the BBC in 2000 after an eight-year tenure, during which he was accused by several BBC reporters and producers of stifling its tradition of creativity with an obsession with management consultants.