Backbenchers attack committee gag on Birt

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Tony Blair was under fire from Labour backbenchers yesterday for refusing to allow his transport adviser Lord Birt to face questions from a committee of MPs.

Gwynneth Dunwoody, chairman of the transport select committee, attacked Number 10 for turning down a request for the former BBC director general to give evidence to MPs next week. MPs have started a full-scale inquiry into the Government's 10-year transport plan, insisting that advisers involved in shaping policy should be subject to questioning from elected MPs.

Officials from the Highways Agency and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions have been seconded to assist the peer in his "blue sky" research into transport up to the year 2020. Senior civil servants also meet Lord Birt weekly in a steering group to guide his research.

Ms Dunwoody said: "If Lord Birt and the forward strategy unit are involved in policymaking, then they must be accountable to Parliament. If they are not involved in policymaking we question their value."