Birt leaves MPs in dark over 'blue skies' role

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Indy Politics

It was the moment John Birt finally got to answer the question that has intrigued MPs for years: what exactly did he do as Tony Blair's "blue skies" thinker?

MPs have been keen to interview the former director general of the BBC, who became an unpaid strategy adviser to Downing Street for a six-year period that ended last December - he counselled the Prime Minister about subjects ranging from transport to crime. They had their chance yesterday but got little reward as a two-hour session of the Public Administration Committee turned into something more akin to an Alan Sugar-style boardroom carpeting.

The MPs began by asking Lord Birt to reveal how he was hired, but struggled, amid increasing exasperation and some inpenetrable jargon, to elicit details of anything he achieved in his office at No 10.

Lord Birt said: "As I recall [Mr Blair] asked to see me. I think it was at some social occasion. He said 'when you are finished at the BBC you must do some work for us'." He refused to talk about any details of the recommendations he made, advice or dealings he had with Mr Blair, apart from revealing he saw the Prime Minister once or twice a fortnight.

Questions about reform of the Civil Service were met with answers about "managing across the matrix" and "building capacity" as he told how he toiled to provide rigorous strategic thinking for the Prime Minister. "Strategy is hard intellectual work. It can take a very long time and you have to wrap a wet towel round your head," he said.

He criticised Whitehall departments for failing to have good financial control, but refused to name the worst performers. He told the committee: "It's not appropriate I share with you some of the insights I gained in government... but not all departments are strong."

Paul Flynn, the MP for Newport West, attacked Lord Birt's recently declassified report on drugs policy. "It's full of pie charts and bullet points and everything is repeated at least twice," he said. "It's exactly the type of way a junior school teacher would communicate with an pupil. Is that an appropriate way to communicate with the Prime Minister?"

Lord Birt replied: "I can think of a very senior civil servant who spent six months of his life on one page of that report."

Ian Liddell-Grainger, the MP for Bridgwater, asked: "What are your three crowning achievements? What are the three things you can look at and say 'I did that'?" Lord Birt replied: "I can't answer the question. I would have to dig a hole in the ground and speak into it."