MPs savage Blair for 'protecting' Lord Birt

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A Commons committee accused Tony Blair yesterday of a deliberate attempt to undermine the powers of Parliament to protect his transport adviser Lord Birt. In a blistering rebuke, the Labour-dominated Transport Select Committee damned Downing Street for refusing to allow the former BBC director general to answer questions about his "Blue Sky" research on future transport policy, dismissing No 10's objections as "remarkably feeble".

MPs also criticised the Prime Minister's growing central unit of special advisers for "meddling" in the work of government departments and wasting the time of experienced civil servants. The committee warned: "Never in peace time has a Prime Minister gathered about himself such an assemblage of apparatchiks unaccountable to Parliament.

"A small number of people, often like Lord Birt with few relevant qualifications beyond the ear of the Prime Minister, second guess the work of experienced civil servants. This meddling makes departmental civil servants' and ministers' efforts to grapple with huge problems more difficult. Their work is inhibited by the attentions of the Prime Minister's departments and their time is wasted sorting out ill-considered interventions."

The MPs said it was unacceptable that advisers such as Lord Birt worked in secret and were not subjected to public scrutiny by MPs. The report said: "We suspect that the Government's reasons for refusing to allow advisers to give evidence to select committees are so flimsy because the decision to prevent Lord Birt from appearing before this committee was taken on the spur of the moment. The only conclusion that can reasonably be reached is that the Prime Minister or his most senior advisers refused to allow Lord Birt to appear before us because his performance would be an embarrassment."

The committee, which is chaired by the Labour backbencher Gwyneth Dunwoody, said the decision was a blow to the independence of Parliament. "In a democratic Parliament the Prime Minister and his advisers should not obstruct a select committee from taking evidence from a relevant witness. If the Prime Minister does not want them to give oral evidence, he should appear himself. Select committees themselves should determine who should and should not give evidence to them."

The report said the committee would have summoned Lord Birt to appear after its initial request for him to give evidence was rebuffed by Geoff Mulgan, head of the Downing Street forward strategy unit.

But parliamentary convention prevents Commons committees from summoning peers, a convention that the committee said was allowing senior government advisers to escape scrutiny.

Theresa May, the opposition transport spokesperson, criticised the Government's behaviour over Lord Birt's absence before the committee. "Even the predominantly Labour select committee is calling for Tony Blair's advisers to stop meddling, as they reduce rather than increase government effectiveness.

"Lord Birt's arrogant refusal to be scrutinised by the House of Commons is yet another sign of Labour's contempt for Parliament."