Patten clashes with auditor general over rights to access all BBC financial records
By David Hencke | 20 July 2011
“We hope that a resolution can be found well in advance of the deadline of November 2011” – Report by House of Lords communications committee
Government auditors examining an efficiency drive at the BBC are being hampered by the broadcaster in an extraordinary stand-off.
The row has led to a clash between Lord Patten, the new chairman of the BBC Trust, and Amyas Morse, the auditor general, who heads the National Audit Office (NAO).
The stand-off centres on how much access to the BBC’s accounts the broadcaster is prepared to give to the NAO, and how it can conduct its audits.
The principle of allowing the NAO full access to the BBC’s accounts – outside of the corporation’s journalistic work – was agreed in the summer last year. But talks between the BBC and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport over how this should work in practice have dragged on since July last year with no resolution.
A spokesman for the department said: “We expect this agreement to be in place by November.”
In letters between Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, and Morse, the minister appears to have sided with the BBC in the row.
Morse wrote to Hunt to say that he wanted “the ability to decide on our programme of value-for-money work, unfettered access to information held by the BBC, and the ability to report independently to Parliament.”
However, in September last year, Hunt was insisting that the BBC Trust would have to be informed about what specific areas the NAO was going to investigate, as well as being able to launch additional studies. He also insisted that the trust, which oversees the BBC, should decide when the audit reports would be released to Parliament.
Hunt told Morse: “I recognise this is not your ideal outcome, but this arrangement offers Parliament the opportunity to fully scrutinise the BBC within the framework of the charter and agreement.”
But Morse made clear that he remained dissatisfied at the end of October last year. The NAO says that the stand-off is delaying plans to publish a report examining the BBC’s attempt to cut costs. The correspondence was released to the House of Lords communications committee.
The NAO said that there had been further correspondence between Morse and Hunt negotiating an agreement over its access to the BBC’s financial records. Both the NAO and Hunt’s department refused to disclose the letters to Exaro under the Freedom of Information Act, saying that it would be “harmful to the successful completion of the policy… at a sensitive time in the development of policy.”
The department added: “There needs to be free space in which it is possible to consider options without fear their proposals will be held up to ridicule.”
Morse also told the committee of peers about his frustration that, on two previous occasions, the BBC delayed giving the NAO information for eight months in one case, and 10 weeks in another. And, on a further occasion, the BBC Trust delayed publication of an NAO report for four months. He did not specify the subjects over which the BBC had previously delayed the NAO’s work.
A BBC Trust spokesman said in response to Morse’s allegations: “We have committed to giving the NAO full access to information to assist it in carrying out ‘value for money’ studies for the BBC, this includes access to confidential contracts. On [one] study, while initial discussions with the NAO on the provision of confidential information took some time, the auditor general has confirmed that he was able to access all the information needed once the study commenced. The trust has committed to ensuring that these initial discussions happen in a timely manner in future.”
Central government departments neither have the power to decide the subjects that the NAO can investigate nor when it can publish its reports. Morse is also unhappy that the NAO’s reports on the broadcaster are structured so that the BBC Trust and the BBC comment on its findings before readers reach the section on the investigation itself. The NAO does not have to write any other reports in this way.
However, Hunt’s department maintains that the NAO must still deliver its reports to the BBC Trust first, over-ruling one of Morse’s requests.
Patten told the committee in evidence: “It is appropriate that the NAO comes to the organisation through the trust. The only reservation I have is, I think the arrangement for a programme of NAO studies should be made in such a way that it does not become too reactionary to whatever is in the public prints.”
Diane Coyle, vice-chairman of the BBC Trust, told peers: “There is an issue of independence… Our responsibilities are set out in the charter… So, there is obviously a certain line at which we shall hold that, but I think that there is far too much over-excitement about these debates, and I am sure that we shall reach a satisfactory agreement.”
The peers said in a report on BBC governance and regulation just published, ahead of Parliament rising today for the summer recess: “We are surprised that these issues remain unresolved.”
“We hope that a resolution can be found well in advance of the deadline of November 2011.”
They added: “We also seek assurances that the trust has full access to information from the BBC.”