MPs clash with BBC over ‘outrageous’ pay-offsPosted: July 11, 2013
This article originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph, July 11 2013. By Steven Swinford, Senior Political Correspondent, and Ben Lazarus
Lord Hall, the new Director-General of the BBC, said that the corporation has been advised that naming the individuals, who received pay-outs worth £160,000 each, would breach their rights.
He admitted that the BBC has “lost the plot” as the corporation faced allegations of “corporate fraud and cronyism”.
MPs said there was a public interest in naming them and drew comparisons with the expenses scandal. They warned the BBC that they would be in “contempt of Parliament” if they failed to provide the information.
Their comments provoked an angry response from Lord Patten of Barnes, the chairman of the BBC Trust, who told MPs on the Public Accounts Committee that they would face “one hell of an argument” from him.
He warned that their intervention would raise “constitutional” and “legal issues” and said he was “statutorily obliged” to defend the BBC’s independence, as set out under Royal Charter.
MPs also accused Mark Thompson, the former Director-General of the BBC, of “lying” to the BBC trust over a £1million severance package which was paid to his deputy.
Mark Byford left the BBC in June 2011 with one of the biggest ever public sector pay-offs. He was one of 14 of executives who the National Audit Office said had received more than their contractual entitlement.
In October 2010, Mr Thompson wrote to the BBC Trust saying that Mr Byford would only receive his contractual entitlement when he left after a 31 year career at the corporation.
The National Audit Office found last month that his pay included eight months notice which need not have been paid.
Lord Patten said the committee needed to question Mr Thompson, who now heads the New York Times Co and will appear before the committee later this year.
He said: “If you call a previous Director-General of the BBC I will be as interested as you are on why we didn’t know,” he said.
In a statement, the New York Times said: “Mark continues to have the full support of the New York Times Company board and of his colleagues in management.”
Lord Hall said that the “onus of responsibility for these decisions on payments lies with the BBC”.
He said: “We got this wrong – we were overpaying. The fault lies with us. Culturally we lost the plot. We have got bedevilled by zeroes on various salaries, there was not enough grip at the centre of the organisation. Things were devolved far too low down.”
The National Audit Office was also critical of the pay-off given to former director-general George Entwistle, who received £475,000 after he resigned in November 2012 in the wake of the Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine scandals.
The pay-offs included three weeks salary, worth £25,000, for the period after he had stepped down. Asked what he had done during that time, Lord Patten replied: “Very little”.
Lucy Adams, the BBC’s director of human resources, was accused of a “dereliction of duty” by MPs for her role in authorising the pay-offs. She said that Mr Byford’s severance package was part of the “custom and practise” at the time, adding the “overwhelming focus was to get numbers out the door as quickly as possible.”
Rob Wilson, a Conservative MP, has said he is prepared to call in the police to investigate the payments.
At the committee Stephen Barclay, a Conservative member of the committee, disputed the BBC’s claims that it could not release the names of executives on data protection grounds.
He said that there was a “public interest” test and that he has been advised by the Speaker’s Council that it is likely to have been met.
The committee agreed that it would formally request the names under a Standing Order which entitles MPs to call “for persons, papers and records” and would over-ride data protection laws.
He said: “Parliament in the standing order has the power to send for persons, papers and records. This makes very clear that disobedience is a contempt of parliament.”
Lord Hall said: “We have got to have care about protecting those who have benefited from the BBC’s protection.
“Our presumption on this, and we have taken advice from the information commissioner on this, is that we should not do that unless those individuals are prepared to come out.
“There’s a balance between on the one hand openness and on the other protecting the personal data of those people. It is a very hard.”
The National Audit Office disclosed the names of just three executives who were in receipt of the biggest pay-offs. It only examined 60 of the 150 cases, raising concerns that there may have been other controversial payments which have yet to be disclosed.