Spending watchdog condemns BBC pay secrecy

The BBC has been criticised by the government today for refusing to disclose information about staff salaries at its radio stations.

The public accounts committee condemned the BBC’s secrecy, saying “unacceptable constraints” were placed on its attempts to examine whether the corporation was delivering value for money.

The BBC Trust commissioned the National Audit Office to carry out a full review of how efficient the BBC’s 10 national radio stations were.

The auditor asked the BBC for a breakdown of the staff and presenters salaries for a selection of BBC radio programmes.

But unlike other publicly funded bodies, the auditor-general does not have legal unrestricted rights of access to the BBC’s accounts.

The BBC said disclosing the details would be a breach of confidence and asked the NAO to sign a non-diclosure agreement.

The public accounts committee, which has examined the NAO’s report and published its thoughts on it this morning, said it had been unable to make a complete and independent assessment of the BBC’s costs as a result.

Giving evidence to the committee in February this year, BBC Trustee Jeremy Peat said the corporation had taken legal advice and was bound by confidentiality agreements with its staff.

“We were not able to pass on detailed information on individual contracts without the [auditor] being prepared to sign a non-disclosure agreement,” he said.

The chairman of the Public Accounts Committe, Edward Leigh, said at the time that the BBC’s attitude to disclosing salaries was “appalling”.

“You personally prevent the BBC being on the same basis as every other public body,” he told Peat.

“The fact is that no other public body in the country could say this. He would have the right to go in and find out the salaries of anybody.

“You can only say this because of this absurd, half-way house arrangement that we have with you that we can effectively only investigate what you let us investigate.

“I think that is an appalling state of affairs for a publicly funded body. You cannot have it both ways.”

He added in a statement today: “It is disgraceful that the NAO’s lack of statutory audit access to the BBC puts the corporation in the position to dictate what the spending watchdog can and cannot see.

“All of this places a big question mark over whether the BBC is achieving value for money for the licence payer.”

Responding to today’s report, the BBC Trust said in a statement: “The Trust is committed to ensuring value for money for licence fee payers. That’s why we have commissioned a series of such studies from the NAO and others.

“We have always previously supplied the NAO with the information they request and it is in our interests to do so, in order to ensure studies with robust conclusions.

“We were therefore disappointed that – in contrast to other auditing organisations we work with – on this occasion the NAO wouldn’t sign an agreement to ensure that the BBC did not breach its legal obligations to staff.

“We believe our approach in this case was in line with the Data Protection Act and Information Commissioner’s guidance.

“Since this problem came to light we have been pressing the NAO to work with us to find a solution.

“On the wider issue of whether presenters’ salaries should be made public, the Trust accepts BBC management’s argument that disclosing payments risks driving up the fees commanded by talent, working against efforts across the BBC to drive down costs.”

This is the latest development in a long-running legal row over whether BBC salary details should be made public.

The corporation is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act where information related to its “journalism, art or literature” is concerned.

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