More must be done to "strengthen" the role of auditors holding the BBC to account after what has been an "annus horribilis" for the corporation, according to Culture Secretary Maria Miller. She said she wanted a system where the National Audit Office (NAO) was allowed access to the BBC "without hindrance or delay".
In the last two years, auditors from the public spending watchdog have had greater freedom to deal with the BBC but still have to agree subjects in advance with the corporation and do not have the flexibility to react to events. Speaking to an audience of industry insiders at the Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge, Ms Miller said the appearance of seven senior BBC executives - past and present - before the Commons Public Accounts Committee on Monday was "a grim day for its senior management".
The hearing was called after the latest controversy around executive pay, where £60 million was paid to outgoing executives over an eight-year period, including more than £1 million to former deputy director general Mark Byford. Ms Miller said criticism of the BBC Trust - the corporation's governing body - was similar to that previously aimed at the BBC governors.
Maria Miller has asked for greater scrutiny of the BBC
She said: "This criticism focused on insufficient independence and a lack of clarity over the separation of roles. Does that sound familiar?"
Ms Miller, who said changes had been made by new director-general Tony Hall, said it was "no good waiting until a new charter in 2017 to act". She said: "As you would expect, given all of these changes, I will continue to keep the BBC's structures and effectiveness under review.
"These are significant changes. Ultimately, licence fee payers rely not only upon the right structures and governance being in place but also upon the BBC's executive management using their good judgment. And I think serious questions were raised about that judgment by the scale of the severance payments made."
Ms Miller said the NAO's work had been "pivotal in bringing issues to light" and criticised the fact it was stopped from "immediately looking" at the pay-off package for former director-general George Entwistle, who left the BBC in the wake of the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal.
She said:"I want a system where the NAO can look at any area of concern without hindrance or delay."
In conclusion, she said: "This has been an annus horribilis for the BBC. But we all know that institutions can recover and come back stronger from years like that. The BBC will bounce back."
A spokeswoman for the Trust said: "We have done a great deal to strengthen our relationship with the NAO in the last two years and to make the current arrangements work to the benefit of licence fee payers. "As the chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, made clear in the PAC hearings in July and this week, we value the work done by the NAO and have had an increasingly good working relationship with them. We will look forward to talking about this further."
The BBC has announced it will review how the Trust and the executive work in an attempt to "simplify the relationship and provide better and clearer oversight of the way the licence fee is spent". In a letter to Ms Miller, Mr Hall and Trust chairman Lord Patten said: "The last few days have not seen the BBC at its best."
They said the review, which they aim to publish this year, would show they "could make an improvement in the way that the BBC is run and managed, and to ensure a primary focus on what audiences want and need and how we spend their money".
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