Government backtracks to open BBC's books to public auditors

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The Independent Online

The BBC is to be forced to open its accounts to public scrutiny for the first time in its history, the Government confirmed yesterday.

Baroness Blackstone, the Culture minister, told peers the Government would not block moves to give its spending watchdog the right to audit the broadcaster's books. The minister's comments mark a retreat for the Government, which staunchly defended the BBC's exclusive right to keep its accounts hidden from the National Audit Office (NAO).

But, as The Independent reported previously, ministers feel they can "no longer defend" the historic exemption. Yesterday, during the committee stage of the Communications Bill in the House of Lords, Baroness Buscombe, the Conservative frontbencher, tabled an amendment to give the NAO power to examine the efficiency of the BBC's services. "If we are satisfied as to the detail, we are minded to support this proposal," she said.

Lady Blackstone said the Government did not want to undermine the BBC's editorial independence, but felt it should be accountable for its £2.5bn budget. "Programme and policy decisions must remain the preserve of the BBC governors ... On the other hand, the Government recognises ... that there should be accountability."

Yesterday the Tories said they would cut the licence fee, which they said was unfair to low-income households and people with only two of the BBC's eight channels. They have set up an advisory group led by David Elstein, former head of programmes at Thames Television and chief executive of Channel Five, to examine BBC funding reform.

The group will look at decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee and even abolishing it altogether.