Scotland Yard’s fraud squad is looking at whether the huge severance pay-offs awarded to senior BBC staff could constitute a crime, police have said.
The government spending watchdog concluded that the publicly funded broadcaster had breached its already generous policies on redundancy payments without good reason.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said £60 million was paid to senior managers between 2005 and March this year, and found in 14 of the 60 cases it reviewed, the recipients had been given more cash than they were entitled, costing taxpayers at least £1 million.
Former BBC Director General Mark Thompson personally approved some of the excessive payouts highlighted in the report, it said, including £866,288 to an unnamed ‘departmental director’. Thompson is now chief executive of the New York Times.
Conservative MP Rob Wilson wrote to the police asking them to investigate the payments. A spokesman for the Met confirmed: “We’re assessing the information to see if there is anything contained within it that would need to be moved on to a criminal investigation.”
The BBC Trust, the broadcaster’s governing body, said the NAO’s findings were deeply worrying and blamed weak governance from the broadcaster's executives for the failure to follow agreed severance procedures. However, the BBC said no crimes had been committed.
A spokeswoman for the broadcaster said: “The National Audit Office report found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in relation to these severance payments.”
Thompson, who is due to appear before Parliament’s powerful Public Accounts Committee chaired by Margaret Hodge next month, has rejected suggestions he had agreed large pay-offs without getting the BBC Trust’s approval and making it aware of contentious issues.
In one case detailed by the NAO, the decision to pay £376,000 to former BBC Two controller Roly Keating was described as “seriously deficient”. Mr Keating later returned the money saying he did not want to benefit from a payment which was not appropriately authorised.
The NAO said the deal was agreed by the BBC's human resources director together with Thompson, a suggestion he has denied. “If I had been consulted, I would not have approved it,” Thompson said in a statement last month.
Mr Wilson said: “The BBC should never have got itself into a position where the fraud squad is looking at an investigation. However, something is not right about these huge pay-offs and potential wrongdoing needs to be ruled out. The police are the only organisation in a position to do that.”