BBC pay-off row: Jeremy Hunt says BBC Trust is 'under review' as corporation chiefs defend £25m in staff pay-offs

Furious Tory MP blasts ‘the most bizarre game of whack-a-mole I’ve ever seen’ as seven senior BBC staff past and present appear before the Commons Public Accounts Committee

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The BBC Trust chairman and his predecessor, a former Director-General and four other senior figures in the corporation have been accused of playing a game of “whack-a-mole” as they attempted to blame each other for years of excessive redundancy packages funded by the licence fee.

In unedifying and acrimonious scenes in front of MPs on the Public Accounts Committee, the BBC’s former boss Mark Thompson clashed with his old colleagues on Monday by insisting that the BBC Trust – the corporation’s governing body – had been fully aware of his plan to pay his former deputy Mark Byford £1m in a severance deal.

But his account was disputed by the current Trust chairman Lord Patten and the man who made way for him, Sir Michael Lyons, who both claimed they had no idea the settlement was larger than that to which Mr Byford was contractually entitled.

Jeremy Hunt, the former Culture Secretary, increased the pressure on the corporation on this morning by telling the Today programme that the BBC Trust is "under review".

"It is a matter for my successor to decide on [the Trust], but I think both she and I have always said that the BBC Trust is under review. It hasn't been perfect from the time it was set up," he said.

It also emerged during Monday's grilling that Mr Byford was informed of his settlement by the BBC’s human resources department – even before it had been signed off by the corporation’s remuneration committee.

The chair of Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge told the executives that the contradictory accounts they presented had been a “grossly unedifying occasion” which could “only damage the standing and reputation of BBC”.

She added that at best the evidence the committee had heard demonstrated “incompetence” at the top of the corporation – and at its worst showed “people covering their back by being less than open”.

Chris Heaton-Harris, a committee member, compared the meeting to a fairground game, saying it was “the most bizarre game of whack-a-mole” he’d ever seen, “where you hit one fact down and it throws up other questions”.

Turning to the witnesses, he added: “I just wonder if one of you would like to take responsibility for this?”

The BBC has been heavily criticised for paying £25m to outgoing executives, £2m more than its contractual obligations.

Much of the evidence session on Monday concentrated on the pay-off given to Mr Thompson’s close colleague Mr Byford, who was paid around £1m to leave the BBC in 2010.

But rather than follow the letter of his contract, Mr Byford was paid to work out part of his contractual notice period – and then given a year’s salary on top as part of his settlement.

Mrs Hodge said that under the terms of his deal, Mr Byford could have been paid off with £500,000. But Mr Thompson stressed that the extra money was to ensure that Mr Byford remained focused on his job until he left and “wasn’t worried about his future and taking calls from headhunters”.

Mr Thompson insisted the settlement represented good value for money and had been fully agreed with Marcus Agius, the former chairman of Barclays who at the time was the head of the BBC’s executive board remuneration committee.

Mr Agius, who was also before the committee, agreed he had backed the payment on value-for-money grounds, but Ms Hodge told him: “I think we’re astounded that you took that view.”

She added: “The shareholders of the BBC are the licence-fee payers and I cannot for the life of me see how you can justify these levels of redundancy payments.”

Mr Thompson also said that the payment to Mr Byford had been made with the full knowledge of the BBC Trust chairman, Sir Michael Lyons.

But Sir Michael said he “never understood” that Mr Byford would be receiving a redundancy package beyond that to which he was entitled by his employment contract.

Mr Thomson retorted: “Well how do you think we got to £950,000 then?”

In another flare-up, the BBC trustee Anthony Fry told MPs that the Trust got “pushed back time and time again” by BBC executives.

“I had the distinct impression that our views were not being taken with the seriousness they deserved,” he said.

The deputy chair of the committee Richard Bacon MP said he had come into the hearing “agnostic” about the current structure of BBC governance, but had come to the conclusion that the system was “broken” and should be abolished and replaced by regulation from Ofcom.

But the current Chairman on the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, said this would not solve the fundamental problems at hand, saying: “I can’t imagine handing the regulatory power to Ofcom and Ofcom wanting to be involved in remuneration.”

He added that the current system of governance could be made to work with different personalities at the helm. Summing up the three hour session Ms Hodge questioned whether they had learnt anything from the contradictory accounts.

“Have we got any wiser? I don’t know,” she said.

“At best what we’ve seen is incompetence, lack of central to control, a failure to communicate for a broadcaster whose job is communicating. At worst we may have seen people covering their backs by being less than open. That is not good.”