£25m pay-offs put BBC’s reputation at risk - MPs

George Entwistle: Pocketed almost half a million. Picture: Getty
George Entwistle: Pocketed almost half a million. Picture: Getty
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The BBC “put its reputation at risk” by handing over huge pay-offs to senior staff, according to a committee of senior MPs.

Margaret Hodge, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said some of the justifications for the pay-offs had been “extraordinary”.

Among the excessive payouts given to senior staff were £470,000 to former director-general George Entwistle after only 54 days in the job and £680,000 to former chief operating officer Caroline Thomson.

Deputy director-general Mark Byford departed the BBC with a total payout of £949,000.

The committee heard evidence in two sessions from BBC figures, including outgoing HR boss Lucy Adams, the current director-general Tony Hall and former director-general Mark Thompson.

Ms Hodge said: “The BBC is the world’s leading public sector broadcaster, but recent revelations over severance payments to departing senior managers have put its reputation at risk.

“150 senior managers between them received payments totalling £25 million. We were dismayed to find that many of these individuals received ‘sweeteners’ in their severance packages that were far larger than the sums to which they were contractually entitled.”

She said there was “a failure at the highest levels of the BBC to challenge payments to senior managers and what appears to have been a culture of cronyism that allowed for the liberal use of licence fee payers’ money”.

The MP also accused the BBC Trust, the corporation’s governing body, of “sitting on its hands”, while the pay-offs were being made.

The report, which is published today, said the committee “remain concerned about the veracity of other parts of the oral evidence we heard”.

Ms Adams has already admitted making a mistake in her evidence. She initially told MPs she had not seen a note detailing plans for pay-offs to Mr Byford and marketing boss Sharon Baylay – but now admits she helped write it.

A BBC spokesman said: “One of Tony Hall’s first acts on his appointment was to cap payments at £150,000 – the committee welcomed his decision.”

Responding to the criticisms in the report about the corporation’s governance, he said: “There needs to be absolute clarity over the responsibilities of the Trust and the BBC executive and we have already acted and announced a range of changes to deliver that.”

A BBC Trust spokesman said the PAC’s work had “helped inform” the corporation’s plan to simplify the way it was run which were announced last week.

She said: “We greatly regret that licence fee payers were let down by this episode. They are entitled to expect that their money is spent wisely. Since 2009, the trust has worked successfully with the executive to drive down senior manager pay; and we support Tony Hall’s speedy action to impose a cap on severance payments in the future.

“The trust’s scrutiny role will, in future, be much more transparent, so that licence fee payers themselves can judge how well the BBC is run.”

Mr Thompson said in a statement: “Severance payments for senior managers working for public organisations are inevitably unpopular and controversial.

“The sole reason for making these payments was so that the BBC could rapidly reduce the number of senior managers and make far larger savings on behalf of the public. The redundancy programme has released tens of millions of pounds to be ploughed back into BBC services.

“The severance payment that was made to Mark Byford was [decided] by a committee of independent directors. Despite some inflammatory language in the report, there is absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing.”