Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Wednesday, 3 June 2009 00:00 UK

BBC secrecy deals 'curb scrutiny'

Jonathan Ross
Jonathan Ross, who has a Radio 2 show, is one of the BBC's top earners

BBC radio shows cannot be properly scrutinised because of confidentiality agreements with presenters over pay, the Public Accounts Committee has said.

MPs complain that watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) was not given access to individual salaries because it would not sign a non-disclosure agreement.

The BBC Trust said that was because it had "legal obligations to staff".

In February, the NAO said in a trust-commissioned report that BBC stars were paid more than commercial stations.

It is disgraceful that the NAO's lack of statutory audit access to the BBC puts the corporation in the position to dictate what the spending watchdog can and cannot see
Edward Leigh
Public Accounts Committee chairman

The spending watchdog, in its report on the efficiency of the BBC's radio output, found that about three quarters of budgets for breakfast and drive-time shows were spent on presenters.

That report came a week after the BBC confirmed that, because of the economic downturn, the salaries of its stars would be reduced when their contracts next came up for renewal.

'Unsatisfactory arrangement'

INSIDER'S VIEW
Torin Douglas
Torin Douglas, Media correspondent

The BBC says it never reveals its performers' pay - partly because it would make it easier for commercial broadcasters to poach them if they knew what the BBC was paying.

And it could also push up the price of other BBC presenters if they found out that their colleagues were being paid more.

The Corporation's governing body, the BBC Trust, says staff have a right to privacy under the Data Protection Act, balanced against the public's right to know how public money is spent.

Its legal advice from the Information Commissioner is that only executives who are responsible for spending large sums of public money or making big strategic decisions should have their salaries published.

Public Accounts Committee chairman Edward Leigh called for the government to enforce NAO access to all BBC expenditure, including the salaries of presenters.

"The NAO has a statutory right to examine the details of expenditure in any government department. It has no such right of audit access to the BBC, despite the fact that the corporation is funded with over £3bn of public money each year," he added.

One consequence of "this highly unsatisfactory arrangement" was the BBC's refusal to give the NAO access to presenters' salaries without agreement not to publicly disclose them in February's report, Mr Leigh said.

"It is disgraceful that the NAO's lack of statutory audit access to the BBC puts the corporation in the position to dictate what the spending watchdog can and cannot see."

NAO head Tim Burr had refused to agree to a non-disclosure agreement, saying it would place constraints on the watchdog's ability to report its findings on the BBC's radio spending.

The committee said the BBC must establish why it paid more than other stations for presenters and should negotiate better value contracts.

The BBC Trust's Jeremy Peat said on Thursday that, in the past, the trust had always supplied the NAO with any information requested "in order to ensure studies with robust conclusions".

"We were therefore disappointed that - in contrast to other auditing organisations we work with - on this occasion the NAO wouldn't sign an agreement to ensure that the BBC did not breach its legal obligations to staff.

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"We believe our approach in this case was in line with the Data Protection Act and information commissioner's guidance."

Mr Peat said the trust had been "pressing the NAO to work with us to find a solution".

He said that, on the issue of presenters' salaries being made public, the trust accepted the BBC management's argument "that disclosing payments risks driving up the fees commanded by talent, working against efforts across the BBC to drive down costs".

Last year, some salary details were leaked to newspapers including a three-year deal for Jonathan Ross reportedly worth £18m.

Other figures suggested that Radio 2's Sir Terry Wogan got £800,000 a year and that Radio 1 breakfast host Chris Moyles took home £630,000.



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