Lords to grill culture secretary over BBC’s books

Culture secretary Tessa Jowell faces a cross-examination in the Lords over
her refusal to give the National Audit Office full access to the BBC’s books and
accounts as part of the review of its charter.

She has been called to give evidence to a special select committee of peers
formed to monitor the charter negotiations, which earlier called for the role of
the NAO to be extended to ‘include responsibility for assessing the efficiency
of the BBC and evaluating its funding requirements when the proposed level of
the licence fee is set’.

Her white paper on the BBC’s future direction announced the role of
comptroller and auditor general Sir John Bourn will be ‘strengthened’ but made
it clear a programme of value-for-money reviews will have to be agreed in a
dialogue between himself and the BBC’s own Audit Committee.

The government said an ‘untrammelled’ extension of NAO access would risk
encroaching BBC independence and conflict with the principle that its
accountability should be to licence fee payers.

A spokesman for the committee said Jowell faces questioning over ‘the
potential for the National Audit Office to be given greater powers of
investigation into the BBC’ , particularly in the light of the decision of the
Office of National Statistics to reclassify the licence fee as a tax instead of
a charge for services.

The committee’s report last month called for the NAO to scrutinise the BBC’s
licence fee bid and report to Parliament so MPs and peers can take an informed
decision on the basis of an independent review of the BBC’s plans.

The report said: ‘The licence fee is rising at an unprecedented rate and it
is time that it was open to proper scrutiny.’

It added: ‘As long as the licence fee is being regarded as, and treated as, a
tax then our argument that Parliament should have a chance to properly
scrutinise it becomes even stronger.’

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