But culture minister Kim Howells has promised there will be a formal response to the Committee’s demand – and hinted it will involve arrangements for informal access using the government’s existing powers of scrutiny and reconsideration of the issue when the BBC’s Charter comes up for renewal.
A New Clause to the Communications Bill pressed by PAC chairman Edward Leigh on behalf of the committee was defeated by 304 votes to 200.
Leigh said the purpose was ‘to enable the comptroller and auditor general to enjoy full value-for-money access rights to the BBC to open it up to exactly the same scrutiny, on parliament’s behalf, as all other bodies that are funded by tax’.
He said there was ‘total consensus’ in the committee among MPs of all parties and made it clear assess would be limited to accounting issues and ‘there is no intention to undermine, affect or question the BBC’s editorial independence’.
He described the £2.5bn revenue from the licence fee as ‘effectively a poll tax’ saying it was ‘no longer sustainable to keep that large sum beyond our scrutiny’.
Leigh came under fire from MPs determined to preserve BBC independence under its charter and Howells, a former PAC member, said successive governments had been reluctant to grant the NAO greater access for that reason and for fear it would inhibit creativity.
He said the BBC was subject to a range of external reviews and independent audit and said access for the C&AG could be achieved without changing the law with value-for-money reviews ‘by agreement’, though he agreed this was ‘not an elegant solution’.
Former PAC chairman David Davies, shadow deputy prime minister, said that sort of access ‘gives people who are misbehaving the right to opt out of the process’.
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